Monday, June 28, 2021

The Shape of Techno-Moral Revolutions: Lessons from Carlota Perez

Adapted from Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital

One thing that is always daunting about scholarship is the sheer incomprehensible vastness of it. We strive for originality and novelty in research, but this is hard to achieve. So much has been written about so many topics that it is not unusual to find that one's hard earned 'insights' have been pipped by someone else’s hard earned insights of three decades ago.

I felt a bit like this recently when I read Carlota Perez's book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital. The book reviews five historical technological revolutions, and the impact they have had on our economies and our social structures. It also examines the role of financial capital in fuelling bubbles and speculation around novel technologies. It's a fascinating ride, the centrepiece of which is a general theory about the structure and progression of technological revolutions.

Although not exactly the same, I found that much of what Perez had to say resonated with my own thinking about technology and moral revolutions (which has, admittedly, become something of an obsession of late). In the following article, I want to tease out some of those points of resonance. This serves the dual function of both summarising key aspects of Perez's book and showing how they can be mined for insights on other topics.

I am going to focus on four key insights in what follows. I'll start by summarising Perez's take on them. I'll then consider their relevance for the study of techno-moral revolutions. I'll also offer some critical reflections along the way.

1. The Five Revolutions

Before I get into the four specific insights, it is worth offering a brief overview of Perez's theoretical framework. As noted, Perez looks at five technological revolutions that have occurred since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and the impact they have had on our economies and societies. Perez defines a technological revolution as:

..a powerful and highly visible cluster of new and dynamic technologies, products and industries, capable of bringing about an upheaval in the whole fabric of the economy and of propelling a long-term upsurge of development. It is a strong interrelated constellation of technical innovations, generally including an important all-pervasive low-cost input, often a source of energy, sometimes a crucial material, plus significant new products and processes and a new infrastructure. 
(Perez 2002, 8)

There is a lot going on in that definition, and we will unpack some of it as we go along. For now, the crucial point is that, according to Perez, there have been five such revolutions in the past 250 or so years. They are:

  • (a) The 'Industrial Revolution', which began primarily in Britain in the late 1700s and arose from developments in mechanisation in cotton, wrought iron and other industries.
  • (b) The Age of Steam and Railways, which again began primarily in Britain in the 1830s (roughly) but spread rapidly to the European Continent and the USA, and arose from developments in steam power and railways.
  • (c) The Age of Steel, Electricity and Heavy ENgineering, which began primarily in the USA and Germany in the 1870s, and arose from developments in steel manufacturing (replacing iron) and electrical and chemical engineering.
  • (d) The Age of Oil, Automobiles and Mass Production, which began primarily in the USA in the 1910s, and depended on developments in fossil fuel energy production, the internal combustion engine and scientific management of manufacturing industries (e.g. the motor car production line).
  • (e) The Age of Information and Telecommunication, which began primarily in the USA in the 1970s, and arose from developments in computers, telecommunications and microelectronics.

Perez's book was published in 2002, just as the Age of Information seemed to have entered full steam. She offers minimal speculations on what the next likely technological revolution will be (she hints at biotech and AI as the obvious possibilities). Her gaze is mainly historical. She claims that each of these historical revolutions takes about 50-70 years to fully exhaust themselves. During that period of time they pass through two main phases, each of which is broken down into two sub-phases: (i) the installation phase (which involves an initial irruption of the technology, followed by a frenzy of excitement and investment); and (ii) the deployment phase (which involves synergy between different uses of the technology and maturity in the full economic and social exploitation of the technology).

Each of these revolutions inevitably ends and a new round of technological innovation kicks off. In the mid-point of each revolution, there tends to be a major economic crash after the initial bubble of excitement comes to an abrupt halt.

As I say, Perez's book is insightful and thought-provoking. But people looking for a rigorous defence of the model she proposes might be disappointed. Her focus is not so much on defending a particular mechanical explanation of social and economic history through the rigorous use of data but, rather, giving us a new way to look at social history. I found four of her insights particularly useful and I want to reflect on how they shed light on techno-moral revolutions.

