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Sci Tech

Is Progress in Technology Always Beneficial?

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May 26, 2014

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We are living at a time when great advances have been made, and are continuing to be made, in many areas of science and technology. These advances are having a major impact on our lives, and this will probably continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. This may, at first, seem to be a very positive prospect, but there are important reasons to be concerned. Let's start with the benign effects.

The plus side of technology

By the age of 44, Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury in Lincoln's cabinet and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was a widower, not once, not twice, but three times. His wives died at ages 20, 23, and 32. Four of his six children died before attaining adulthood. Such tragic experiences were common at the time. Thomas Jefferson's wife died at the age of 34, only two of their six children lived past the age of three, and only one survived him. In all these cases, causes of death were childbirth, or diseases such as scarlet fever, whooping cough, and tuberculosis. (I have given examples of very prominent people falling victim to diseases in order to make clear that even the most well-to-do people were vulnerable.) Thanks to the work of civil engineers constructing effective sewage-disposal systems, and safe water-supply systems, and to advances in medical science, such as vaccination and antibiotics, such devastating experiences are no longer common.

We enjoy many other benefits of modern technology. The low-cost dissemination of educational and recreational material in printed form is made possible by various devices including modern printing presses and copy machines. The internet facilitates easy access to information of all kinds, opportunities to exchange ideas with, and to debate with, other people, and even to organize around political issues.

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The need for drudgery, such as washing clothes and dishes, and pick-and-shovel work, has been substantially reduced by the use of machinery. Food preparation is eased via such means as refrigerators, gas stoves, and microwave ovens. Communicating with friends and relatives living far away is easy via telephone and the internet.

Some obviously detrimental technologies

Unfortunately, there are some technologies that are inherently harmful. Machine guns made modern warfare more deadly, starting with WWI. Later, conventional bombers carrying high explosives, incendiary bombs, and, finally, the first, primitive, atomic bombs, caused the deaths of more civilians than soldiers. Thermonuclear bombs and the means for delivering them (rockets, etc.) threaten entire populations.

While weapons are explicitly designed to have the capability to kill or maim, there are other applications of technology that are intended for benign use, but which have well-known major harmful side effects. A prime example is the automobile. Although much has been done to reduce substantially the frequency and severity of auto accidents in the US, there are still well over 30,000 annual auto-accident deaths. Globally, autos kill about 1.2 million people annually, and are the leading cause of death of people between the ages 10 and 24. Approximately 260,000 children die in car accidents annually, according to the World Health Organization [1].

Opium and then cocaine were pioneer addictive drugs, produced by relatively simple means from easily grown plants. Modern technology has facilitated their production, and added new synthetic addictive products such as crystal meth (crystal methamphetamine). Drug addiction has ruined millions of lives. Meaningful statistics are difficult to find, and it is not easy to estimate the number of deaths caused directly or indirectly by illicit drugs, or even the number of addicts.

Handle with care

There are some technologies that, when properly managed, can be beneficial, but that have the potential to do a great deal of harm.

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Alcohol is a prime example. Many people are able to enjoy it on a regular, or occasional, basis, in small quantities, without becoming addicted or suffering other ill effects. But it is perhaps the most widely abused drug, ruining, often ending, a great many lives in a variety of ways. The death toll includes thousands of non-drinkers killed annually by drunk drivers. In addition to detrimental effects stemming from various degrees of intoxication, alcohol causes, or exacerbates, many debilitating or fatal illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and liver disease.

The benefits of automation, application of technology to perform tasks normally carried out by humans, are obvious. It can reduce or eliminate tedious or dangerous work, and sometimes perform tasks more reliably or more accurately. It significantly lowers labor costs. In a just society, it would be reasonable to expect that automation would lead to most people enjoying increased income and more leisure time. But, in today's world, the benefits have been seized by a small, wealthy elite, while large numbers of people have lost their jobs [2].

Television is a fine medium for entertainment. It has great potential for education. But a good case can be made that, very often, particularly for children, it is grossly misused, consuming time and energy better used for physical, social, or intellectual activities.

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I am an engineer. My degrees are in electrical engineering and my work has been in the digital systems area, mainly digital logic, but also computer organization, software and theory. I am a Professor, Emeritus, Computer Science and Electrical (more...)

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