The Collingridge Dilemma: A Controversy Involving New Technologies
The Collingridge dilemma is more relevant today than ever. However, it was first proposed as early as 1980 by David Collingridge. He was an academic at the University of Aston, in the United Kingdom. He published a book called The Social Control of Technology in which he presented this interesting theory.
To understand the Collingridge dilemma, you must take into account the fact that each technological change brings progress. However, in many cases, it also causes problems of another variety. For example, audiovisual media brought new possibilities for learning and entertainment. On the other hand, it reduced interest in reading.
The same goes for practically all innovations. They bring some positive benefits, but they’re also potentially capable of causing problems. Nevertheless, technology is irreversible. Therefore, once an invention has been introduced, it’s difficult to reverse the decision, even if its consequences turn out to be dire. This is precisely what the Collingridge dilemma addresses.
“ When change is easy, the need for it cannot be foreseen; when the need for change is apparent, change has become expensive, difficult, and time-consuming . “
Innovation and its consequences
Many people start from the idea that any innovation must be adopted immediately if it fulfills the task of making something simpler, faster, cheaper, more efficient or of higher quality. It seems they don’t feel there’s anything further to discuss. For this reason, new technologies have a tendency to be adopted somewhat indiscriminately.
The Collingridge dilemma is a call to think more carefully, especially in an age like ours, when innovation is both continuous and significant. For example, just think of how a simple gadget like the TV remote control has contributed to the sedentary lifestyle and its associated consequences.
No one would deny the usefulness of a cell phone, but neither could they reject the potential of these devices to become addictive and the negative consequences that can result from their misuse. Furthermore, the virtual world is making human relationships more precarious and reducing the number of face-to-face experiences we have, even though, at the same time, it’s solved certain problems involving distance, movement, and speed.
We still aren’t sure of the long-term consequences of the use of computers and cell phones. In fact, it’s too early to know. However, the true dangers of innovations tend to be concentrated in other areas, such as biotechnology and neurosciences, among others.
For example, we could ask what the consequences have been of human cloning and what the future holds in this area. Or, we could pose the question of whether artificial intelligence will ever surpass human intelligence. If so, what would be its implications? Indeed, are we moving towards a world in which robots will become our ‘partners’? If so, will we be able to design our friends and lovers at will?
The issue of privacy also generates controversy. That’s because it’s becoming ever more evident that we live in a world in which privacy is becoming increasingly scarce. The Collingridge dilemma draws attention to this and warns of the fact that, once a technology has been implemented, it’s extremely difficult to reverse this decision.
The two paths to innovation
The Collingridge dilemma proposes that there are two paths to innovation. One of them is to analyze each innovation, trying to anticipate its possible negative consequences. In this way, great evils can be avoided. The other alternative is to let the invention run its course and then work around its consequences as and when they arise.
Faced with this dilemma, most scientists have spoken out using what’s known as the ‘precautionary principle’. This indicates that if the potential consequences of an invention could be catastrophic, its advance must be restricted or even stopped until scientific evidence confirms that no danger exists.
However, the big question is whether all scientists will adhere to that principle. It’s impossible to know the answer to this. As a matter of fact, there’s currently the possibility that scientists will soon be developing the technology to control people’s minds from a distance or of building a superior race in a laboratory. Will those who are responsible for these advances stop? It seems doubtful.
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- Úriz Pemán, M. J., & Idareta Goldaracena, F. (2018). La ética en las intervenciones sociales: algunos modelos de resolución de dilemas éticos. Aldaba, (42), 39–50. https://doi.org/10.5944/aldaba.42.2017.20807