Rants on business, science, technology, society, politics, police, and justice, plus life hacks and tricks, since 2003. header image 2

Science, Technology, and Society

February 16th, 2005 · No Comments

[Below is a paper that I wrote for my “Science, Technology, and Society” class. It embodies quite a bit about what I believe about the impact that technologies have had on our lives. A bibliography is provided in the extended text.]

As a society with such a strong emphasis on technological advancement, we are compelled to be responsible in our implementations of emerging technologies so that we can fully appreciate the impact that the changes we make will have on our lives.

Leisure time and product safety, as well as other indirect societal effects, are some of the issues raised by discussions about the impacts of technology. We have seen that technology can significantly impact these areas of our lives, but we are forced to decide when the costs incurred to these parts of our lives outweigh the benefits. Juliet Schor, in her article entitled “Technology, Work, and Leisure,” makes reference to the American sleep deficit – that is, that a majority of our citizens are sleeping up to 90 minutes less than is optimal for healthy living. With shift work, long working hours, and the “24 hour business culture,” the accelerating pace of life has led us to sacrifice our personal time in lieu of a commitment to work. We see ourselves as highly advanced, and American nationalism is certainly seen throughout the world – yet at the same time, in contrast to the statistics noted in Akash Kapur’s article regarding our ‘prosperity’ as defined by our gross domestic product per-capita, there is certainly strong evidence that our true prosperity is paradoxically not financial in nature.

A child in a ‘poor’ country by our standards surely faces hardships as well, but the hectic way of life we have espoused induces its own cause for stress. Referring to Schor’s note that “holiday leisure time in medieval England took up probably about one-third of the year,” it should also be noted that this was probably a product of seasonal requirements for varying amounts of labor (giving rise to celebrations such as Oktoberfest in Germany occurring after the harvesting ended). We have no such ‘rhythm’ to our lives. We instead operate on reflexes – even in this class, we reflexively lose points and thus hurt our grade by failing to complete assignments, yet our assignments are provided one after another. And, because students here hopefully seek the best employment possible after graduation, we all participate in the cycle. With our insatiable cultural desire for instant gratification, we have developed numerous institutions that ensure that we make the best available use of our precious time. Consider the effort expended in cooking a hamburger, from buying the meat at the supermarket, to cooking the meat, to serving the burger itself, to finally cleaning the silverware afterwards – if we decided culturally that this traditional approach to sustenance was appropriate, than we would have no need for McDonalds.

Certainly, our goals in the implementation of the deep-fryer or ‘assembly line’ cooking technologies were not to broadly detract from the health of our populace or to reinforce the trend of declining leisure time. In this way, these consequences are secondary consequences to the primary consequence of increased availability of foodstuffs. To this end, we must examine what secondary and tertiary consequences result from more complex technologies. Therefore, as a society it is our responsibility to ensure that we reject technologies have unintended undesirable costs associated with them.

No culture better understands this need for careful evaluation than the Amish. The Amish see a divide between innovation and acceptation of technology, and forcibly reject technologies whose uses detract from their way of life or otherwise are seen as a threat to their primarily agrarian culture. In terms of our responsibility to reject technologies that are detrimental, we too can analyze what is right and wrong about the technologies we adopt in order to protect ourselves from being put in a position where our systems intentionally or unintentionally possess a power over us, as discussed in Langdon Winner’s article.

Ironically, the Amish have experimented with the cultural assimilation of cellular telephones. “Does it bring us together, or draw us apart,” is the question asked by the Amish bishops before opting to approve the use of a technology. Yet, the Amish culture is not authoritarian in it’s rejection of culture. The article anecdotally describes how one particular man had used a cell phone for years because of his business. In this way, new technology is not outright rejected. Rheingold writes, “New things are not outright forbidden, nor is there a rush to judgment. Rather, technologies filter in when one of the more daring members of the community starts to use […] something new.” This cautious but not inhibiting approach to innovation seems especially appropriate in light of news that some of our emerging inventions may be harmful to us – such as nanotechnology.

However, though some Amish communities find the cellular telephone to be a boon rather than a burden, it is my opinion that because our culture embodies ‘essential’ electronic articles such as these, that we in fact have had the same effect caused to us culturally that the automobile had in the 1960s to the Amish – “decreasing the social cohesion.” We answer our cellular phones compulsively as we operate our automobiles because of the social pressures to do so. We surf the web when we should be focused in class simply because we have the capability to access the outside world in an instant. It is thus no surprise that the automobile was considered to be harmful to social order in these communities. Today, in particular, we are all but forced to sign up for AOL� Instant Messenger and “The Face Book,” because our friends seem to all choose to. Yet, why is it that we desire to network with our friends via a computer keyboard rather than in person?

