The problem of polarization: the sense and nonsense of debates about new technology

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In debates about new technologies, one camp usually entertains unrealistic expectations of the benefits, while an opposed camp comes emphasizes the dangers that are just as unrealistic. This gives rise to a debate that only deals with question whether we want the technology or not, guided by irrelevant arguments. The polarization of societal discussions evolves from the abundance of information, so that only the most extreme points of view receive attention. This is not only a problem in discussions about new technology, but it seems to play a role in almost every societal debate. In this post, I will look into the conditions that must be met so that a debate can include as many social values and considerations as possible so to establish a collective standpoint − for example about the design of a new technology.

With regards to technologies such as 5G, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars or geo-engineering, usually two camps emerge. On the one hand, there are the ‘techno-optimists’ who expect a lot of salvation from these technologies, because they offer opportunities to do things more efficiently or sustainably or because they can solve major problems such as global hunger and climate change. On the other hand, there are the ‘technophobes’ who mainly point to the risks and dangers. The first camp thinks the risk assessment of the second camp is based on irrational fears, the second camp thinks that the faith of the other parties is a sign of hubris.

Both camps are not only busy with each other, they also determine the way in which the broad debate is represented in the media. This is because journalists seem to believe that presenting opposing views helps a reader to take a balanced position so that she can contribute to a democratic debate.

This has long been a legitimate starting point, but seems to be less effective in times of polarization. Certainly it doesn’t work when it comes to technology issues. In these cases, debates arise that are unrealistic, unbalanced and ultimately undemocratic.

What you see is a cascade of faulty starting points, so that debates about technological developments are no longer about what they should be about. First, there is the erroneous belief that every social debate, whether it is about new technology or not, can be characterized best by showing the extreme positions. Second, there is the erroneous idea that technological developments are seen as if it were natural phenomena.

Before I delve deeper into technological issues, I will first describe what a debate actually is and what it purpose it serves. To start with, you can see a standpoint as an evaluation, as an estimate of what a future situation will bring. That is what we do constantly as individuals: we look at what comes our way and make a decision based on what we expect to happen.

Also as a society, we are confronted with new developments that we must respond to as a collective. By far the best way to organize this is through a democratic debate in which different assessments are put forward, pros and cons are considered against each other, and finally a collective decision is made that makes it possible to deal with the future situation. Not only does such a debate do justice to the opinion of all members of society, so that everyone can ultimately accept the collective decision, but the plurality of positions also ensures that an issue is viewed from as many sides as possible, thereby ensuring that the final decision is of the best quality.

But when it comes to a new technology, it is not about a situation that comes our way. It is about the evaluation of a situation that we create ourselves, while this situation is discussed as if it were a natural phenomenon. Instead of discussing the technology itself, we look at the effects, the risks and the benefits.

Establishing an innovation usually costs a lot of money. In general, most technology developers do not have that much money themselves, so they have to turn to investors. Technology developers compete with each other to convince investors that their technology will be successful. It is important to not only see Gyro Gearlooses with a soldering iron or Whiz Kids in a garage as technology developers, it is mainly about entrepreneurs and scientists, people who can’t just make something, but who above all believe in something and are successful in spreading their faith. They come with promises: they create expectations and to stay ahead of the competition, those expectations must be articulated as sharply as possible. Realism is of secondary importance here. In fact, a somewhat realistic assessment of the capabilities of a new technology destroys the chances of that technology chance becoming successful in advance; there will always be someone that makes bigger promises.

This phase of competition between promises is ended when a decision has been made about which technologies are worthy of investment. Those expectations then take on a life of their own. Now their goal of eliciting investments has been achieved, expectations must be transferred to the market or society so that the investment can be turned into profit. Rules must be established or stretched, the public must be convinced of the importance of a technology. Just like money, laws and social legitimacy are resources that are needed to convert a technology from an idea into a successful product.

Technological development is therefore a process in which major economic interests play a role. The push for a technology to be successful is very strong and the debate about it is anything but disinterested, as an actual democratic debate should be. In short, what we see is not a debate, but a lobby.

