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(Mis)Judging Technologies and Their Use Featured Signal of Change: SoC1209 February 2021

Author: Martin Schwirn (Send us feedback.)

Many economists and businesspeople see technologies as the main drivers of societal advances and commercial progress. In truth, technologies are mere enablers; however, they cannot function as enablers unless markets make use of them. Technologies are building blocks for future solutions; employing technologies is what makes them useful, problematic, or downright dangerous. Although predicting the emergence of technologies is difficult, predicting the use and benefits of such technologies is impossible. Numerous parties—developers and corporate leaders, suppliers and customers, policy makers and end users—play a role in shaping the adoption, uses, and, ultimately, success of technologies. Decision makers must develop scenarios about how the future could play out and prepare their minds for the possibilities that can emerge during coming years and decades. But understanding emerging technologies and seeing how they fit into future environments are challenges fraught with fallacies and biases.

Science-fiction narratives can support decision makers in judging technologies' potential impacts.

Recently, University of California, Davis (UC Davis; Davis, California), UC Davis Graduate School of Management professor of management Dr. Kimberly D. Elsbach and Imperial College London (London, England) Imperial College Business School associate professor of design and innovation Dr. Ileana Stigliani reviewed hundreds of technology-adoption studies and identified three personal beliefs about new technology and the resulting biases that can affect decision makers' assessment of technology in subjective ways. First, some decision makers find new technologies alluring simply because they are new technologies. These decision makers tend to favor even unproven new technologies because they see new technologies as wondrous solutions. Second, some decision makers find the complexity of new technology overwhelming and forgo due diligence to rely completely on technology recommendations from experts. These decision makers neglect to take nonexperts' concerns into account and therefore ignore evaluations from a variety of perspectives. Third, some decision makers tend to perceive new technologies as alien and inaccessible and therefore overvalue technologies in which they see features they find humanlike. Because these decision makers focus on the technologies that they feel most familiar with, they are likely to neglect objectively better technologies. Making decisions about technology use and applications is becoming an increasingly common task for decision makers, and the biases that this research outlines can lead to major mistakes at the strategic level. Just being aware of these biases should aid decision makers in assessing technologies correctly.

Economist and journalist Tim Harford points to another situation in which bias can prevent the objective consideration of new technologies. Here, new, emerging, or nascent technologies can be welcome excuses to move decision-making in a particular direction. He highlights comments by journalist Roger Ford, who during a UK parliamentary committee in 2008 referred to the effects of "bionic duckweed." Bionic duckweed, Harford explains, is "a metaphor for a glorious future technology, which might sound good—but isn't because it keeps us from acting" ("Why tech isn't always the answer—the perils of bionic duckweed," Financial Times, 29 October 2020; online). According to Harford, multiple types of bionic duckweed exist. For example, evil duckweed refers to policy makers' arguing against and even preventing the introduction of doable improvement schemes by pointing out that better actions will eventually emerge—that some future technology will enable superior alternatives to the current actionable proposal. Duckweed ex machina, meanwhile, refers to the use of a future technology as a solution to the problems with a new scheme that opponents of the scheme have during its introduction; fixing these problems with a future technological solution that may not even emerge justifies a flawed policy. And Schrodinger's duckweed refers to a technology solution whose potential arrival is impossible to evaluate or project—perhaps developers will present such a solution within coming months, or perhaps they will require many years to deliver such a solution. Considering such a potential technology solution creates uncertainty, and the result of such uncertainty is a form of analysis paralysis that often leads to procrastination among decision makers.

How can decision makers look beyond biases and attempt to gain a glimpse of what technology landscapes might one day look like? University of Oslo (Oslo, Norway) associate professor Dr. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay suggests that science-fiction narratives can support decision makers in judging technologies' potential impacts by helping to prime their minds for what the future might bring. Science-fiction narratives, which do not require the same scientific foundations that forecasting and futurology do, are about creativity and speculation and can therefore help decision makers develop scenarios about what the global economy might eventually look like—a use of science-fiction narratives that other researchers have actually looked into. Associate professor Song Zhaoli and PhD candidate Alex Fergnani at the National University of Singapore (Singapore, Singapore) used the scenarios from 140 science-fiction movies to create a framework that can help businesses prepare for a range of crisis scenarios. Using these movies, Dr. Song and Fergnani developed a set of archetypal narratives that can find use in scenario-planning exercises to develop strategies that address possibilities. Dr. Song and Fergnani believe that these narratives enable decision makers to identify relevant drivers and emerging issues that could have drastic impacts on commercial environments.

Another unconventional approach for developing an understanding of what the future might look like is to consider toys that represent future objects and technologies. For example, wristwatch radios from the mid-twentieth century foreshadowed mobile communications technologies. In December 2020, United Nations (New York, New York) agency UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; Paris, France) included a Museum of Future History as part of its High-Level Futures Literacy Summit. Artist and experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats curated the exhibition, which includes many toys that represent ideas about future technologies and their uses. In fact, Keats argues that such toys and the associated visions and concepts are "colonizing the future" ("What toys from the past can tell us about how we predict the future," Fast Company, 14 December 2020; online). He believes that such colonization limits future possibilities by providing what are essentially blueprints of expectations. Nevertheless, such blueprints are still meaningful for decision makers who are considering the future, because they provide an educated guess about what technologies and products may emerge one day.