When thinking through the implications of a new technological development, it can be tempting to take the designers’ word on how something will be used in order to play out the results. After all, they built it, they should know what it’s good for, right? And quite often they do–and many people end up using the new tools and systems just as the inventors intended.
Many, but not all. And, for a futurist, here’s where it really gets interesting.
New technologies don’t exist in a vacuum: they interact with both technological and non-technological systems as well as a variety of human wants and needs. This allows for the emergence of surprising combinations of goals and uses, many of which may be completely outside of the expectations of the designers. In short, as the patron saint of futurism William Gibson once said, “the street finds its own uses for things.”
As a futurist, I try to think beyond the designers notes when it comes to the impacts of emerging technologies. I find that it’s often useful to imagine the unintended, seedy, improper, or illicit uses of new tools and systems. How might Invention X be hacked? How could it facilitate a user having disproportionate power over another person? How will it be used to help the user have sex? How would it enable someone to commit a crime? Thinking along those lines can help to uncover the more subtle connections between a new technology and incumbent systems, spot hidden security flaws, or even reveal markets for a product that the developer had ignored.
These unintended uses can sometimes be the logical consequence of a new technology’s capabilities. A 3-D printer, for example, can be thought of as a “general-purpose manufacturing” tool, just as the common PC can be considered a “general-purpose computer”–it isn’t limited to a narrow set of results. And just as the general-purpose nature of computers can lead to difficult legal situations, general-purpose manufacturing has the potential to make things that may be against the law. As you may have seen, the Defense Distributed group recently developed the blueprints for firearms that can be printed out on any recent model of 3-D printer. And while there are uncertainties about their legality in the generally gun-friendly U.S., in parts of the world with strict gun control (like Australia), there’s no question that they’re illegal.
In other cases, the unexpected uses show up in combinations with other disruptive technological systems, and unpleasant consequences can result from exploiting that combination. Take high-frequency trading, a system of computerized financial activity that relies on real-time data to make rapid-fire buy/sell decisions. These trading algorithms demand fast access to information in order to beat competing software, and in recent months some of the systems have taken to using Twitter-based news feeds as inputs for market activities. It turns out that high-frequency trading systems can be gamed, with hacked Twitter news leading to rapid stock market drops; this exact course of events happened earlier this year with a hacked Tweet about an attack on the White House. Somebody–accidentally or otherwise–may have made a killing on the stock market as the result of a hacked Twitter feed.
These developments weren’t all that surprising to futurists. People who have been following the development of 3-D printing since the early 2000s (when printed objects were extremely fragile and the printers themselves cost tens of thousands of dollars) have been warning for nearly as long about the eventual use of this technology to make weapons. They’ve also been warning about the potential for reproducing the design of objects: Watch for intellectual property concerns to become the big red flag issue with 3-D printers in the coming years.
Similarly, the Twitter/high-frequency trading hack didn’t come as a complete surprise. I actually wrote about this very possibility a year ago, and I’m quite certain that I wasn’t the only one to imagine this result. And, as with 3-D printing, there are still problems on the horizon: as more people come to rely on Twitter and other social networks for breaking news, the easier it will be to spread confusion and misplaced accusations, with potentially tragic consequences.
Imagining the misuse and unexpected consequences of new technological developments isn’t a game for futurists; we don’t compete in trying to come up with the biggest dystopias. It’s a way of helping us all plan for difficult outcomes and, ideally, to make wiser design decisions. We can’t avoid all potential abuses of our tools–but we can make an effort to think ahead of time about how to respond.