Take a look at 5G. Slick commercials should convince the general public that 5G is going to bring a lot of good. Once that system is in place, we can go completely wireless, we can automate processes that we never thought could be automated. Self-driving cars, streaming of films and series in high-definition, monitoring everything that can be monitored. No more car accidents, no more boredom, no more inefficiency. Who doesn’t want that! It would be utterly crazy to want to stop 5G. Legislation regarding privacy or radiation must be amended so that the 5G can accommodate as well as possible.

But of course those expectations are completely unrealistic. Accidents will persist, perhaps not the amount and type of accidents we know today, but they won’t go away – just like we will still have to live with boredom and inefficiency. After all, every new technology comes with new consequences and effects. That doesn’t have to make a technology less valuable or desirable, but requires a bit more modesty.

If there is one thing you can predict is that there will always be opponents of a new technology. There are always groups of people who don’t trust the technology developers or who don’t share their big expectations. To make a point, the overstated promises can only be combated by counteracting the overstated risks and disadvantages.

For example, 5G is presented as the cause of the coronavirus or as an instrument that governments use to control our brains. If it’s not the government, it’s Bill Gates. Paranoid nonsense of course, but as unrealistic as the expectations regarding the benefits of 5G.

This is a pattern that you see again and again. The technophobes have to bid against the techno-optimists and vice versa, this creates a spiral of claims that gradually become less realistic.

Now everyone has the right to delusions, but it is a problem that delusions predominate in debates about new technologies. A discussion arises between supporters and opponents who both seem to believe in fairy tales.

Such a polarized and unrealistic discussion is encouraged by the way both old and new media work. There is a surplus of information and limited space to present all that information in newspapers and television programs. The internet offers plenty of space, but someone who is surfing doesn’t have the time to go through all that information. Information providers compete fiercely for attention, and can only get that attention by making the information as outstanding as possible.

In short, we see the same mechanism that we saw earlier when investing in new technologies. To find the right resource base, claims have to stand out as much as possible. Money, space and time can only be acquired by making extreme, unrealistic claims.

Not only are such claims unrealistic, they are to a significant extent incomparable as they are based on dissimilar ways of thinking. It is not about a different assessment, but about a different way in which the groups arrive at their estimate. It is a difference between factual and emotional reasoning, while it can’t be simply said that one way is better than the other.

Parties dealing in high expectations often refer to the scientific basis of their claims. Their arguments are presented in terms of numbers and graphs, where factuality seems to be paramount − but, as said, there are no facts yet that lie in the future. Above all, this way of thinking is a ‘frame’ that should increase the credibility of the technology so that the invested resources can be recouped.

The frame of the opponents is usually formed by stories and metaphors. They come with Frankenstein and Big Brother as examples of crazy techno-optimism. Unlike numbers and facts, stories serve to arouse emotions, for example they can articulate undefined fears or a vague feeling of discomfort. In doing so, we must not forget that emotions are nothing but a way of evaluating situations, based on our intuition we form a judgment about a situation and interpret it as good or bad. That is a way that is quick and dirty and perhaps even ‘ irrational’, but not intrinsically inferior than a scientific approach.

This is not only because the actual frame is as fact-free as the narrative frame, but also because it concerns a future that we want. As I wrote above, discussions about new technologies are conducted as if they were natural phenomena. As if it were a rainstorm, volcanic eruption, or flood of which the risks need to be assessed so to take the right precautions, such as bringing an umbrella, moving to another place or building a dam. But the discussion about a new technology should not be a discussion about what risks are acceptable or not, it should be a discussion of the conditions that the technology to be developed should meet.

It is not about who is has been right afterwards, but about whether a new technology can be designed in such a way that it can be seen as socially desirable. This question should be addressed in a democratic debate, meaning that a plurality of views, concerns, expectations, etc. are taken into account in decision-making. Instead, we have a tug-of-war discussion that leads to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a technology based on irrelevant arguments.

That is why it is so important that factuality is not paramount, but that the meaning of a new technology is considered collectively and in order to do so we must allow stories and emotions to enter into a debate. In fact, the debate should be conducted in terms of stories, because only within a narrative structure meaning can be given to future development. It is necessary to create a ‘level playing field’ where people can discuss and compare expectations in a meaningful way in order to arrive at a clear consideration of the design criteria to be included.

