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June 3, 2014

Is Progress in Technology Always Beneficial?

By Stephen Unger

We are accustomed to hearing about wonderful new products resulting from technological break-thrus. But "new" does not always mean "good". In many cases, possible serious drawbacks of seemingly beneficial new technology cannot be assessed without very extensive research, and perhaps long-term use.


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May 26, 2014

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.

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.

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.

Long-term harm

There are other technologies, with obvious apparent benefits, that have serious detrimental effects that are not obvious, but that are manifested only after long-term use. Let's take a quick look at three major examples: tobacco, lead, and asbestos [3].

The development of cigarette-manufacturing machines in the 1880s stimulated a large, steady increase in cigarette smoking. Per-capita annual cigarette consumption in the US in 1900 was about 54. It rose steadily, reaching 4290 in 1966. When its deadly nature became widely known, US consumption began falling. By 2011 it was down to about 1230. Over 440,000 annual American deaths are currently attributable to smoking, including over 45,000 non-smokers dying from second-hand smoke. For each smoking-caused death, about 20 people suffer from serious illnesses caused by smoking. About a third of smoking-related deaths are due to cancers, with cardiovascular diseases accounting for a similar number, and a wide variety of other diseases, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia, adding to the death toll [4].

Tobacco companies remain in business, denying the deadly nature of their products. They continue to advertise, though there are various laws, federal and state, that restrict tobacco advertisements in various ways. They have expanded exports, and, while smoking rates have been falling in the US and in many other industrialized countries, they are rising in various third-world countries. Worldwide, there are more than 5 million tobacco-caused deaths annually, and this number is increasing.

Lead was one of the first metals to be widely used for many purposes. Since ancient times, it has been known that it is a dangerous substance, as those who mined it, or worked with it, suffered from debilitating, often deadly diseases. This did not stop its use for an increasing number of purposes.

In the 1920s, lead was introduced as an ingredient in gasoline to increase the efficiency of gasoline engines. This application caused a significant amount of lead to appear in the atmosphere, and, subsequently, in the blood of humans (and other animals).

Another major use of lead is in house paint. This has been a major factor in getting lead into the blood of children, with detrimental effects on mental capacity and on general health.

Lead in plumbing and in water-delivery systems is still a problem. A few years ago, it was found that lead-contaminated drinking water was flowing into the homes of many residents of Washington, DC. It took a heroic effort by civil-engineering professor Marc Edwards to get the relevant agencies to mandate remedial action [5].

Asbestos is another mineral that has been widely used for a long time. A major application has been fireproofing and insulation. Centuries ago, it became evident that asbestos is a potential killer, as many engaged in mining it fell victim to fatal lung diseases. Of the roughly 4 million Americans who worked in shipyards during WWII, about 60,000 eventually died of asbestos-related diseases. Although asbestos use in the US has been greatly reduced, it has still not been completely outlawed.

Into the unknown

The most difficult problems involve new technology that has very obvious, attractive characteristics, while little, or nothing, is known about the effects of long-term use.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products are one example. Partly because of the novel nature of the technology, our traditional laws concerning food regulation are inadequate. Although a number of small-scale investigations have turned up indications of problems, some quite serious, these have not been followed up by appropriate studies. Why not?

While the large corporations profiting from this technology are strongly motivated to defend their products, often funding research to develop arguments in their favor, there is no adequate countervailing force. One tactic of the corporations has been to ensure that our regulatory agencies are not funded sufficiently to carry out adequate studies. E.g., the entire annual budget of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is less than $5 billion. A large proportion of the scientists in the fields pertinent to the agency's work, at one time or other, are either employed by corporations subject to its rulings, consult for them, or work for universities that depend on corporation grants.

The problem is exacerbated by systematic attacks on those scientists whose research reveals GMO problems [6]. These are not confined to the US. E.g., Arpad Pusztai, a distinguished Hungarian scientist working in Scotland, was forced out of his position when he announced experimental results revealing harm to rats fed GMO potatoes [7].

Nanotechnology is another fascinating new area that is sprouting all kinds of new products. Its applications range from sunscreen lotions to more durable concrete, to improved ways to administer medication. But the same characteristics that make it so interesting and useful, also make it dangerous [8].

Cell phones have become enormously popular all over the world. There are now over 250 million US users and roughly 5 billion worldwide users. With so many people at risk, even a very low probability of harm becomes very significant. The magnitude of the risk is unknown, although it is obvious that harmful effects are unlikely to emerge prior to many years of use.

There are a number of scientific publications indicating biological effects of cell-phone radiation. These include results of laboratory experiments with animals, in vitro experiments with human tissue, and epidemiological studies [9]. But, given that a large majority of the world's population are cellphone users and are therefore exposed to whatever risks this entails, the amount of research in this area is grossly inadequate. And there is good reason to believe that, just as there are "tobacco scientists", paid to obscure the dangers of smoking, there are scientists who are encouraged to do the same for cell phones. (Note that I doubt that cell phones are in the same killer league as tobacco.) Furthermore, just as scientists critical of GMOs have often been the targets of nasty attacks, a number of those who have identified hazards associated with cell phones have also been attacked [10].

