INTERVIEW

"Change is as old as humanity itself"

Hyper-intelligent computers, humanoid robots, test-tube designer babies: technological upheavals frighten a lot of people. In this interview, technology historian Wolfgang König explains why that’s nonsense — and why humanity can’t get along without change.

Text  Thomas Schmelzer  Photo Unsplash/Frenjamin Benklin, Hahn und Hartung

Mr. König, you’ve been dealing with technological change your entire life and have also experienced major upheavals. Did you ever reach a point where you were sick and tired of perpetual change?

No, I wouldn’t say so, but that’s because you always have the possibility to shape the change. Sometimes it was annoying that so many technological innovations came along that basic­ally nobody really wanted.

Despite this, many people currently have the feeling that they’re being overrun by technological change. They worry about their jobs and see old certainties under threat.

Of course, changes are always challenging for the individual. It’s always been that way. Particularly when technological innovations create winners and losers. This often led to violence in the past. Just think about the Luddite movement in the early nineteenth century. English textile workers thought their livelihoods were being threatened by newly developed machines. In response, they sometimes went so far as to destroy the new machines, set their workplaces on fire or even murder factory owners. It shows how intense the anger and fear were at the time.

The revolt was followed by an unprecedented explosion of prosperity.

Yes, progress prevailed in the end and made the factory owners rich beyond their wildest dreams. Yet prospects remained dismal for many workers. Still, society as a whole came out a winner. We’re still benefiting today from some of the developments from that time. For example, railroads were established, something that we now regard as extremely progressive but that were viewed very skeptically at the time.

Do you see parallels between the situations then and now?

There are certainly similarities in the labor market. Today many people are afraid that new technologies will take their jobs away from them. However, this is about mental labor and not primarily physical labor. I also don’t see riots breaking out any time soon. During the Luddite era, there weren’t any trade unions or political parties that could institutionally represent workers’ interests. That’s completely different in the meantime. But even today it won’t be possible to completely stop change.

Some critics have a different point of view.

That may be, but they are wrong. Humans have always strived for progress, it’s a part of human nature. We’re creative creatures and are constantly reinventing ourselves and our environment. The search for something new and unknown drives us—not least because a lot of money can be earned with it. There will always be innovations and technological upheavals. And these innovations will inevitably also affect art, politics and society. Change is as old as humanity itself.

 

 

 

So is technological progress driving societal change?

Partly. However, societal change often serves as the engine for technical progress, which is something that could be seen during the Industrial Revolution. It wasn’t until masses of people flocked to the cities that modern methods of road construction were developed. It wasn’t until new production methods required faster deliveries that the railroads arose. All the infrastructure our current mobility is based on is ultimately a reaction to the developments at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

If change mostly benefits humanity, why does it create unease in people time and time again?

As I said, big changes are always uncomfortable for the individual. There are very few people who look positively at both losing a job and then also having to reorient themselves in a new job market. We do strive for new things, but we’re also extreme creatures of habit. We love routines. And if these routines are in danger, the first thing we do is defend them. But it’s no use—we will also be forced to change over and over again in the future.

“We will also be forced to change, over and over again in the future.“

 

Some of your colleagues claim that the change process has dramatic­ally accelerated over the past two hundred years and are looking to this as the cause of many of today’s problems.

I’m skeptical of that. Society has certainly become more dynamic since the beginning of industrialization at the start of the nineteenth century. Yet it’s difficult to say whether there is actually this enormous acceleration. There were also immense changes in earlier epochs of world history, often in very short timeframes. Furthermore, there is no suitable variable with which you could reliably measure change.

So you don’t share the fear that technological change could accelerate to such an extent that we lose control of it?

Change is always malleable. As soon as a majority of people stop supporting a change, it automatically loses momentum. It’s not as if some deity forces technology on humanity, which then has to cope with it. In fact, technology and society drive each other forward in a give-and-take. Change can only take place when social desires match the corresponding technological solution.

Humans as the designers of change.

That’s basically the case. Just look at the consumer sector. A technology must be purchased for it to gain acceptance. But when buyers stay away from it, the development will eventually be abandoned. This happens again and again. There are some technologies that we’ve been discussing for years, but because the demand fails to materialize, they simply don’t become accepted.

For example?

I believe that the idea of a smart home will always remain a daring idea. It’s been haunting the world ever since I started working on this topic. But, in the end, who really wants a talking refrigerator? I don’t know many people who do.

Yet there are dozens of other developments that are gaining ground.

In actuality, there’s a lot more that goes wrong than you think. The number of failed innovations is much higher than the number of successful ones. After the Second World War, for instance, there was the idea of setting up helicopter passenger service between neighboring cities. But it was abandoned fairly quickly because it was simply too expensive. Nevertheless, this failure is inextricably linked to progress. If you don’t allow failure to happen, there will never be progress.

There are other technologies that have been completely underestimated.

Exactly. Internet and email, for example, were viewed as a development for computer freaks thirty years ago. It works both ways: sometimes an innovation is underappreciated, sometimes developmental progress is overestimated. What this ultimately shows is how impossible it is to really gauge the success of an idea beforehand.

And in retrospect, what determines the success of new technologies?

In the end, it’s the people. Every time a new technology becomes widespread, there’s a negotiation process that takes place. Society discusses whether the advantages of the innovation outweigh the disadvantages. It isn’t until there’s a certain social consensus that a trend really takes hold.

Japanese society has decided to say “I do” to robots.


Yes, robotics is one of the very central themes of our era. This is about fundamental questions: How will we deal with robots in the future, particularly humanoid robots? Can we punish them? What relationship will we develop with them? My guess is that it will be more of a distant relationship.

There are experts who hold the completely opposite view. They predict that humanoid robots will be pulling the rug out from under us.

It’s difficult to see into the future. It is thus possible that the borders between humans and machines will become more blurred with time. You cannot exclude people. The acceptance of new technologies is also always a process of habituation. What seems exotic today may be normal by tomorrow. A good example of this is autonomous driving. It started small, with automated parking. This will soon be followed by cars searching for their own parking spaces in a parking garage, and then, boom, now you’re in an automated convoy, stuck in traffic.

So the idea of disruption that breaks over you like a thundershower is nonsense?

Innovation is never something completely new. Actually, it usually contains a whole lot of old things and just a little bit of new. A nice example of this is the car. When Daimler and Maybach developed the automobile, they actually just invented an engine for people to put into their carriages. The first auto was barely more than just a motorized carriage. Sometimes change comes in such small steps that you don’t even notice it until much later.

Which technology currently has the greatest potential for change?

Biotechnology. Researchers will be able to change and design people in the future. This brings up many ethical questions: How far will we go? How far do we want to go? And: What will we never want, no matter what? This isn’t just true for humans, but for all living things. We will soon be able to design completely artificial surroundings. Technology, with all its consequences, will be both the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge of the next decades.

 

 


Personalia

Wolfgang König is professor emeritus for the history of technology at the TU Berlin, a university of technology. He has lectured as a guest professor at the TU Vienna and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. His research emphases include the history of everyday life and consumerism and the history of technology and industry.