2. The Importance of Visible Attractors

One of Perez's key points is that the technologies that kickstart a revolution often have a long gestation period. The basic concept or idea can be around for years before it really takes off. The steam engine may be an example of this. Primitive versions of the steam engine were around for a long time before the age of the railways began. Similarly, the basic idea of the computer was around for nearly a century before the age of information began in earnest. Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace came up with a workable prototype and an early model of software coding and more modern models date from the late 1940s.

Why did it take so long for the potential of these technologies to be fully appreciated? Perez argues that every revolution requires some initial, highly visible 'attractor' to get started: is suggested here that for society to veer strongly in the direction of a new set of technologies, a highly visible 'attractor' needs to appear, symbolizing the whole new potential and capable of sparking the technological and business imagination of a cluster of pioneers.
(Perez 2002, 11)


Examples given include Arkwright's Cromford mill opening in 1771 (kickstarting the Industrial Revolution), and Stephenson’s 'Rocket' locomotive being used on the Liverpool-Manchester railway (kickstarting the Age of Steam and Railways).

Do visible attractors and pioneers also help kickstart moral revolutions too? I think they might. There are often terrible moral tragedies and injustices that awaken the ethical conscience and shock it into a new way of thinking. For example, in his work on the structure of moral revolutions, Robert Baker suggests that the medical ethics revolution in the latter part of the 20th century was kickstarted by revelations regarding Nazi experimentation on concentration camp victims during WWII. The horror of what took place made people realise that some ethical (and ultimately legal) limits had to be placed on medical practice. Similar attractors played a role in the civil rights movement in the US. Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her bus seat; Martin Luther King's speech at the Washington Monument. These were all focal points for social moral attention and helped catalyse a revolution.

It is worth disentangling two different kinds of visible attractor. First, there are morally significant events -- these are the historical occurrences that awaken the moral conscience and tip it into a new mode of thinking. Second, there are the moral pioneers -- these are specific individuals that help symbolise a new mode of moral thinking.

Are there any visible attractors that might be helping to kickstart new techno-moral revolutions? When it comes to morally significant events, there have been some scandals in the past decade or so that captured the public imagination and made them more aware of the ethical consequences of digital technologies. The Snowden Leak and the Cambridge Analytica scandal are two obvious examples. These scandals helped to highlight the pervasiveness of digital surveillance and the potential manipulative power of predictive analytics. Neither scandal was all that shocking to people familiar with the underlying technologies. The problems had been known and written about for decades. But these scandals captured social moral attention in a way that decades of scholarship did not. It's too early to say whether they have kickstarted a moral revolution, or not, but they have certainly ignited policy debates and influenced legal responses.

What about moral pioneers? I have written in the past about contemporary cyborgs as moral pioneers. I'm thinking in particular here about people like the artist Neil Harbisson, who is famous for having an antenna attached to his skull that converts light waves into sound. This allows him to hear in colour (a kind of technologically facilitated synethsia). I'm also thinking of Steve Mann, who is famous for his 'eyetap' which is a prosthetic attachment that augments his visual field in a variety of ways. I see these people as early pioneers in the cyborg mode of life, showing the rest of us what might be possible and desirable about it. I also see them as moral pioneers because they actively fight for the rights of cyborgs and people that want to pursue a non-human or post-human form of life. They are showing the rest of us the potential moral errors of strict human exceptionalism. That said, I would be the first to admit that the popularity of these moral pioneers is currently too small to kickstart a moral revolution. If more prominent and well-known figures follow their lead, this may happen.

The point is not to get too wedded to these particular examples. The point, which I take from Perez, is that particular events or individuals can play an important role in highlighting new moral possibilities and changing social moral practices. It's worth being on the lookout for these events and individuals.

3. The Emergence of a New Techno-Moral Paradigm

The second key insight I take from Perez's work relates to her idea of a 'techno-economic paradigm'. She defines this as:

...a best practice model made up of a set of all-pervasive generic technological and organizational principles, which represent the most effective way of applying a particular technological revolution and of using it for modernizing and rejuvenating the whole of the economy. 
(Perez 2002, 15)


This is an abstract definition. The gist of the idea is that a set of new technologies comes along that allows for businesses and economic actors to reorganise or rearrange their practices in a way that best exploits the economic potential of those new technologies. When they do this, they adopt a new 'paradigm’.