What is happening now is actually the opposite. Because the way of debating that is dominant, compels opponents to new technologies to go along with this way of reasoning. For example, there are numerous films on the internet showing fearful stories that are told in scientific terms. Such videos are easy victims for ridicule, as the usually confuse correlation and causality in a childishly naive way− after all, they are not the ones that are scientifically trained. With that, so the mutual frustrations only increase.

In many ways, technological developments are a special case. Still, I think we can learn a lot from the polarized debates about technology, as ‘normal’ debates increasingly come to resemble societal discussions about technology. They are becoming more and more polarized, while the sense of reality seems to become less and less important.

As in technology debates, polarization arises because of the way in which claims compete for attention while there is a scarcity of resources such as time and space. Claims then have to become increasingly outlandish to be heard, pushing the more nuanced claims out of the debate.

It is also comparable that polarized debates are not about points of view, but about belief systems. The opposing parties address the issues from a different worldview and come up with different frames. What is subsequently seen as ‘true’ or ‘good’ is an expression of this world view, so that there can never be any trade-offs between the position – it is all or nothing. The starting point is the own moral superiority that is fought by pointing to the perfidious positions of the opponents. This is not a debate, but gossip: a discussion does not serve to arrive at a collective judgment, but to prove one’s own right.

Consider things like climate policy or corona measures. If you follow the news, many opponents seem to see any government intervention as a further restriction on personal freedoms, while the advocates point to the silliness of their protests. Dystopian future scenarios are outlined, with the counterpart’s depraved motives invariably taking center stage. Climate skeptics quickly become stupid and irresponsible, while ‘climate geeks’ are arrogant and come up with totalitarian plans.

The parties are increasingly separated and agreements that both parties can agree with are becoming increasingly difficult. This means that, with current electoral proportions, a marginal difference can have enormous consequences. Just think of the Brexit referendum or the election of Trump.

We need to think of another way to deal with claims made in the debate. It is not about the clearest possible representation of a discussion by showing the extreme positions, but it is about showing the diversity of points of view, perspectives, frames, considerations, values ​​and so on.

Differences between positions are essential if used properly. A plurality of positions is a precondition for the quality of a collective position, but it is certainly not a guarantee. This plurality can just as well lead to flawed decisions, namely if the differences are not accounted for − if one position is simply chosen because a procedure deemed democratic allows for it.

Extreme positions are not automatically necessary to warrant plurality. On the contrary, they contribute to the fact that collective trade-offs cannot be made. Now that there is a clear idea of ​​the mechanism leading to polarization, this can be countered. That can be done in different ways. Media can take their responsibility: there must be different algorithms for the digital media and other rules of thumb for traditional media.

As in debates about new technology, we need to consider how we can make claims comparable. Just as technological development must involve a level playing of expectations, news ways in which the various positions can be weighed up against each other must be sought. Participants in a debate should not aim to prove themselves right, but to contribute to a collective judgment. The fact that there are different frames should not be a problem, but if those frames only serve to confirm themselves, democratic decision-making is made impossible.

It would be weak to put all blame on the media. Indeed, the social debate is conducted by ourselves, and we must also consider how we can make the best possible contribution to this debate. You can do that by taking other participants seriously and by resisting the temptation to go along with gossip.

When someone says that climate change or the corona crisis are hoaxes, you should not get angry right away, but ask yourself why someone says this. How is it that a person can believe in obvious nonsense, what are the underlying concerns and values? Are these also nonsensical, or could these contribute to a collective position that includes as many considerations as possible? Is the belief system or moral system on the basis of which someone draws bizarre conclusions in itself legitimate? Are there otherwise interests or motivations that explain why someone thinks what he thinks? Of course it might just be that you find out that claims that others make are stupid or immoral. But only at that moment, you can say that these can be excluded.

At the same time, you also have to ask yourself why you think what you think. Are my own ideas so realistic, can I take my own beliefs seriously, or are they motivated only by the dislike of my opponents? Is it fair that I attribute bad intentions to those opponents, what proof do I have to do that?

If we take each other seriously, if we are willing to make our claims as comparable as possible, but at the same time remain critical about what others and we ourselves say and think, then we can have a debate that can rightly be called democratic.

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