The wonderful and terrible thing about technology

I’ve been semi-obsessed with The Expanse lately.

For those who aren’t aware, The Expanse is a show on SyFy based on the books series by James A Corey. The series focuses on the conflicts between Mars (colonized by idealistic settlers looking to terraform the planet and create a second home for mankind), Earth (the home world we all know, but way more crowded and desperate) and the asteroid belt (where raw materials are mined at great risk, kind of like Deadliest Catch with spaceships.) The class parallels are pretty plain. Earthlings are the aging patriarchs, Martians are the upstart kids, and the Belters are the ditch diggers working with both of the others’ boots on their necks.

Right in the middle of the show’s second season, there is an episode called “Paradigm Shift.” Set about 150 years in the show’s past, it focuses on a Martian named Solomon Epstein. Mars was a new colony trying to make their way in the world, but everything they did ended up being owned by Earth and shipped back there. It was a troubled relationship.

Epstein was a drive engineer, and having just bought a new space yacht decided to start tinkering with the engine. To his own shock, he created a new type of drive that burned exponentially more efficiently with exponentially less fuel. As the ship raced out at 20g burn, it flattened him against his seat, unable to move, unable to turn the drive off, waiting for a blood vessel to burst in his brain and cause the stroke that would kill him.

“Lying there on my death bed, all I could think about was what happens next? I’d never give Katie a child but she had the plans for my drive. They’d make her rich for the rest of her life, because with my drive Mars would be able to move outwards. Mine the asteroids, colonize the belt, and remake the solar system. My drive would give us the edge we needed to finally break free from Earth and build a new world for ourselves.

That’s the wonderful … and terrible … thing about technology.

It changes everything.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Technology absolutely does change everything, there is no doubt about it. In this chill-inducing episode you can see the whole framework of the show set into motion. The Epstein Drive had a cataclysmic impact on the show’s universe, and to see that moment in time happen is absolutely thrilling.

The thing is, the change Epstein saw in his head was … not at all what happened. Mars did indeed reach out and mine the belt, but instead of being the key to their freedom, it simply made Earth even more desperate to control them. Earth threatened Mars with war if they didn’t pass on most of what they mined, and put off Mars’ terraforming project for 50 years.  (This situation repeated itself 50 years later.) In the meantime, Mars and Earth collaborated to create what was close to a slave class in the asteroid belt.

On top of all that, the Epstein drive was not only put into every ship known to man, but every atomic missile known to man as well, extending Earth’s hold even farther than anyone had ever imagined possible.

This is a common problem with technologists. For all of our smarts we are woefully naive. I remember the first time I started creating apps on the web in, like,  1995 (you know, the stone ages). I remember thinking to myself how this would revolutionize everything and save the world. I was right about the first part, but the second part? Not so much.

I’ve been “joking” a lot lately that the internet is no longer positive ROI, but really much of what has happened should have been woefully obvious. Any tool that makes global organizing much easier  is going to be used to organize for evil. Any tool that democratizes content and selling will be leveraged tenfold by corporate interests. Why was this so shocking to me and so many others? Are we really that stupid?

The problem is we understand technology, but we don’t understand people. Humanity in all its sheer beautiful strangeness and horror.

We need to do better. We need to think much more carefully about how our tools will be used, and we need to prioritize the people who use them and the communities they impact. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build them, it means we need to be ready when things happen. Seeing the possible futures allows us to adapt and pivot, to react and move to the next thing before it becomes too late. We owe this to ourselves and our future.

Because in the end, the the wonderful and terrible thing about technology is that, when it comes to human nature, it changes nothing at all.