I recently discussed an example of a new techno-economic paradigm emerging in the world of car sales in the early 2000s. I won't rehash the details here - you can read the original article for that - but in essence the idea was that internet sales platforms changed the way that people bought and sold cars. Instead of car-selling being a mainly in-person activity in which a naive and often intimidated customer would attend a car dealership and be subjected to all manner of sharp negotiation practices and hard selling, the internet shifted it to being a largely online, over-the-phone business, with greater equality between buyer and seller and fewer sharp practices. Admittedly, this example might be too narrow to constitute a whole new techno-economic paradigm, but the lessons learned from this example are generalisable. The rise of the internet and globalised supply chains has (and continues to) change the way in which the retail industry operates.

What about new techno-moral paradigms? Can they emerge too? I would say 'yes' and they are often equivalent to or part of techno-economic paradigms. New ways of doing business generate new power relationships, new expectations, and new duties. This requires a new moral paradigm. But moral life does not begin and end in the market and so techno-moral paradigms are likely to affect non-economic aspects of life too (there is a debate to be had about the dividing line between economic and non-economic aspects of life; we won't engage with that debate here).

One way to think about techno-moral paradigms is to use the idea of an 'affordance', which is popular in technological studies and behavioural ecology. The basic idea is that humans live in environments that afford them different possibilities for action (i.e. or, to put it another way, environments that contain different affordances). New technologies often generate new affordances. The world in which the automobile exists is a world with very different possibilities for action than the world in which it does not. Each of these new affordances generates a set of moral questions. Should we take advantage of the action possibility? Do we have an obligation to do so? Clusters of related technologies obviously generate long-lists of these questions. As we answer them, a new techno-moral paradigm emerges.

Are there any examples of this process at work? Perhaps. In another recent article, I took a long look at the impact of contraception and home appliances (washing machines, microwaves etc) on moral attitudes toward extramarital sex and women's role in society. Again, I won't rehash all the details here -- read the full thing if you want them. The core idea from that article, however, was that both sets of technologies changed the cost-benefit ratio for certain decisions. Contraception, particularly the Pill, the latex condom and the IUD, dramatically reduced the risk of extramarital pregnancy and the associated stigma and social punishment associated with that. Home appliances reduced the amount of time required for certain household chores. Since women were the ones that bore these costs or performed these chores, these technologies had a particularly dramatic effect on their lives. Of course, it wasn't all plain sailing. Prejudices and taboos die hard, but eventually, over the course of the 20th century, the use of these technologies generated a new moral paradigm. It became permissible, and in some cases morally expected to use these technologies and to take advantage of the possibilities they afforded. The shame and stigma associated with extramarital sex (and also extramarital pregnancy) reduced to a whimper, and women pursuing careers outside the home (not driven by economic necessity) became tolerated and celebrated.

There are other examples too. A more controversial one concerns the rise of digital surveillance and predictive analytics. These technologies enable much greater tailoring of services to individuals. This is true both in business and in government. The rapid collection and processing of personal data allows retailers, for example, to build personal profiles of shoppers and predictive analytics enables them to make recommendations based on those profiles. In some ways, this allows for much greater convenience and, potentially, a boost in well-being for customers. But this comes at the cost of greater intrusions into privacy and the gradual erosion of autonomy. These technologies have generated a new techno-economic paradigm -- commonly referred to as 'surveillance capitalism' thanks to Shoshanna Zuboff -- and this paradigm has generated a set of related moral questions. Should we take the hit to privacy and autonomy in return for convenience and well-being? Or must we fight back to protect privacy and autonomy? The precise answers to these questions remain elusive. In some parts of the world, convenience seems to be winning out over privacy. In other parts of the world, elaborate legal frameworks have been created to eke out some space for privacy. I won't comment on the merits of this debate here. What's interesting from the present perspective is how the set of digital surveillance technologies is forcing the creation of a new techno-moral paradigm.

