Technology: Threats and Opportunities

Technology has transformed human life immeasurable over millions of years. Developments in areas such as food production and medicine have increased our efficiency as a species and removed many people from the evolutionary battle to survive as individuals.

Technology has transformed our relationship with our environment and with other people. The world no longer seems so large when it is possible to go from one side to the other in less than 24 hours, and speak with people on another
continent without even raising one’s voice. We are sheltered from the elements, and can obtain food in regions where there are shortages. Technology has made us masters of the earth.

The appliance of science

Science is the study of the environment we live in – our universe and everything within it. All technology is built on the foundation of scientific observation. This includes not just people in laboratories, but also farmers who thousands of years ago observed which crops grew best, and astronomers charting the night sky. These historical scientists developed technology from their observations. Farmer scientists discovered that different crops grew better in different locations, and concentrated their efforts appropriately. Ancient astronomers used their observations of the starts to create a way of
navigating oceans. Without these technologies mankind could not have populated the entire planet.

Today’s rapid developments in communications technology bring to our attention far more technological advances than in the past. Our parents find it hard to keep up with all the new gadgets and techniques available to help us in our daily tasks, and we in turn will be bamboozled by the developments our children will take for granted.

Abusable technology

For every leap forward that helps human society thrive, there seem to be developments that threaten our very existence either as a species or as individuals. Technology is clearly not always a positive influence on life.

Nuclear power, genetic engineering, huge networks of information and communication change dramatically what is possible in the world. Developments happen so fast that many people find themselves questioning these changes after they have happened.

Nuclear energy provides clean electricity with little input of raw materials. But it also produces dangerous waste that will take thousands of years to become safe, and is extremely difficult to store safely. Nuclear power stations also produce the raw materials required to make nuclear weapons.

Genetic engineering offers the possibility of creating new forms of life that can thrive better in environments we need them in. But it is hard to prevent genetically engineered crops cross pollinating natural crops. What is the long term result of untested genetic engineered crops on health and the environment?

Modern transport allows us to visit far away destinations, increasing the reach of our personal and business lives. But modern forms of transport are highly polluting, and enable the spread of diseases faster and further than ever before.

The internet connects the world more effectively and cheaply than ever before. But the internet has become a medium dominated by pornography and apparently swarms with dangerous extremists. As in the real world, viruses travel around the internet infecting millions of computers in a matter of hours.

Nanotechnology – making very tiny machines – promises to revolutionise everything from medicine (through injectable robots that attack diseases) to engineering (tiny machines that can build other machines). Some people fear that tiny self building robots could end up competing with humans and other forms of life for raw materials – the so called grey goo.

All developments bring both threats and opportunities. The challenge for those who create these technologies is to assess the level of threats in relation to opportunities, and take action to reduce them.

Many people fear that the dominant economic system of the world only rewards technology on the basis of its short-term results – there is apparently not enough incentive for technologists to adequately work out all the problems that may arise with their inventions.

Indeed, more and more people seek to buy motor cars for the short term convenience they provide, despite growing evidence to show that our reliance on oil based fuels is damaging to the environment and contributes to the development
of dangerous political situations such as in the Middle East. As consumers we create plenty of incentives for inventors to create new things without thinking about the long term repercussions. We must also take some responsibility for
the down side of technology – by doing so we create a market value for foresight in the invention process.

It is impossible to foresee all the implications of something new. We cannot prepare for everything, but we must be reflective in what we do, what we make and what we use. Inherent in all new things are some elements of danger.

That is the nature of technology.

Interesting sites

Originally published in Arusha Times 335

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