September 18, 2020

Serendipity

I’ve been reading recently about the history of technology. That history is filled with lessons for policy-makers now. Here is one:

One of the reasons we should be wary about banning technologies is that it’s often very hard to tell what a new technology will be good for. It might take a decade or more for the true significance of a new technology to emerge, and even when we can guess at one application of a technology we’ll probably miss other important ones.

The telegraph is a case in point. When the telegraph was new, it was easy to see how the instantaneous communication it enabled would affect fields such as news gathering and finance. But the telegraph had a surprising number of applications.

Example: The telegraph enabled weather prediction. Previously, all you could do was watch the horizon for storms and wait for old-timers to sniff the wind and say, “Reckon it’ll rain.” With the telegraph, you could find out about current weather conditions in other places, build a weather map, look at the patterns of wind and pressure, and figure out what tomorrow would be like. This had a profound impact on people’s lifestyles, not to mention its benefits for agriculture and for safety.

Every new, general-purpose information technology has unexpected, valuable applications. If we ban such technologies or hamper their development, we’ll never know what we’re missing.