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The Downside of Technology

By       Message Stephen Unger     Permalink
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Beginning as a high school student (Brooklyn Tech), I studied subjects related to electrical engineering for about 12 years. My principal motivation was fascination with the subject matter. A secondary factor was a desire to do useful work that would benefit people. I did achieve a measure of success, and had a good time doing it. But looking back over the past several decades has caused me to revise my views about the value of technology to humanity.

I believe that, as a species, we have thus far failed to develop appropriate ways to use the increasingly powerful tools that science and technology is putting in our hands. Sadly, a major application of advances in technology is to produce more deadly military weapons. Despite the fact that, at least since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has been, by far, the world's dominant military power. We have done nothing to promote disarmament, we continue to spend vast amounts of money on the development and production of military hardware, and we are currently killing people in 7 countries.

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There are other ways in which technology is misused, and many failures to use our scientific and engineering knowledge to promote the well-being of the general population. Consider first who benefits from progress in science and engineering.

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Where do the benefits of technology go?

Before thinking about the matter in any detail, my implicit assumption was that advances in technology would better the lives of the people affected by it. If, for example, some technological advance led to a better way to make widgets, I assumed that this would benefit widget users, and those involved in widget manufacture and sale. This sounds plausible, but let's take a closer look.

Suppose the improvement consists of a more efficient production technique, reducing the number of person-hours needed to make a widget. There are several ways manufacturers could exploit this improvement. They could:

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1. Leave the price they charge unchanged, and reduce their work force to the point where their production capacity was unchanged, thereby, via the reduction in labor costs, increasing their profit per item sold.

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http://www1.cs.columbia.edu/~unger/myBlog/endsandmeansblog.h

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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