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Does the West Want What Technology Wants?

In a world where technological progress promises large benefits, the capacity to supply the necessary conditions may determine which economies are positioned for success, and which are bound to go the way of the Spanish, Portuguese, or Ottoman Empires. That should worry today's West more than it worries China.

CAMBRIDGE – In many dimensions, today’s West is not at its best. Many people are challenging the values of liberal democracy (individual rights and majority rule) and even those of the Enlightenment (reason, science, and truth). Populist parties are channeling such sentiments with considerable electoral success, capitalizing on economic malaise, widening inequality, and rising immigration.

Technology is often blamed for the social ills underpinning the populist surge. But what about the causal arrow that runs in the opposite direction, from society to technology? In a world where technological progress promises large benefits, the capacity to supply “what technology wants” may determine which economies are positioned for success, and which are bound to go the way of the Spanish, Portuguese, or Ottoman Empires. Nowadays, that should worry the West more than it worries China.

To ascertain what technology wants requires understanding what it is and how it grows. Technology is really three forms of knowledge: embodied knowledge in tools and materials, codified knowledge in recipes, protocols, and how-to manuals, and tacit knowledge or knowhow in brains. We can have more tools and gadgets, more books and manuals, or more documents at our disposal on the web, but we do not have the capacity at the individual level to cram more stuff into our brains. For technology to grow, it needs to imprint different bits of knowhow in different brains. Societies become more knowledgeable not because individuals know more but because they know different things.

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