Earlier this year, I read a fascinating book called Fatal Discord. It's a dual biography of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther, two men who were central actors during a time of great upheaval in Europe. Religious tensions, which had been building over time, gave way to violence. Societies changed abruptly; peoples' ways of being in the world were upended. The Catholic Church — which up to then had set the structure for most Europeans' lives — lost its authority in large parts of the continent. It was a time of great disruption, and it didn't come without suffering.
This change was in no small part due to the introduction of a new technology: the printing press. The ability to quickly and cheaply produce books and pamphlets made it easier for ideas to spread. People started reading and writing more — and not just about religion. Scientific and political revolutions also followed. The introduction of this technology in the 15th Century influenced the shape of the world we've inherited.
From our distance in time, we can look back at the changes wrought by the printing press and declare they were a good thing — or not. But the people who were living through the turbulence unleashed by the technology couldn't be dispassionate about it. It was their families, livelihoods, and societies that were being re-configured — often against their will. These folks probably had strong opinions about the technological innovations that were upending their world (if they were aware of them at all.)
Now we, too, are living through a time of great technological transformation. As a result, we're now questioning long-standing institutions and ideas: the structure of our economies, the balance between privacy and security, the responsibilities of the individual and the collective, and more. For many among us, these changes will be painful. Will we reject the technologies that are precipitating these changes? Or can we be dispassionate enough to leverage the power of new technologies towards humane ends?