Image: Feferefe via Pixabay
Physical & social technologies

The 21st century has thus far been characterized by a growing gap between physical and social technologies. Our physical technologies — automation, data collection, AI, and biotechnology — are accelerating as our social technologies — governments, currencies, healthcare systems, and other social institutions — struggle to keep pace.

Physical technologies are tools for transforming matter, energy or information in pursuit of our goals while social technologies are tools for organizing people in pursuit of our goals. Under this definition, our social institutions, economy, and laws are technologies that, like physical technologies, can be studied and improved.

Several times throughout history, situations have emerged when our physical technology has outpaced our social technology. The industrial revolution is one recent example of such change, when new technologies harnessed new energy sources, created mass production capabilities as well as developed new means of communication, shifting the dynamics of labor and capital inputs and creating population upheaval, economic inequality, and social unrest. In response, new policies, laws, and systems of administration were created to help manage the impact of these new technologies, and living standards and customs changed.

Transition indicators

We have identified several indicators that suggest our world is once again entering a significant transition period, primarily as a result of advances in our physical technologies. The list of indicators is long and includes climate change, democracy, global inclusiveness, economic inequality, job loss due to automation, loss of online privacy, internet-platform monopolies, echo chambers, and weaponized narratives, as well as inadequate educational preparation for the future.

How societies approach this transition in the next two decades will be critical in determining whether the 21st century will be "our greatest century or our worst," in the words of computer scientist James Martin.

The workshops

By bringing together engineers, scientists, writers, historians, lawyers, futurists, economists, philosophers, founders, philanthropists, and policymakers, we are creating a roadmap of various scenarios and options the human species should consider to expand and implement physical technologies in responsible ways while also updating accompanying social technologies to new physical realities. We view human society as a complex system of interwoven social and physical technologies, affecting both the macro and micro levels — from the individual to the global system. A change in one element can have significant consequences on another and on the system as a whole.

The Santa Fe Institute, having pioneered the use of tools for studying the interconnectedness and emergent properties within complex adaptive systems, is an ideal setting to conduct our work. Our workshops and working groups at SFI have sparked complicated and at times uncomfortable conversations about how humans can — and whether or not they should — engineer new technologies to ameliorate the problems that arise from the rapidly growing gap.

Two different and comprehensive discussions of the issues from the 2017 and 2018 SFI Workshops can be found in the "Conclusions from the 2017 SFI working group" and in the 2020 Aeon essay “Technological and human identity change.” 


'The Growing Gap' by acclaimed filmmaker Pernille Rose Grønkjær on Vimeo.

For opinions and ideas related to this project, read: