There have been a few articles lately suggesting that perhaps technology is running out of meaningful things to do, that we already have all the technology we need. This reminds me a bit of the articles in the 1950s that estimated that there was need for at most a dozen or so computers in the world.
What good is technology anyway? I’ve argued before that the purpose of science is to “discover things that are interesting and sometimes useful”. The purpose of technology is to put those discoveries to use. It is true that in recent years, with most of the world unable to afford even the necessities of life, a lot of new technology has been frivolous, providing the very rich and very powerful with cute trinkets and toys that advertise and secure their wealth and power. It is equally true that technology can enable atrocities that would be impossible without it. As John Gray says:
If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it. If it becomes possible to clone human beings, soldiers will be bred in whom normal human emotions are stunted or absent. Genetic engineering may enable centuries-old diseases to be eradicated. At the same time, it is likely to be the technology of choice in future genocides. Those who ignore the destructive potential of new technologies can only do so because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies, but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.
In an article last year, I solicited those in IT to please get out. But my argument was not anti-technology, it was rather that IT has become an organizational ghetto where some of the brightest people in the world are wasting their talent designing entertainments when what is really, urgently needed are Science-Based Enterprises addressing some of the world’s most challenging problems.
McLuhan was fond of saying that technologies are extensions of our bodies, our appendages and senses, allowing us to do things beyond our physical capabilities. So technologies don’t really do anything substantially different from what humans do, they allow us to do more of what we already do, sometimes a lot more than even a large number of humans working in parallel or in series could do. We can, I think, break these ‘capacities’ of technology down into five categories:
Examples of technologies with these five capacities respectively are: Machines, Agriculture and the Wheel; Language, Radio & Telephony; Paper and the Internet; A-V Storage Devices; and Electricity, Drugs & Birth Control Devices. Like our bodies, these technologies all require energy, most of which now comes from burning hydrocarbons.
Those who are dismissive of the need for additional technologies, and disdainful of the value of technology, are most likely focused on some of the more wasteful, non-labour-saving technologies of type 1, the technologies of type 3 that provide us only with non-actionable, useless, distracting information, and the pandering technologies of type 4. Most of the problems we currently face on this planet (such as overpopulation and overconsumption) are due in no small part to some type 1 and type 5 technologies (such as agriculture and drugs) that, at the time, were essential to our survival.
Our closest cousins the bonobos have developed only the first two types of technologies: They use simple tools to dig out food, and facial, hand and vocal language to communicate with each other. They have all the time, information and entertainment they need, so they have not bothered developing technologies for these purposes, and the only additional control over their lives they need is a way to fend off human poachers, farmers and loggers encroaching on their dwindling habitat. They are unlikely to develop such technologies before they become extinct.
In a recent article I referred to the Lakota doctor who described four essential human capacities:
We sometimes use technology to extend these capacities: We join ‘virtual’ groups that we could not join without technology. We ‘master’ video games (and some of us are perhaps too reliant on such technologies for our sense of self-esteem, though that is a topic for another article). We use the Internet to teach ourselves and to give to others.
What new technologies do we really need today? My answer would be primarily technologies that temper the unintended harmful effects of existing technologies, or help us devolve power and support essential social activities:
So the answer to this article’s question is that technology is potentially a great good for our society. All it would take to realize that good is for the bright underemployed minds to get out from under the suffocating organizations that waste their talents and drain their energies, and learn how to create their own businesses, substantial, networked, adequately-resourced, innovative entrepreneurial businesses that can give us not what the rich think they might want, but what we all really need.
Image: Experimental fusion energy machine from Lockheed Martin’s 100% government funded Sandia military research corporation. Your tax dollars at work.
December 20, 2005
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