4. The Importance of Institutional Reform to Accommodate a New Paradigm

A third key idea from Perez's analysis is the problem of resistance between old and new paradigms. This often occurs at the institutional level. What happens is that when new technological revolutions occur, they rapidly generate new possibilities for action. People respond to these new possibilities at a local and individual level. For example, people start taking their mobile phones with them in their cars; they start texting while driving. They fill out the space of possibilities in short order. Eventually, this will generate a new set of social norms and practices, often codified and enforced by a legal system, but in the early days the social institutions tend to lag behind the technological possibilities. This generates a lot of friction and conflict:

Societies are profoundly shaken and shaped by each technological revolution and, in turn, the technological potential is shaped and steered as a result of intense social, political and ideological confrontations and compromises. 
(Perez 2002, 22)


Ultimately, the old institutional paradigm will need to adapt if the full potential of the technological paradigm is to be unleashed. But there isn't necessarily a single best institutional reform. There are often different ideological possibilities that compete, sometimes violently, for control. Perez argues that this is exactly what happened during the fourth of the revolutions she discusses (the revolution in oil, automobiles and mass production). This fourth revolution created the possibility of mass production and mass consumption. But how should society be organised to take advantage of those possibilities?

The unleashing of the 'golden age' based on the mass-production technologies of the fourth paradigm that had been diffusing since the 1910s and 1920s demanded institutions facilitating massive consumption, by the people or by the governments. Only in such a context could full flourishing be achieved. At the time, Fascism, Socialism and Keynesian democracies were set up as very different socio-political models giving impulse to growth processes based on mass production and consumptions. 
(Perez 2002, 24)


In the West, Keynesianism won out and became the post-WWII consensus until the late 1970s. By then, the next revolution was underway.

What's interesting about these examples is that those three ideologies were competing for control of political morality. They were defining the preferred relationship between citizens and states. What were citizens expected to do for the state (be productive workers; contribute to national armies etc)? And what were governments expected to do for citizens (provide a social safety net; boost demand during economic slumps; etc)? So this conflict between the new techno-economic paradigm and the old institutional order is, at its heart, a kind of techno-moral conflict.

Are we in the midst of new one right now? I have written about this in recent years, focusing in particular on the impact of mass automation on our existing social contract. Whereas in the mid-20th century the fight was about how to retool the state for the age of mass consumption, now the fight might be about how to retool the state for the age of mass leisure. As the latest wave of automation takes hold, the percentage of the adult population needed to keep the economy running may decline. Many people may be underemployed or have no jobs at all. To take advantage of the economic potential of mass automation, a social reckoning may be in order. For instance, redistributive policies may need reform to compensate for the loss of income associated with automation (and to prevent a collapse of consumer demand). The basic income guarantee is the most widely discussed of these policy reforms. In addition to this, education and training systems may also need reform. The goal of such institutions may no longer be to train the next generation of workers but to encourage the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake or to develop their civic responsibilities and sense of public duty (a la Ancient Athens). I'm not claiming that educational systems don't already do these things but a re-prioritisation may be in order. Finally, and more generally, the ideological debunking of the work ethic may be required in order to shed us of this notion that a fully functioning adult is a fully engaged worker. There is more to life than work and this new techno-economic paradigm may allow us to realise this.

These are themes that I explore in more detail in my book Automation and Utopia, albeit not through the lens of Perez's work.

5. The Pattern of Revolutions

The fourth key insight I take from Perez is the pattern she identifies in each historical technological revolution. As mentioned above, Perez argues that there are two main phases to each revolution -- the installation phase and the deployment phase -- and that each of these is broken down into two further sub-phases and that at the mid-point of the cycle there is a crash/turning point. The full sequence thus is: Irruption -> Frenzy -> Turning Point -> Synergy -> Maturity. Do these patterns occur in techno-moral revolutions too?

