The Pro-Actionary Principle

Kevin Kelly has written about the ‘Pro-Actionary Principle’, the idea that, simply, new technologies should be used to find out if they cause harm. This contradicts the more common ‘Precautionary Principle’ that suggests “a technology must be shown to do no harm before it is embraced”.

He has five “Pro-Actions” that expand on this but the most interesting part of the post for me is when he talks about the unintended consequences of new technologies, a topic I always find fascinating because it makes attempts to forecast future effects so difficult.

Second order effects often require a certain density, a semi-ubiquity, to reveal themselves. The main concern of the first automobiles was for the occupants — that the gas engines didn’t blow up, or that the brakes don’t fail. But the real threat of autos was to society en masse — the accumulated exposure to their minute pollutants and ability to kill others at high speeds, not to mention the disruptions of suburbs, and long commutes — all second order effects.

Second order effects — the ones that usually overtake society — are rarely captured by forecasts, lab experiments, or white papers. Science fiction guru Arthur C. Clarke made the observation that in the age of horses many ordinary people eagerly imagined a horseless carriage. The automobile was an obvious anticipation since it was an extension of the first order dynamics of a carriage — a vehicle that goes forward by itself. An automobile would do everything a horse-pulled carriage did but without the horse. But Clarke went on to notice how difficult it was to imagine the second-order consequences of a horseless carriage, such as drive-in movies theaters, paralyzing traffic jams and road rage.

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