The Technium

Consequences of Technological Convergence

[Translations: Japanese]

A thought experiment: If I were to teleport you to a random city on Earth in 2009 you would have a hard time telling me what city you were in based solely on technological infrastructure — absent language or scripts. For the most part different cultures employ the same general technologies of urbanization now, which makes most places similar. The young people of world today (the majority of people on the planet and the chief citizens of cities) dress very similarly, use the same gadgets and devices, follow the same media expressions in music and movies, and study the same things with the same educational technology. The lifestyle they covet is very much shared.

For the most part all civilizations are converging toward one global flavor of technology.

This was not always true. In the near past, the technology in a city in China was significantly different than one in France, or in Mali, or Lima. During the medieval ages, how buildings were designed, heat produced, food processed, clothes made, communications carried, all differed wildly — and yet we would be hard pressed to say which city’s or nation’s technology was more advanced than the other. They were just varied.

Today, technology has converged so that how we build urban life is very similar around the world. We perceive that some places are “ahead” or “behind” others. California is ahead in solar, or the US is behind in bandwidth. Or we say that Africa is leapfrogging in cell phone use. In our heads we have a sense of a uniform development path. While specific cultures may drift a little sideways in the river of technological advance, the flow is all in one direction.

There are a few modern cultural exceptions to this uniformity. In a few spots in the world, particular technology has a cultural bent. For instance:

•  How the Japanese use cell phones is different from Western countries.

•  Brazil’s highly developed ethanol fuel system is unique.

•  Deployment of telecommunication bandwidth in South Korea is especially deep

•  Ubiquitous scooter vehicles in south and southeast Asia have little analog

•  Chinese herbal medicine runs parallel to western medicine.


In these examples we can see how technology might have a cultural flavor in modern times. There are three possible scenarios for what this means.

1) Advanced technology will follow the pattern of old. The remarkable organic flexibility of contemporary technology (governed by ideas rather than atoms), permits diverse and diverging flavors of technological paths. Extending these small initial forays, we can imagine culturally distinct types of technology erupting in the next 100 years, say Japanese technology, or Islamic technology, or Brazilian technology.

2) Or, these examples are variations without significance. They are isolated flourishes. Fun, useful, but not deep rooted, or deterministic. The fact that Brazil has a nation-wide ethanol alternative fuel system is less a cultural choice, and more serendipitous opportunism. A century ago Brazil had large sugar plantations (powered by slaves) which made sugar cheap. Cheap enough to ferment and burn as fuel. As early as 1927 Brazilians were making ethanol from sugar to fuel automobiles and by 1938 sugar-ethanol formed 5% of their gas, raised to 42% during WWII. As gasoline prices went up, they kept raising the percentages of home-grown fuel, since they proved the technology worked. There is nothing particularly “Brazilian” about ethanol. The same for Japanese cell phone use. In a country devoid of much private space, the cell phone provided a way to get “private” in public spaces. It is not particularly Japanese: Other subcultures, such as teenagers in the US, use phones in the same way. Chinese herbal medicine benefited from a long and rare period of isolation from modern medicine. While this approach does seem to be specifically Chinese, many of its ideas are quickly flowing into modern medicine itself, and so this technology will increasingly be used on non-Chinese oriented patients. In other words, its doesn’t need China to run. In this scenario there will always be a few cosmetic fashions, but none that are long-running, or primary.

3) These minor differences are overwhelmed by the larger degree of uniformity in the technium. The five examples are the last remnants of ethnic technological expression as our technology converges to global usage. While ethnic difference will continue to be a prime inspiration and generator of innovations, anything really good is quickly co-opted by the global machine.

My hunch is that we are headed towards a path between 2 and 3.  For the most part, technology will converge to uniform usage around the globe, but occasionally some group, or subgroup, will devise and perfect a type of technology or technique that has limited appeal. But that subgroup or group will not continue to produce further isolated innovations in a sustainable offshoot — simply because the advantages and pressures of a global society constrain success towards a global standard. (Note this technological convergence should not be confused with the media-centric technological convergence predicted for television, movies, books and the internet, although that will probably happen too.)

In some ways this is more an argument about globalization than technology, but at a certain point the two become the same. If the marketing, financing, cultural demands, society expectations and status are all global, then technology will be as well.

If true, four important expectations flow from this observation.

First, if technology converges into a single global sequence of innovations this reinforces the idea that some areas are either behind or ahead of the sequence. In this way, technology resembles the sequence of development in an organism. So a specimen of this development can be ahead of the norm, or behind the norm, like a child’s height.  The sense of being out of alignment will further increase pressure on those “behind” to catch up. The more of the world that catches up, the more pressure to keep up, the more development will become globally universal. In this way global technological convergence is self-reinforcing.

Second, the emergence of a developmental-like sequence of innovations suggests (but does not prove) that technological development is deterministic. When there is only one path, that one path can seem inevitable. The uniform path may not be deterministic, but it feels that way. Therefore the idea of inevitable technology is easier to embrace.

Thirdly, the emergence of a uniform technological sequence will repress (inadvertently) a certain set of possible technologies because they don’t fit in, even though they may be valid. Heretical ideas and technologies (defined here as possibly valid but not within the norm) will have less room to develop or deepen than in a world with room for ethnic  alternatives. Technological convergence will tend to outlaw heretical techniques faster and make heresy more of a stigma than it is now. Truly alternative tech — say a better internet address system, or alternative hyperlinking technique, or constitutional framework — become impossible to even consider.

Fourth, the forces that conspire towards convergence don’t seem to have strong counter-forces, suggesting that convergence will tighten over time. Perhaps in one hundred years, or two, technological development will not vary much around the globe. In this sense “the future will be more evenly distributed” to paraphrase William Gibson. In reaction to this homogeneity, perhaps the variation we see in regions we will see in individuals. People will choose to abstain or forsake particular global standards of technology in a form of idiosyncratic distinction. (See my post on the Neo-Amish.)  They will re-distribute the future themselves. But like the Amish they will harbor these “redistributions” as a personal choice within an ocean of planetary convergence. When everyone has access to all technologies (and all the same technologies), no one will have time to use or load them all. Then the only course will be to carry or “distribute” your personal slice of the technium. In this way while the planetary culture slides toward convergence of technologies, billions of technology users will diverge in their personal choices as they edge toward using smaller and more eccentric selections of available stuff. Your identity will be displayed by what you don’t use.