MadSci Network: Other

Re: Technology - is it a cure or a curse?

Date: Tue Feb 24 14:48:25 2004
Posted By: Gareth Evans, Industrial R&D practitioner and manager ( retired )
Area of science: Other
ID: 1076959617.Ot

David,  Thanks for your question – “Technology - is it a cure or a 
curse?”  Normally the questions we get are a little more specific.  This 
one is about as wide-ranging as possible in the field of Science and 
Technology.  I’ll try to answer it in a way which will help you think of 
ways to help your students develop an informed debate.

Most Scientists' knee-jerk reaction to such a question is “Of course 
technology is a great benefit.  Why else would most of us be working on 
improving technology if we didn’t think it is in the interests of the 
world’s population ?”  However, the question illustrates the suspicion and 
even fear many people have of technology.  There are many examples where 
disastrous consequences of the use of technology fuel these fears.  You 
could generate a long list I’m sure.  It might include, in relatively 
recent times, Chernobyl as an example of the dangers of nuclear energy 
generation, thalidomide, asbestos and probably global warming from fossil 
fuel exploitation.  Going back in time, mercury was used to put a shine on 
top hats creating a generation of brain-damaged “Mad Hatters” or further 
back, the use of lead vessels for wine which has been blamed for poisoning 
so many Romans that their empire fell.

All these examples support the view that technology is a curse but a 
similar and I suggest, longer more compelling list could be drawn up of 
major successes.  These are some random examples in no particular order of 
importance or date.
The wheel
The compass
Cotton spinning machines
Photolithography, particularly for electronic device manufacture
Electric motors ( try counting the number of devices in your house which 
rely on the use of electric motors, all developed from the understanding 
initiated by Faraday ).  
The list is truly endless since most of what we now take for granted was 
once a breakthrough in technology.

There are many cases where the use of technology can be both a “cure” or 
a “curse”.  The best example is, I suppose, the range of weapons from 
stones to H-bombs.  These are a “cure” for the aggression of others but 
a “curse” in the hands of an enemy. It is the use of technology to destroy 
rather than create which is the major problem.  The unfortunate 
consequences of inadequate understanding when employing a new technology 
are serious but arguably less of a problem.  

Although there have always been shrill voices warning of the dire 
consequences of technology ( remember the warnings of the dangers to the 
human frame of traveling faster than 30 mph ! ) the pace of change is 
accelerating.  Technical advances themselves allow faster change.  The 
difficulty we have is the ethical and political frameworks have difficulty 
keeping up.  I suppose global warming is a good example and genetic 

An alternative approach to looking at specific examples of technology in 
answering your question is to take a somewhat broader look.  Since almost 
all modern techniques, materials and creations are the result of the 
accumulation of technology over centuries from flint stones to lasers 
would you seriously come to the conclusion that technology was, on 
balance, a curse ?  If so, you would be arguing for a return to the stone 
age.  Before dismissing that as a stupid suggestion we should ask whether 
we would be happier as a species if we did throw all the technology away 
and live like cave men.  Perhaps that is too big a gap to jump so instead 
maybe we should look at modern societies which differ in their ability to 
use technology.  Many countries or peoples are behind the most 
technologically advanced, some a long way behind for political or other 
reasons.  We can assess what the consensus view is about technology by 
asking the less advanced whether they would like to become more advanced 
and vice versa.  If we accept that most people would prefer to live in the 
technologically advanced societies, then we must on balance regard 
technology and the science behind it of real benefit.

I for one wouldn’t like to go back a few hundred years.  I’d probably have 
been dead ten years younger than I am now and I’m hoping for another 20 !

It is my personal view that technology is almost wholly beneficial.  Of 
course it is misused for anti-social and sometimes evil ends. There are 
the inevitable mistakes along the way but these should not deter us from 
seeking to develop and exploit technology to improve the human condition.  
Technology gives us choices which we didn’t have before.  That must be a 
good thing.  

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