The Collingridge Dilemma
It seemed like a good idea at the time
This dilemma was articulated by David Collingridge in 1980 in his book "The Social Control of Technology".
The dilemma is that when we can easily control the social effects of technology we don't know enough about those effects to place appropriate controls.
By the time we do know the effects, the technology is too embedded in society to be easily changed, let alone controlled.
For instance, think about how easily cars in North America enabled urban sprawl and massive air pollution.
If early in the process people had understood those effects they might have chosen a different course but by the time the effects are obvious it's impossible to change.
We see this in China and India where instead of learning from our experience with cars, they are repeating it. There is always a trade-off between advancement and prudence. Advancement can be dangerous but we have to be able to change because not advancing in a changing world is dangerous, too.
The Precautionary Principle speaks to this dilemma since we don't know for sure the effects of new tech, and since those effects can be pretty bad, we have a moral responsibility to not move until we are very sure of what's happening. But the Dilemma also speaks to the Precautionary Principle; if we wait for anything like full knowledge of consequences before acting we will never learn what acting would have taught us.
Currently the controversy about genetically modified organisms is one that faces the horns of the Collingridge Dilemma. By the time the dangers of them are known it will be too late because then they will be loose in the environment.
GMO's are present in another example of the Collingridge Dilemma our intellectual properties laws. When they were established we could have created any number of property law regimes but once they were established and the pernicious effects became known they are almost impossible to change.
A creeping thing coming upon us now are these global webs of free trade agreements. They are being created largely in secret because if their implications were widely understood they'd be blocked.
But now that they are largely in place they will be very hard to resist partially because corporations can sue governments in secret tribunals if they feel their profits (or even opportunities for profits) have been infringed. And the secret part means that we won't even know we are being sued, what the issues are, and what the penalties we have to pay are.
Talk about a genie that's tough to stuff back in a bottle.
An upcoming thing is Ray Kurzwiel's Singularity the moment when our machines are collectively smarter and more productive than we are. So let's consider the Singularity according to the Dilemma we should be able to control the Singularity as it emerges. But really can that be done?
I've watched the emerging Singularity for years and we're kind of fascinated by it in a deer in the headlights sort of way. Could we control intellectual property laws as they emerged?
I've watched intellectual property laws emerge from protections for the authors of books to their current monstrous state. All along people were yelling about the dangers. So it wasn't that there was a lack of information for IP laws there was more a particular mindset among our rulers that set us on that course.
With that in mind perhaps we should be careful about just which situations are actually instances of the Collingridge Dilemma. Perhaps the IP situation is not the result of the Dilemma because the problem at the start was not a lack of information the people doing knew what they were doing and got the consequences they wanted.
Perhaps a better example of the Collingridge Dilemma is the introduction of entertainment values into news.
At first it seemed like such a good idea.
Nobody anticipated Fox News and now Fox is pretty hard to resist.
The Dilemma causes us to appreciate a certain trade-off we have to wait long enough to control something to actually know what's going on but we have to act before we can't.
Here in Canada we're having a national debate around physician assisted suicide. Now, people need to decide to die when they are actually capable of doing the deed. If you wait till you are incapacitated then you are stuck to the painful end no matter how long it takes. But that necessarily means making a very grave decision based on incomplete information.
What do you think?