Mistaking technology for a state function

One of the fundamental concepts of Physics is the difference between a state function and a path function.

With state functions, such as potential energy, everything that matters is the initial state and the final state. The intermediate steps are irrelevant. A 5 kg bag of sand has more potential energy on the twelfth floor of a building than it does on the fifth floor, regardless if it went to the twentieth floor on the way.

Path functions are different. The intermediate steps matter here. Friction is a path function. When we push a carton across the room and return it to the same place, we still expend effort. Most physical effort is a path function. Lugging a 5 kg bag of sand from the fifth floor to the twelfth floor is already a workout. Going to the twentieth floor on the way can be exhausting!

Technology is a path function. When we adopt a new technology, it leaves a profound impact on the people it touches. It can reshape the social fabric in subtle ways that we can never imagine. When we first discovered the potential of fossil fuel, we could never have predicted that it could lead to global warming. Technology can change climate. It can just as easily reconfigure jobs, or cause them to disappear. All these consequences depend on the path we take to implement it.

The world is setup to treat technology as if it is a state function. To scratch the surface of a new development and encapsulate our limited understanding into futuristic use-cases. Rarely do we stop to consider the import of those changes on the social fabric. And by the time we do, it is often too late.

Sure, fossil fuels have significantly enhanced our lives. But could we have minimized their downside? Sure, social media has reshaped how we communicate. But is it creating a better society?

The default mode of the market is to pick up the next shiniest thing and adopt it with a myopic view on its benefits. We start today in state A, and place bets on technology to take us to state B. The more relevant, but less sexy problem is that of the path we take to traverse these states. The most important questions are why we need to get to state B, and what that would mean for humanity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s