Discussion of the end of our current crisis make you feel like the audience at an ancient Greek tragedy. The longer this crisis has gone on the more messy and complicated our circumstances have become. Our leaders are starting to describe magical changes as the way out of our mess. We are waiting for a god to pop out of a machine and set things right again. This ignores the elements of our technology that have helped us already and are essential to our next phase of recovery.
Deus Ex Machina
The sudden arrival of a vaccine, a miraculous new medical treatment, a powerful contact tracing application or even the evolution of the virus to a less lethal form are all paths to end our current crisis. Like the deus ex machina of an ancient greek tragedy, these sudden technology-powered or mediated changes in course will resolve our complex situation without much effort on our part. No wonder they appeal to those of our modern political leaders like to stress that things will get better without any work by the voting public.
We have come to associate the meaning of technology with science and also with computing power. However, we should recognise that its origins are aligned to that of technique. Technology is the practical application of knowledge, particularly applied science and the mechanical arts. Many of our modern technologies are those that would be unrecognisable to people of ancient greek society or even more recent times. The connection to technique reminds us that all of these technologies are capable of ongoing refinement and improvement if we put in the work. No social technology is inherently perfect.
If we widen our lens, we can see how technology broadly defined has already shaped our response to the crisis:
- Government: If you brought someone from the plagues of the 15th century to our time, the nature of our government and breadth of the government involvement in a response would surprise. Government is based in a wide franchise, has accountability to the people and has a wide array of resources to deploy. Social safety nets vary around the world, but that they exist at all would surprise some previous generations who were left with charity, mutuality or nothing at all in a crisis. Government is hardly perfect but it is working on a solution, not hiding out the plague on its estates in the Florentine hills.
- Law and Order: Professional and independent police, military and security forces, whatever their occasional failings are a modern creation. Our medieval ancestors either did without security or expected the enforcers to be agents only of those in power.
- Hospitals: Hospitals and organised medical care have existed for thousands of years in various form. However, a consistently professionalised medical system scaled to deliver public and private care to most of the population and focused on treatment of disease, rather than convalescence, reflects the advances in medical science over the last centuries.
- Media: Before the printing press, mass communications were limited. Now we have global instant communication that informs the community and enables debate around staying at home. We have it for better and for worse.
- Transportation & Logistics: When we order goods to be delivered, we forget that the expectation that they will arrive, somewhat promptly, let alone be tracked, is an entirely recent modern experience.
- Work: Our organisations are modern technology reflecting business practices of the two centuries since the industrial reveolution began to accelerate.
There is no real value in a crisis like our current one in pointing out that things would be worse if it was the 15th century. However, the reflections above are a reminder of how much we have and can change to improve our lives, our work and our situations in crises. Reflecting on the role of these institutions and their history can also help us see where past assumptions no longer suit our future needs. The assumptions that shaped the design of these institutions may be buried deep in our collective conscious or inherent to how we see the institutions. For example, many managers cannot conceive of a workplace without control, but they exist and they prosper. Nothing in this arena of social technology is once and done. We have a lot of arenas in which we can perfect this technology, continuing the ongoing work of mastery. We need not waiting for a god to appear on stage from a magical riser or crane.
We must not ignore the role that these important pieces of technology play in our lives today. The government and commentators might invite us to look the other way, but we need to consider how these arenas can continue to improve. Critically, we collectively created and sustained these changes and can make further changes to make them better. We must not lose focus on the role of these wider technologies in our health, wellbeing and success.
We have lots of work to do to perfect our civil society and to improve these key elements of the technological infrastructure that sustain our society. We can argue about how to fix them, but we should all be focused on improving all aspects of the technology of our lives. We must treat with caution those who argue we would be better off without them, to not worry about the shape of these institutions and to encourage us to wait for miracles. Let’s hope a vaccine comes soon, but, while we wait, let’s improve all the technology in our lives.