Before we answer that question, it is worth noting that this is probably the most intellectually dubious part of Perez's work. Carving history at its joints and suggesting that there are distinct patterns to technological development and growth is problematic. You can do it and with a sufficiently flexible interpretation it is possible to make the facts fit the pattern, but it is unlikely that you are uncovering some deeper law of historical progress, and you may have to ignore incompatible data. David Egerton, in his book The Shock of the Old, criticises this tendency in histories of technology. He thinks they focus too much on innovation and invention and not enough on how old technologies linger and proliferate. This, he argues, leads to a false view of history in which new technological eras have distinct boundaries that mark them off from old ones. The reality is much messier. History is like a canvas that keeps getting painted over: the old colours remain and affect the new picture that emerges.

This scepticism is worth bearing in mind. But despite this, I still think there is some value to putting some order on history. We don't have to kid ourselves into thinking we have discovered some universal law of social evolution, but it might help us to make sense of what has gone on and what is going on right now. We shouldn't hold onto the pattern too tightly; we should be open to revising it in light of new information; but we shouldn't discard it so quickly either and assume that history is just one damned thing after another.

Those caveats in mind, do techno-moral revolutions follow a similar pattern to the one identified by Perez? Well, there’s a simple argument for thinking that they might. If, as I suggested above, techno-economic paradigms often generate new techno-moral paradigm (new actions, new power relationships, new duties and expectations), and if techno-economic revolutions unfold according the pattern identified by Perez, then it stands to reason that at least some techno-moral revolutions follow this pattern too. If we return to the example of surveillance capitalism as a techno-moral revolution, we may see some evidence for it following this pattern. First, came a technological revolution in digital surveillance and predictive analytics (the irruption). Second, there was a frenzy of excitement among corporations, governments and (to some extent) individual users (particularly, say, proponents of self-tracking and quantification). These actors rushed to exploit the full potential of the technology, exploring different use cases with fervour (the frenzy). Then, there was a reckoning: scandals revealing the moral costs of this new paradigm. This should lead to a synergy between the moral rules and the new technologies. If I were to guess, I would say we are living through this phase now. People are far more aware of the risks of surveillance capitalism and new institutional mechanisms are being designed to mitigate those risks. This could, in time, lead to a new and relatively stable moral paradigm (balancing the benefits of the technology against the costs of privacy and autonomy), which would constitute the maturity phase of the techno-moral revolution.

One of Perez’s claims is that all techno-economic revolutions exhaust themselves in due course. The profits that were once attainable with the technology eventually dissipate and economic actors seek out other opportunities. One might wonder whether techno-moral revolutions suffer a similar fate. Do moral revolutions eventually exhaust themselves? On the face of it, you would say “no”. Techno-economic revolutions are driven by market incentives. They run out of steam when the profits start to decline. There is no equivalent incentive pressure in the moral sphere.

But is that really true? I think some moral revolutions probably do head in one direction only. I haven’t written about this much myself, but several philosophers have written about moral progress as entailing the expansion of the circle of moral concern — from family, to tribe, to nation, to empire, to humanity, to ecosphere. If they are right then, despite some setbacks, the general trend of moral progress is in one direction only: toward an ever-expanding circle of concern.

But maybe that is a misleading and overly-idealistic way to think about it? It could be that those expansions of concern are, in part, evidence of the exhaustion of a previous moral paradigm (e.g. when humanism is exhausted we turn to animal rights and ecocentrism). David Runciman has gestured at a similar idea in his book How Democracy Ends. He argues that representative democratic governance may have passed its middle age and be on a decline toward death. Why? Because such democracies have one big idea at their heart: you grow the moral legitimacy of the state by extending the voting franchise. Since the franchise has now been fully extended in most democratic regimes (children and prisoners being some of the last holdouts), there is little new space for them to explore. This makes them vulnerable to ideological attack. New methods of participatory governance may hold off the decline for a while, but they too have their limits, not least the fact that most people have neither the time, nor inclination, nor luxury to participate in a meaningful way. Digital technologies are often lauded as potential saviours of participatory governance, but they have yet to yield clear benefits in this regard.

These are just half-baked thoughts, but they would be worth pursuing in more detail. Perhaps some moral revolutions never exhaust themselves but others do? The question is whether we can successfully identify which ones.

No comments:

Post a Comment