To illustrate the need for greatly increasing objective research on possible harms of GMOs, a need shared by an increasing number of other new technologies, let's consider an abstract example. Suppose that, after about 15 years of exposure to some technology X, the probability of a person dying in any particular year from continued exposure is 1/10,000. This may seem to be a very small risk--and it is--for an individual. But, if 250 million people are so exposed, the expected number of annual deaths caused by X would be 25,000, a number that looms large in comparison with the roughly 8,500 annual gun homicides (2011 statistic [11]) that so many people are very upset about. Clearly it would be very important to study X thoroughly before releasing it for general use.

We can learn something here from the American experience with automobiles. In 1924, when autos were still a novelty, with questionable tires and brakes, and rough roads, 24 people were killed per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (vmt). Two decades later, improved roads and cars brought this number down to about 10. In the 1965 the number was down to a bit over 5.

The Highway Safety Act was passed in 1966, stimulated, in part, by Ralph Nader's classic book, "Unsafe at Any Speed". This legislation dealt with such features as seat belts, airbags, brakes, tires, windshields, and headlights, as well as with various aspects of highway design and construction. The result was that the number of people killed per 100 million vmt fell steadily to the present value of about 1.15, with about 34,000 people killed annually. If 1966 conditions had prevailed, we would now be seeing an annual death rate exceeding 156,000 [12].

The tragedy is that it took many decades, during which over a million Americans were killed and roughly 20 million seriously injured, before a systematic effort to reduce the slaughter was initiated. The details are different for the hazards associated with each product of technology, but the attitudes of those selling the products are similar. As a society, we have not learned how to deal properly with the risks, especially at the early stages, when knowledge is sparse.

Prevailing American policy is, in effect, that any product can be put on the market unless a case can be made that it is harmful beyond reasonable doubt [13]. This exposes both people and the environment to unbounded hazards. The relevant regulatory agencies are grossly underfunded, and have neither the resources nor the authority to do what needs to be done. Nor are there any signs of change in the right direction. If anything, regulation is getting weaker. As our technological abilities grow ever more powerful, the danger of this approach is steadily increasing. What would a wiser policy look like?

What can be done?

Before releasing for general use a product based on some novel technology, a careful study should be made by an independent public agency to look for possible harmful effects, especially possible consequences of long-term use. After a product has been cleared for release, periodic checks should be made to identify unanticipated problems that may become evident only after extensive use. Such discoveries should be dealt with by requiring appropriate modifications of the product. If no practical remedies are found, then use of the product should be terminated.

Such an approach would be very expensive, and would, in general, significantly impede and slow down the exploitation of new technology. It would have to be carried out in a sensible manner, taking into account the importance of various items, weighing risks against benefits. As long as the risks are made clear, and if only the user is endangered, there should be no legal impediments to the sale of such hazardous devices as scuba-diving apparatus, assuming they are properly designed and constructed. In the case of medications that are plausible "last resorts" for those inflicted with deadly diseases, it would not be appropriate to bar usage, even if there is major uncertainty about side effects, as long as the uncertainties are fully revealed to the patients.

A reform along the above lines could not possibly be achieved as long as government remains under the control of a tiny elite, as has been the case for decades.


[1] Brenda Wilson, "Traffic Accidents Top Cause Of Fatal Child Injuries", NPR, December 10, 2008

[2] Martin Ford "Job Automation: Is a Future Unemployment Crisis Looming?", The Huffington Post, March 7, 2011

[3] Stephen H. Unger "Pioneer Killer Products: Asbestos, Lead, and Tobacco", Ends and Means, August, 14, 2010

[4] CDC "Tobacco-Related Mortality", Centers for Disease Control, February 6, 2014

[5] Wikipedia "Marc Edwards (civil engineering professor)", Wikipedia

[6] Jeffrey M. Smith"GMO Researchers Attacked, Evidence Denied, and a Population at Risk", Global Research, September 19, 2012

[7] Powerbase, "Arpad Pusztai", 2003

[8] Stephen H. Unger "Nano Particles--Giga Benefits, Giga Risks", Ends and Means, April 4, 2012

[9] Stephen H. Unger "Cell Phones: Not Definitely Dangerous?", Ends and Means, 6-19-08

[10] Maria Syldona "Wakeup Call", The University of Washington Alumni Magazine, March 2005

[11] FBI "Expanded Homicide Data Table 8"

[12] Wikipedia "List of motor vehicle deaths in U.S. by year", Wikipedia

[13] Stephen H. Unger "Reckless Use of Technology", Ends and Means, February 20, 2013

Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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Submitters Bio:

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 Engineering at Columbia University (retired 6/08 after four decades at Columbia). Before joining the Columbia faculty, I worked at Bell Labs for about five years, and while at Columbia I worked in industry (e.g., at IBM, and RCA Laboratories) often during summers and sabbaticals, as well as doing some consulting work.

I have always been interested in the social implications of technology and have done a lot of work in this area, giving talks, writing articles and doing some organizing. Topics I have been actively involved in include engineering ethics, resisting government imposed secrecy in technology, environmental issues. I wrote, "Controlling Technology: Ethics and the Responsible Engineer", 2nd Ed., 1994, Wiley. (Also authored two books on digital logic).