Disruptive Technologies: A History of Unintended Consequences

September 2009
Topics: Technological Innovations
Disruptive technologies are ones that fundamentally affect future advancements.

Disruptive Emerging Technologies

Open up the pages of an emerging technologies publication—such as this one—and you will read about such marvels as the chemical alteration of gene expression, the modification of the brain function by externally applied electromagnetic fields, and the use of quantum phenomena to slow down and even stop light. Historically, experts are good at identifying critical technologies, yet poor at fully anticipating their direct applications and indirect implications to society at large. Fifty years ago the laser was the technology wonder. It was widely believed that it would have important applications, but even experts did not foresee its present use in everything from tracking the speed of cars to reshaping the surface of the eye to reading the data from a DVD. Today we can similarly identify technologies that will no doubt shape our future, but we struggle with how these technologies will be used. If we could foresee wider implications of new technologies, we would have a window into the future.


Looking at how past disruptive technologies have shaped our present can help us understand how present emerging technologies might disrupt our future. The printing press serves to illustrate some of the important characteristics of a disruptive technology:

  • One source of disruption is cascading effects that build on one another. With printed materials came a greater consciousness of the existence of independent, objective facts. This, in turn, contributed to the Scientific Revolution. Printed materials also increased communications, which led to the spread of ideas. This enabled the Protestant Reformation.
  • Technologies exist within a web of linkages to other technologies. For the printing press, this technology ecosystem consisted of other needed technology developments in metals, inks, paper production, and vision correction. The printing press stimulated further development in some of these same areas, together with many others. Only by understanding these complex networks can the development and implications of the printing press be fully understood.
  • Sometimes a technology has a fundamental influence that has social or cultural ramifications. In the case of the printing press, it changed how information can be stored, transmitted, and replicated. This had implications for everything from the treatment of evidence in courts of law to people letting their memorization skills languish.
  • Effects often come in pairs. Attention to only one side can leave open the possibility of surprise. The printing press empowered individual authors, but at the same time it enabled states to censor books and establish contracts. Both contributed to the rise of the modern centralized state.

Future Disruption

With the emergence of every new technology comes the chance for disruption. Today we stand at the brink of a number of revolutionary advances—in genetics, drugs, neural prosthetics, and virtual reality—that may well alter what it means to be human.

As with the printing press, these technologies may have cascading effects. While these technologies will provide enhanced capabilities, the notion of equality may change, affecting the basis of ethics and law—concepts that serve as the cornerstone of a functioning society. As with the printing press, the implications of these developments will only be understood through a network of other enabling technologies such as genetic engineering, bionics, and computer-brain interfaces. As with the printing press, something fundamental in society and culture may be changed—the definition of humanity. As with the printing press, the effects will come in pairs. On the one hand, we will gain improved health, life expectancy, and enhanced abilities. On the other hand, we may lose individual freedom and personal dignity.

Here at MITRE we not only look at emerging technologies independently, but also at how these technologies interact as a system to set the stage for future innovations. Envisioning these interconnections will not only give us the power to peer into the future, but also the power to shape it.

——by Martin Hyatt


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