- Azeem Azhar, Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving us Behind and What to Do About It, Cornerstone, 2021
The central message of Azeem Azhar’s new book, ‘Exponential’, is that technology is a force that humanity can direct, rather than a force which will enslave us. This may seem optimistic, given the alarmingly fast rate of change which new technologies are bringing about in the world, but as well as explaining in clear terms why these changes are happening so fast and why this is a problem, the book also sets out a manifesto for how we can match technology to meet human needs and begin to address some of the social impacts of rapid change.
‘Exponential’ identifies four key technology domains which form the bedrock of the global economy and where capabilities are accelerating at ever-increasing rates while, at the same time costs are plummeting. The four technologies are computer science, where improvements are driven by faster processors and access to vast data sets; energy, where renewables are causing the price of generating power to drop rapidly; the life sciences, where gene sequencing and synthetic biology are allowing us to develop novel biological components and systems, and manufacturing, where 3D printing is enabling the rapid, localized production of anything from a concrete building to plant-based steaks. These are all ‘general purpose technologies’: just like electricity, the printing press, and the car, they have broad utility and the potential to change just about everything.
However, while these technologies are taking off at an exponential rate, society has been unable to keep up. Businesses, laws, markets, working patterns, and other human institutions have at the same time been able to evolve only incrementally and are struggling to adapt. Azhar calls this the ‘exponential gap’ – the rift between the potential of the technologies and the different types of management that they demand. Understanding the exponential gap can help explain why we are now facing technology-induced problems like market domination by ‘winner takes all’ businesses such as Amazon, the gig economy, and the spread of misinformation on social media.
The book detail the impacts of the exponential growth in technology on business and employment as well as on geopolitical issues such as trade, conflict, and the global balance of power. It shows how the ‘exponential gap’ is shaping relations between citizens and society through the power of tech giants which increasingly provide platforms for our conversations and relationships while collecting and commodifying data about us in order to manipulate our choices.
At an early stage in the book Azhar demolishes the notion, proclaimed by tech entrepreneurs such as Eric Schmidt and Peter Diamandis, that technology is neutral and value-free, and that it is consumers who decide whether it is used for good or evil. Azhar rightly dismisses this argument as a cop out for technologists who refuse to take responsibility for their work and explains how technologies develop according to the preferences of their designers, reflecting power relations, politics and biases and thus causing inequalities as a result of their use. He is also worried about the gap in knowledge and perception between technology developers and broader society: developers failing to grasp wider issues from the world of humanities and social sciences, and non-technologists being left behind in their understanding of new innovations. ‘Exponential’ is an attempt to bridge the gap between these two worlds.
The book’s ingredients include an interesting mix of history, technical background, and social science insights and draw from a range of disciplines. This allows Azhar to set out the issues clearly and tell a thought-provoking story which goes some way to explaining the fast pace of change in modern life, and why many people find this bewildering and disorienting. It also demonstrates why companies such as Apple, Amazon, and Google have grown so rapidly to acquire such immense power and wealth – and why they are apparently unable to deal with the social problems arising from their influence.
Azeem Azhar is a tech sector entrepreneur and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Futures Council for the Digital Economy and Society, as well as a trustee of the Ada Lovelace Institute, an independent research foundation working on AI and data ethics. He is also a former correspondent at the Guardian and the Economist, and produces the widely read Exponential View blog on the impacts of technology. It’s no surprise, then, that the book is well written and readable and guides us smoothly across some potentially complex subject matter.
Books on new technologies can often take a dystopian viewpoint and make for depressing reading. Refreshingly, Azhar has avoided this trap by outlining potential solutions to some of the challenges posed by exponential technological change. To cope with the rapidly changing world he advocates a series of measures to hand back control over how technology is used to us, the public, from the unaccountable corporations which ‘own the code’ and are currently making the decisions.
Firstly, Azhar calls for an increase of transparency in how online platforms work and what their algorithms promote. Transparency, allowing the inspection of computer platforms, should help open the way towards improved regulation of the sector. Secondly, Azhar proposes taking power away from the tech giants and giving it back to users by enforcing the principle of interoperability: making different platforms compatible with each other and allowing users to move profiles between platforms and ‘shop around’, rather than becoming dependent on a platform to which they find themselves ‘locked in’ to.
The third area in which reform is needed is citizen control over our data rights. Drawing on ideas from digital rights activist Martin Tisné, ‘Exponential’ suggests that people should be protected from unreasonable surveillance, should not have their behaviour manipulated using data, and should not be unfairly discriminated against as inviolable data rights. The book proposes a ‘Digital Bill of Rights’ and floats the possibility of a World Data Organisation to enforce standards on privacy and AI worldwide.
Finally, Azhar emphasises the need for a new ‘data commons’, where data can be held in trust for common benefit, rather than private gain, and software is created for open source use. Such principles, he argues, are necessary to limit the power of Silicon Valley tech companies and allow people to use technology as citizens, rather than just consumers.
Will we be able to achieve the goal of harnessing technological change to meet human needs? As Azhar points out, we have succeeded before, when humans adapted through the turmoil of the industrial revolution and learnt to cope and then thrive. The vision of democratic institutions which are resilient to the rapid pace of technological participation and citizen participation in decisions on how technology is used is an attractive one, though Azhar does not go into detail on how it might be achieved. One thing is for sure: if this is the kind of world we wish for in the future, we will have to fight hard for it, as the technology giants and the world’s governments will not willingly surrender such power to us.
- ‘Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving Us Behind and What to Do About It’ is available at Bookshop UK