|MadSci Network: Other|
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. Antibiotics Irrigation The wheel Glass Clocks The compass Cotton spinning machines Photolithography, particularly for electronic device manufacture Television 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 engineering. 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.
Try the links in the MadSci Library for more information on Other.