Additionally, what about technologies whose impact is not something that can be qualitatively described by sociologists? What about technologies having quantitative impacts on our way of life, such as mechanized cattle ranching and nanotechnology? The Amish way of life effectively immunizes them from diseases such as CJD. Whereas we consciously choose to consume products that are not grown organically but rather mechanically, the Amish prefer to reject the technologies providing for enhanced cattle feeding at a higher immediate cost in terms of time investment. When Michael Gregor describes the plight of those who actually were diagnosed with CJD, we should at least ask ourselves – even if we are hungry, are we willing to be better fed at the risk of “a living nightmare of terrifying hallucinations”? While it should be noted that I in fact am not vegetarian, and that I do not agree with the author regarding the relative safety of our food supply, I do agree that “until the federal government stops the feeding of slaughterhouse waste, manure, and blood to all farm animals, the safety of meat in America cannot be guaranteed.”

Yet, in so many ways, our technologies have taken us so far. We have immunizations that have indisputably saved an innumerable amount of people, we have technologies to deliver drugs and treat cancers, and we even can travel into space. We are able to exchange information at light speed across continents, providing the potential for infinite inter-exchange between different cultures. Ignoring the shortcomings of nanotechnology (for the sake of argument), consider the potential benefits as listed by the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology: pure drinking water, cheap greenhouses, cheap solar energy, increased computing power, improved medicinal technology. Certainly we cannot ignore the fact that some technologies do indeed bring us to a state at which we are better than before.

The ability to recognize the problem, however, is not as important as the ability to recognize the source of the problem. When technologies hurt us, it is often indirect. For the moment, let us consider instead a particular use of technology that directly led to injury. As with all things corporate, every business decision is weighed (at some level) by its costs and benefits. When a decision is more costly than it is beneficial, pressures from stock holders and stakeholders force corporate executives to directly address the problem and re-tool their company to make things profitable once again. Reflect on the Ford Pinto incident – according to Mark Dowie, “Ford successfully lobbied, with extraordinary vigor and some blatant lies, against a key government safety standard that would have forced the company to change the Pinto’s fire-prone gas tank.” But why filibuster government legislation with a patently good-natured intent? “Ford waited eight years because it’s internal ‘cost-benefit analysis,’ which places a dollar value on human life, said it wasn’t profitable to make the changes sooner.” Certainly, economics played a considerable role here. The blame does not fall on an individual in this case, but rather is distributed because pressures from stock holders demand profit, while pressures from engineers and the public at large demand safety. As with everything in life, it is the point at which the two conflicting stances meet that determines history. Economically, the automobile has had a more positive than negative impact. There are plenty of jobs in manufacturing of the automobile itself, maintenance of the automobile, selling insurance policies to cover liability of operating an automobile, constructing and policing the highways – and the list goes on. Thus, arguably, the automobile has not necessarily been completely a harm to our culture (especially not economically), but has certainly also hurt us in a number of ways because of the economic pressures associated with it.

Political pressures often are a major driving force when considering why we often choose to accept problems with technologies rather than wait for issues to be resolved. Lawmakers are eager to legislate, even when there is no necessary need for new legislation – for example, the designation of official state birds or state songs, when other looming social problems exist. Politicians are particularly concerned with the future of their political career. A politician that affects no change is a lame duck merely waiting to be voted out. George Marshall and Mark Lynas wrote jokingly, about assigning blame, “The south blames the north, cyclists blame car drivers, and almost everyone blames George Bush.” But more seriously, they note that “85 percent of the British public say they are concerned about climate change [yet] domestic energy consumption still rises by 2 per cent per year, cars get bigger, and people boast of their holidays to ever-more-distant resorts.” The point to illustrate here is that even though we may believe that we are truly concerned about these issues, we choose not to focus on them because of the reality that the costs imposed by restructuring our society are too great. No politician that was seriously concerned with their career would dare introduce legislation to ban the use of automobiles, or for that matter even coal energy, because of their positive direct or indirect contributions to our daily lives. Politicians are afraid to ‘bite the bullet’ and enact socially responsible legislation in these regards because they fear the repercussions of their actions and do not want to be blamed. Japan is far more progressive in this sense, as it has already enacted legislation that makes it undesirable to own an automobile that has an unnecessarily large engine. This was not achieved via elected officials however, as it actually came hidden as a change in tax code that imposed a stiff tax liability on car owners that purchased new vehicles that were simply not small enough for the governments liking.

In conclusion our voracious desire for innovation comes at a cost, and while it is important to not become modern day Luddites, it is fundamental to carefully calculate the impacts that our choices will have, and be alert to the use of new technologies that may be injurious to our health, culture or environment.

Tags: Industrial · My Thoughts · Technology

0 responses so far ↓

  • There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment