Armageddon or Golden Age?

Technological progress has many benefits. It does amazing things for us on an individual level and humanity as a whole. But there often is a flip side. Simply calling it unintended consequences doesn’t cut it (anymore).

Alon Shklarek by

It’s no news that – at least for media companies – bad news are good news. Crisis sells. Armageddon, so we are told, is looming. Robots will take our jobs, bio-engineered organisms will irreversibly alter our eco-systems and Artificial Intelligence will become a dominating race ruling over us earthlings. And yet, some would say the world is a better place than it has ever been before. Set your alarm for one hour’s time. And when you hear it bleep, stop and think about the hour that has just passed. You may have read that post, had a cup of coffee, written a few emails, called a colleague. Meanwhile, across the planet, 5,000 people will have been lifted out of poverty. So, is this the best time ever to be alive? Or is humanity doomed?


We live in a Golden Age

In his book ‘Progress – ten reasons to look forward to the future’ the Swedish author and historian Johan Norberg claims that we are living in a Golden Age. Right here. Right now. Never in the history of mankind has such a small proportion of the world’s population been illiterate. Never before have so many of us received a secondary education. Never before has the rate of child mortality fallen so low. Never before have so many of us lived in a democracy. The list goes on and on. This is not just a temporary blip, but a consistent story of progress. Over the past 25 years we have witnessed the greatest wins in the history of mankind. Against hunger, poverty, epidemics, pollution. You name the challenge and check the facts and you will realize that things are actually getting much better, not worse.


Could we?

Things are getting better because of impact happening at the intersection of entrepreneurship, innovation and leadership. The passion and purpose, the curiosity and creativity of visionary leaders are at the core of this progress. A great and inspiring example of impact entrepreneurship is covered in this week’s impresso. The team of me-solshare brings electricity to the most remote areas of Bangladesh through solar powered peer-to-peer microgrids. Their mission says it all: “Create a network. Share electricity. Brighten the future.” At a time where the pace of technological progress is accelerating and the convergence of exponential technologies offers more and more opportunities, we naturally ask: ‘could we?’. Could we make blind people see again through 3D printed artificial retinas? Could we eradicate malaria by genetically modifying mosquitoes? Could we connect all schools around the world with the internet through swarms of micro-satellites?


Should we?

But we need to ask ourselves another equally important question: ‘Should we?’. Only because something is technically possible, doesn’t necessarily mean we have to do it. Many of our technological advances have unintended consequences. We are connecting more and more people, yet loneliness is becoming a public health crisis and suicide rates soar. We may bioengineer away one disease but at the same time sow the seeds for a new one. We may dramatically reduce economic cost resulting from traffic accidents through autonomous vehicles but we have no plans yet for the millions of jobs that will be lost.


Asking “should we?” is helping to eliminate the word ‘unintended’ in the explanation we often give around consequences of innovation and technological progress. Because then we would have to say: “these are the wilfully ignored consequences”. And clearly no one wants to say that. Let us not be dazzled by technology into making the screens of our children brighter than their futures! It is not about being a pessimist. Pessimism is toxic. But it is also not about being a blind optimist. That kind of optimism can be all too seductive. Asking “should we?” has to be a logical, rigorous and collective effort. We all are responsible to develop a much deeper understanding of technology and its consequences. We are all responsible to actively engage in this conversation. Leaders and followers. Entrepreneurs and policy makers. Founders and funders.

In the coming months I will take a deeper look into some of the most fascinating technologies and their implications. Good and bad ones. I look very much forward to hearing your thoughts and engage in a fruitful conversation about impact created at the intersection of entrepreneurship, leadership and innovation.