Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom

What could go wrong? Another question to ask of new technology

Those who spend a lot of time traveling by airplane steadily grow accustomed to the standard spiel issued by members of the TSA and airline personnel. Yet, recently, a new line has been added into the instructions given those preparing to fly, namely: if you have a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 you will not be permitted to take it on board. Which makes sense, after all, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has been having some trouble with – how to put this – exploding. True, only a very small number of these phones have actually shot smoke and flame, but enough have done so as to force the company to issue a massive recall and to cause airlines to declare that the phones are not welcome in the air.

This case of the exploding smart phone has something of the faintly absurd about it – there’s something about a phone that suddenly starts smoking that feels as if it originated in the maniacal dream of some dead Dadaist. For smart phones have become fairly banal fixtures of daily life in technological society, for them to suddenly be labeled as dangerous potential explosives raises the specter that right at this very moment you (yes, you!) might be only inches away from a potential bomb. Everyday objects explode! That’s rather worrying. Sure, this problem has been isolated to the Note 7 (again, the vast majority of which have not exploded) but this still raises a rather uncomfortable question about smart phones: what if they explode? Might they explode? The source of the problem seems to be the lithium-ion battery in the Note 7, but what kind of battery is in your phone?

One of the challenges posed by new smart phones has to do with the way the word “new” functions. By late 2016 there isn’t terribly much about smart phones that is really worthy of being deemed “new” – a fresh model with a few minor tweaks may come out, but as a subcategory of technology, smart phones are no longer new. Thus, when a company announces their latest smart phone, or that they are going to start making smart phones, it is easy not to really think of what is being announced as a new technology. Rather it appears as just another iteration of a current technology. The problem is that in such cases it is easy to approach these iterations with less of a critical gaze than one might (hopefully) turn to genuinely new-fangled things. The six questions to ask of new technology developed by Neil Postman, to which two additional questions may be added, provide an excellent thinking exercise to deploy when mulling over a new technology – but who still poses such questions for the smart phone? But the case of the Note 7 doesn’t just reveal that every new device should be treated with, at least, mild skepticism – it also demonstrates that there is another question that we should be asking when we consider new technology.

That question being: what could go wrong?

A Brief Aside

Postman’s 6 Questions are:

What is the problem to which this technology is the solutions?” [42]

“Whose problem is it?” [45]

Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?” [45]

What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?” [48]

What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?” [50]

“What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?” [53]

To which two more questions have been suggested:

What happens when you hit this piece of technology with a rock?

What will happen and who will be impacted by this piece of new technology once it becomes a piece of old technology?

Where were we? Oh, yes…

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is a rather extraordinary case of something going wrong, an extreme case even. It might explode! And by exploding the Note 7 has done a sort of service, it has revealed that one of the things that a smart phone might do is blow up. Had you even thought that smart phones could do that?

When we think about the possible capabilities of new technology we are often compelled to think in terms of the device’s myriad affordances, with particular emphasis being placed upon spinning these in a positive direction. But there is also usually at least some awareness of the potential downsides of a new piece of technology. To raise the question of “what could go wrong” is to engage in a bit of negative forecasting that willfully engages in a search for the worst case scenario prognosis. Importantly, the purpose is not to work oneself into a fit of paranoia or to wallow in apocalyptic romanticism but to try to really think about what could potentially go wrong. Ideally, such contemplation is undertaken so that steps can be taken to prevent this “wrong” from occurring. Samsung could have saved itself a lot of trouble had somebody there had the chutzpah to make a bigger deal of asking “hey, might this explode?” Though it stands to reason that the example of Samsung is going to propel other companies to pay much more attention to that question going forward. Or, to give a perhaps crude example: an important “what could go wrong” regarding the Internet, was that the Internet might enable the development of massive government and corporate surveillance apparatuses. Alas, in the post-Snowden era, we know that this “could go wrong” has become a “did go wrong.”

In other words, there are real consequences involved in asking (or not asking) this question.

Pondering over “what could go wrong” has been a recurring feature in the thought of critics of technology for quite some time. And insofar as critique is linked to an attitude of doubt, then it makes sense that critics would be skeptical of the rosy claims of non-stop technological improvement and curious as to what was being left unsaid. In fairness, many of these thinkers were not particularly concerned about smart phones – many of them died before such things had appeared anywhere but in science fiction – though a noteworthy feature of the thought of many critics of technology is that they were simultaneously critics of media (perhaps this is why Joseph Weizenbaum quipped that he was not a technological critic but a social critic). Instead many of these figures were much more preoccupied with another thing that might explode: nuclear weapons. If you dig into the work of critics of technology from the post-WWII decades you will encounter no shortage of individuals desperately warning about the apocalyptic dangers posed by nuclear weapons – and nuclear technology more broadly. To these figures the risk of “what could go wrong” when it came to such technologies was a matter not just for academic quibbling but of extreme ethical obligation. For if something went wrong millions of deaths could be involved – and all that it would take was the pressing of a few buttons. Concern over this matter led the philosopher Hans Jonas to articulate what has come to be known as “the precautionary principle,” the essence of this is captured in his book The Imperative of Responsibility in the following terms:

“It is the rule, stated primitively, that the prophecy of doom is to be given greater heed than the prophecy of bliss.” (Jonas, 31)

Or, to put it another way, we should pay more attention to the “what could go wrong” than to the “what could go right.” And Jonas went so far as to argue that if the “wrong” substantially outweighs the “right” than a given technology should not be allowed.

Of course it is essential to remember in this circumstance that Jonas was not thinking about smart phones – when he evoked “the prophecy of doom” he was genuinely focused on types of technology that could spell out doom for the human species. And yet the whisper of the precautionary principle still undergirds the question being suggested here. Pessimism as an overarching worldview achieves little except making the exponent of such views feel miserable; however, occasionally looking at issues through a pessimistic lens can help to reveal some of the contours which we prefer not to see. Not all new technologies are going to result in potentially apocalyptic answers to the question of “what could go wrong,” and when it comes to most consumer technologies the “prophecy of bliss” will probably win out in the end because the “prophecy of doom” is out of place. But this doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth mulling over this question. Indeed, it only makes it more important.

Technologies “go wrong” every day, in hundreds of ways, and often this is little more than an annoyance – a tradeoff we’re willing to make. Nevertheless, we should be aware of these moments of going wrong not as exceptions to the normal functioning of technologies, but as part of their regular functioning. The things that appear as “accidents” are also just part of the way in which the working of a given technology entails a certain likelihood of not working. When a new technology is created, so too is its failure – its accident, this is a point which has been wonderfully explored by the philosopher Paul Virilio, who writes:

“So we need to try and unearth ‘the original accident’ specific to this kind of technological innovation. Unless we are deliberately forgetting the invention of the shipwreck in the invention of the ship or the rail accident in the advent of the train, we need to examine the hidden face of new technologies, before that face reveals itself in spite of us.” (Virilio, 40 – italics in original text)

To this list, thanks to the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, we can add “the invention of the exploding smart phone in the invention of the smart phone.” Virilio warns that we need to prepare ourselves lest we be caught unprepared by the appearance of the “hidden face” of the “accident.”

And one excellent way to “examine the hidden face of new technologies” is to ask: what could go wrong?

Works Cited

Jonas, Hans. The Imperative of Responsibility. University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. Vintage Books: 2000.

Virilio, Paul. Open Sky. Verso: 2008.

Related Content

Riddled With Questions – Interrogating New Technology

Neil Postman’s 6 Questions (+1 from me)

New Technology Does Not Stay New For Long (another question)

A Mechanical Moses

What Technology Do We Really Need?


About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul @libshipwreck

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