The Famously Unknown Collingridge Dilemma

Mint, 11 April 2012

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, the first Indian-American woman to hold a governorship, has just become the latest victim of the power of Twitter. It took only a couple of hours for an unsubstantiated rumour—that she was facing indictment for tax evasion—that appeared on a little-known blog, to enter tweetspace, and get retweeted to thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people by credible sources like Washington Post, CBS News and Huffington Post journalists. For some hours, it became the truth and Haley was forced to issue statements and documents to prove that it was not so.

David Collingridge would have been amused.

But hardly anyone outside the slightly rarefied and academic world of “technology assessment” has heard of the Collingridge Dilemma, which this British academic posited in 1980. Even though this simple and elegant formulation lies at the heart of all reflection on technology and its impact on life and society.

In fact, in its field, the Collingridge Dilemma occupies the same place as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle does in quantum physics, except that most of us are aware of the Uncertainty Principle, even if we don’t have the slightest clue of what it means or implies.

David Collingridge was a professor at the University of Aston in the UK, who, in his 1980 book, The Social Control of Technology, articulated his Dilemma. That, when a technology is new (and therefore its spread can be controlled), it is extremely hard to predict its negative consequences, and by the time one can figure those out, it’s too costly in every way to do much about it.

Consider the automobile (as Collingridge did). While Henry Ford was perfecting his Model T, there was no way anyone could foresee the tremendous impact cars would have on the world, including problems like pollution and social dynamics. Today we know the negative consequences, but it’s enormously expensive and difficult to bring about change. One needs only to look at the economic and political knots we have tied ourselves into just on the automobile emission issue. Who could have imagined this a hundred years ago?

Nuclear power, genetic engineering, antibiotics, plastics, automated facial recognition, the list of such technologies is endless. The Nikki Haley-Twitter affair is just the latest—though minor—example.

To avoid the undesirable effects of a technology, “it must be known that a technology has, or will have, harmful effects, and it must be possible to change the technology in some way to avoid the effects,” wrote Collingridge. And reached the conclusion that this can’t happen.

In the 32 years since he posited the quandary, the speed of technology development has increased manifold. Collingridge’s Dilemma becomes both more obviously true and trickier by the day. But what I find quite fascinating is that Collingridge, whose work I discovered entirely by chance, is so little-known.

In a way, the internet—that great and crucial civilisational aid—personifies what Collingridge warned about, since, by its very nature, it’s perfect for errors and misrepresentations to be passed on and Chinese-whispered through the world until they become unquestioned truths that range from benign bunkum to dangerous disinformation.

But the Wikipedia entry on the Collingridge Dilemma has been officially termed an “orphan”, which is defined as “a page with few or no links from other pages. And “David Collingridge” doesn’t even have a Wiki page!

Strange, how the man who saw it all, remains unseen on the world wide web. Will someone tweet about him, please?

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