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The Six Laws of Technology

There is a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal titled "The Six Laws of Technology Everyone Should Know." It is based on the writings of Melvin Kranzberg, a professor of the history of technology at Georgia Institute of Technology.

He wrote about these laws 30 years ago, based on examples taken from the Cold War.

But they have become legendary among technologists, serving as something of a Hippocratic oath for all people who build things. It's a fascinating list and worth thinking about deeply:

1. "Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral."

This was Kranzberg's first law and considered his most important. He understood that the impact of a technology would be determined by its geographic and cultural context. This means it can often be good and bad at the same time. Think Facebook groups that serve as a support for parents with children of rare diseases and Facebook groups that radicalize political extremists.

Lesson? Tech companies should "try to anticipate the potential impact of anything they produce."

Reality? Too often, they don't even try.

2. "Invention is the mother of necessity."

No, you didn't read that wrong. The tried and true phrase is "Necessity is the mother of invention." But the point, Kranzberg wrote, is that "every technical innovation seems to require additional technical advances in order to make it fully effective."

Consider the smart phone—its creation demanded "countless other technologies, from phone cases to 5G wireless."

3. "Technology comes in packages, big and small."

This is all about interdependence and interaction. Consider how "steel, oil and rail were the package of technologies that dominated the 19th and early 20th centuries." Today? The package would be "the internet, mobile phones and wireless connectivity."

4. "Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions."

This is something very much worth thinking about. Technology, in and of itself, does not have intrinsic power. As historian Robert C. Post, who was Kranzberg's friend and colleague, says: "It has to be motivated by political power or cultural power or something else."

Consider how Congress has declared their intention to force Google, Facebook and others to disclose who pays for political ads on their platforms. This is already the norm for TV, radio and print.

5. "All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant."

The motivating force behind this "law" was how the Cold War "led to the buildup of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them anywhere on Earth. That led to the development of a war-proof communication system: the internet."

Yes, nuclear weapons were (are) mildly relevant. The potential destruction of civilization as we know it is worth noting. But the new truth is that is that it would be hard to make a case that anything in our world is more relevant than technological advancement. The impact is too strong and the circle of influence too wide.

6. "Technology is a very human activity."

The Wall Street Journal article noted how Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook, in a 2017 commencement speech at MIT, said: "Technology is capable of doing great things. But it doesn't want to do great things—it doesn't want anything." The point? That despite its power, "how we use technology is up to us."

Yes.

But let's let the final word be Kranzberg's:

"Many of our technology-related problems arise because of the unforeseen consequences when apparently benign technologies are employed on a massive scale."

Again, yes. As in a "tower of Babel" scale.

And we know how that turned out.

James Emery White


Sources

Christopher Mims, "The Six Laws of Technology Everyone Should Know," The Wall Street Journal, November 26, 2017, read online.

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