Technology’s False Promise

Thanks to Ron Epstein

Kevin Kelly’s new book, What Technology Wants, is a dense but fascinating exploration of technology’s past, present, and future. And while I’ve highlighted a bevy of sections in my copy of the book, there’s one thought in particular I want to share with you today.

Kelly begins Chapter 10, titled “The Unabomber Was Right” (um … yeah), with a series of references to inventors and technological commentators from the 1890s to the 1970s who genuinely believed that technology was on the cusp of producing world peace. For instance, Hiram Maxim — the inventor of the machine gun — insisted his invention would “make war impossible.” And Kelly’s list goes on:

  • Orville Wright believed the aeroplane would “have a tendency to make war impossible.”
  • Jules Verne believed the submarine and other improved “war material” would make war “impossible.”
  • Alfred Nobel (founder of the Nobel Prize) believed his invention, dynamite, would “sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions.”
  • Guglielmo Marconi believed his radio and “the coming wireless era” would “make war impossible.”
  • AT&T’s chief engineer in the 1890s believed that a worldwide telephone system would necessitate “a common language or common understanding of languages,” which, in turn, would “join all the people of the Earth into one brotherhood.”

Kelly also cites technology historian David Nye, whose list of Peace On Earth! inventions also includes “the torpedo, the hot-air balloon, poison gas, land mines, missiles, and laser guns.”

Here’s Kelly’s conclusion: “It is not that all these inventions are without benefits — even benefits toward democracy. Rather it’s the case that each new technology creates more problems than it solves. ‘Problems are the answers to solutions,’ says Brian Arthur.”

Technology constantly makes promises about the future — peace, health, equality, literacy, prosperity, connectivity. And yet technology remains incapable of repairing its own flawed nature, let alone our flawed nature. After all, it’s our conspiring natures that have spread the conflict, sickness, economic disparity, and isolation for which we seek technological remedies.


Thanks to Ron for helping puncture one of the key 17th century myths of “science”. Every day in every way things DO NOT NECESSARILY get better and better. The most recent myth might very well be that WikiLeaks will allow the public to know more about our relationships with foreign governments and this will foster world peace. No, our State Department will merely find, with the help of science, methods to better disguise their real motives and actions.

jonathan middlebrook January 26, 2011 at 8:28 am

Yes.–When I invented the wheel I inscribed its rim “Ad pacem defluo” just before it ran over my foot.


Jonathan: Unfortunately the wheel could not read latin as well as you do. It has stayed around town instead of running away and we are encumbered results. Better to have written “Sed liberanos a malo” (deliver us from evil – for those of you who were not altar boys).