By DAVID SHAYWITZ, MD (1)
Technology has been hailed for its ability to connect us; we’ve tended to view this is a positive development, but as rare, high-impact events like the coronavirus epidemic reminds us, a densely-networked world may also be more fragile.
The mixed blessing of interconnectivity was acknowledged back in 2005 by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who observed:
“…we are now in the process of connecting all the knowledge pools in the world together. We’ve tasted some of the downsides of that in the way that Osama bin Laden has connected terrorist knowledge pools together through his Qaeda network, not to mention the work of teenage hackers spinning off more and more lethal computer viruses that affect us all. But the upside is that by connecting all these knowledge pools we are on the cusp of an incredible new era of innovation, an era that will be driven from left field and right field, from West and East and from North and South.”
For techno-optimists like Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age, improved interconnectivity catalyzes what they call “recombinant innovation.” This is the idea that “the global digital network” enables us to “mix and remix ideas, both old and recent, in ways we never could before.”
They continue: “Digitization makes available massive bodies of data relevant to almost any situation, and this information can be infinitely reproduced and reused because it is non-rival. As a result of these two forces, the number of potentially valuable building blocks is exploding around the world, and the possibilities are multiplying as never before.”