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The Unintended Consequences of Innovation

Over the past several weeks, three headlines pertaining to education have dominated my social media news feeds: screen time, fake news/media literacy, and the ethical dilemmas associated with advances in technology. When considered together, these three topics represent the unintended consequences of innovation.

The inventors of television, computers, mobile devices, and social media did not intend to unleash a slew of negative consequences for children. They did not consider the potential for shortened attention spans, lack of connection to nature, or a rising obesity rate; nor did they conceive of their tools as weapons for deploying fake news, unleashing bullying, or fueling hate groups. The Mark Zuckerberg/Biz Stone/Sergey Brin/Steve Jobs/Bill Gates of the world intended to build community, increase access to a global library of information, and provide every individual with a voice.

In his 2004 book, Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers warns of the consequences of innovation and argues that they may be desirable or undesirable, direct or indirect, anticipated or unanticipated. As an example, he describes the plight of the Lapp reindeer herders of northern Finland. After centuries of living in harmony with nature, a single technological innovation dismantled a self-sustaining culture by introducing a dependence on the external resources of snowmobiles and gas. Over the course of a decade, the centuries-old culture of the Lapp Skolt people became severely disrupted. Tragically, no one in the community ever raised concerns about the drawbacks of this new technology or the cost of this innovation.

A lesson can be learned from the Lapp reindeer herders. Not that we should put the brakes on technology, but that we should help our students recognize and question the consequences of new innovations. Rogers explained that historically innovation has diffused along a normal curve or an s-curve with adoption growing incrementally over time. The graph below illustrates how innovations diffuse throughout an environment or market until even those lagging behind have allowed the new idea to reach complete saturation.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

However, according to the World Economic Forum, we have entered the Fourth Industrial Revolution - an era marked by exponentially faster rates of change than we have ever experienced before. With the potential for the adoption curve to become significantly steeper, how do we prepare our students to recognize and prevent the unintended consequences of new technological advancements?

Rogers explains that innovators often bring their own cultural bias when pioneering a new innovation. Introducing a snowmobile without first understanding the symbiotic nature of the herders and reindeers could be attributed to a bias towards technology as well as a lack of empathy for the people. In The Triple Focus, Peter Senge describes the need for students to develop three types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy - understanding the perspectives of others
  • Emotional empathy - the ability to sense how others feel
  • Empathic concern - a drive to action for the benefit of others

Strategies such as design thinking, systems thinking, project based learning, and service learning encourage students to seek out authentic problems, consider views other than their own, and actively engage with their broader community. In using them, we provide our students with the opportunity to develop these three forms of empathy as well as critical cognitive and academic skills. With more and more devices entering into our classrooms, we need to make sure that we not only prepare our students with the literacy and fluency to use them but also the empathy and empathic concern to recognize both the benefits and imperfections of new innovations.

References:

Rogers, E. M. (2004). Diffusion of Innovations (3rd ed.). London: The Free Press.

Goleman, D. & Senge, P. (2014). The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education. Florence, MA: More Than Sound

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