In the previous two installments we’ve looked in a simple way at some examples of today’s technology and whether various technological devices aid or hinder “the mission,” which is the unimpeded and problem-free conduct of our contemporary lives. In this installment we’ll look at technology at a more fundamental level and will propose two important criteria for evaluating our choices and uses of technology.
In 1979 the noted BBC Television science “presenter” James Burke produced a television series titled “Connections.” In the series he attempted to trace the often twisted course from the discovery of a scientific principle through to its later emergence in a new, practical technological invention. Often this course of development could occupy several centuries, with many zigs and zags between first discovery and the later invention.
At the end of the series Burke explored an idea he called “The Technology Trap.” What if, he mused, you were a successful dairy rancher? And then some kind of disaster hit your area. The electrical power to your ranch is cut off. Trucks can’t get through to your property and the telephone is gone. And, in today’s time, the internet and the cellular telephone system, notoriously unreliable during disasters, aren’t operating. What do you then do to ensure your physical and economic survival?
Alternatively, you are a retired senior citizen, living in a twenty-second floor condominium in a high rise building in a major city. After the disaster passes, all the public utilities and other amenities are gone, and the street is twenty-two floors below you. What are you going to do? What have you prepared in advance to provide for your needs? How will you survive until recovery begins?
This is The Technology Trap. We all have become coddled, lulled, pampered by our current level of technology. What do we do if it is all taken away from us? Do we know how to “carry on” in our daily lives in the face of technological adversity? Have we given any thought to basic alternatives to everyday “technology as usual?” And, at a fundamental level even deeper than this one, have we made our own choices about the technology we will or won’t depend upon? Or, in contrast, is our technology controlling us to the point where we become helpless in the face of adversity?
Do not misinterpret the above line of questioning. The Curmudgeon is not a “Survivalist.” He does not believe that, for example, the Sri Lankans will storm the beaches of our country in a bid to take over the United States. Or that after a disaster our only choice will be to take to the hills and forests and to survive off nature, in a primitive fashion. But, with Super-storm Sandy freshly in mind, he does have the idea firmly fixed in his consciousness that “all our toys can be taken away from us,” almost instantly. What then? What do we do?
An approach to dealing with this problem comes from aviation. No pilot-in-command would ever trust his life and well-being at altitude to any high technology devices and instruments:
1. Whose operating principles he does not understand, at least at the level where he can do some basic diagnosing and perhaps some simple repairs in order to keep a device operational, or
2. For which he does not have backup devices and a “work around plan” established in advance for use in the event of primary device failure.
To take to the air without dealing beforehand with these considerations is simply foolhardy.
The same considerations should apply to us, in our own daily interactions with technology. “Can I trust this device; do I understand how it operates; what will I do if its service becomes unavailable.” Some responses to this kind of situation are simple and automatic: if my car won’t start, I’ll take a bus or taxi to get to my appointment. Some are much more complicated and consequential: what do I do if I need an uninterrupted stream of compressor-supplied “medical oxygen” and my local electrical sub-station is knocked out of service?
Lack of technological preparedness and forethought in the general population is represented in its highest degree (at least to the Curmudgeon) by the predictable pre-disaster television news reports, aired the night before the big storm hits. They typically show smiling consumers dragging expensive brand new, gasoline-fueled, portable electrical generators out of Home Depot or Lowe’s. It’s a pretty safe bet that this will be a “first” generator for 99% of these inexperienced purchasers. But there is essentially a zero percent chance that these customers will be able to enjoy emergency electrical power during and after the storm. They do not understand what they are getting into by trying to use this technology without prior training, they have not made the necessary preparations, and they are very short on time.
The Curmudgeon has had such a generator available at his house for several decades. All of the ancillary hardware for operation of the generator and distribution of emergency electrical power is at hand. The generator is maintained and tested monthly, including draining and replacement of the fuel with a fresh supply every two months. Thus the generator is ready and can be relied upon during extended commercial power outages. [The mention of these preparations is not at all intended to connote any special “moral virtue” on the part of the Curmudgeon; it merely demonstrates the necessary level of preparations if one is to depend on technological solutions.]
So this kind of spontaneous adoption of technology by the unaware generator purchasers becomes, essentially, another exercise in trusting technology while not understanding it, and such unwarranted trust produces predictably poor results. [And, as a sort of nice “spin off” from this exercise in frustration, about six months after the storm many of these portable generators will be offered for sale at cut-rate prices by their purchasers, some unused and never opened!] The Technology Trap has sprung shut, again.
Controlling and coping with the adoption of technology – But The Technology Trap is only about half the problem facing the public in today’s high speed technological society. The other half is even more difficult. It is, in a nutshell, controlling and placing bounds on (but not eliminating!) our adoption of both new and existing technology, before such technology destroys those qualities which make us human.
Here “destroy” is not intended to apply to the grim prospect of out-of-control robots careening across the landscape and “terminating” all humans in their path. Nor to genetically-modified microorganisms floating out of a production facility and infecting humans with a fatal disease. Rather, “destroy” means the negative effects on our society produced by uncritically following the high velocity curve of technology development. It would be a course which slowly changes the structure of our society and our interactions with each other to the point where our citizens are no longer the reasoning, rational, “social animals” that have characterized our species since its inception.
This is not at all a Luddite argument in support of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s unrealistic view of the ideal society as “man at peace in a State of Nature!” Indeed, primitive man lived in a world in which his life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (with credit to Thomas Hobbes). We don’t need or want to totally abandon technology just to return to that!
But we also don’t need to wander thoughtlessly and to uncritically stumble into a new world in which we become totally dependent upon our technology, with no other recourse. It could be a world in which we willfully abandon our privacy and the physical universe (tangible places, events, friends and family) for a “life” in a virtual one. We are, at a fundamental level, creatures ruled by our biological genetics and by our own history of physical and social development over the past several millions of years; we are not (yet) virtual spirits in an alternate universe.
Questions have been raised for quite a while about humans’ ability to cope biologically, psychologically, and socially with accelerated technological change. Alvin Toffler, in his book “Future Shock” written almost a half century ago, was one of the first to raise the issue. He skillfully warned about a malaise which he called “future shock” resulting from individuals in a society being overloaded with rapid technological and societal change, to which they can no longer adapt.
Although in the biological world adaptation is “the name of the game,” in a living organism it requires time to adapt to change. It might require, as a trivial example, the passage of ten generations of fruit flies (a standard experimental genetics “lab animal”) in order to permanently change the external color of their eyes. Yet we humans are challenged to adapt to major changes in our living conditions and our society brought by the adoption of new technology, with such changes occurring on a single decade time period in the life of one generation. And that time scale itself is decreasing. No one knows whether we as a species can be successful at doing this, and even partial answers to fundamental questions about the limits of our human adaptability may not be available until decades into the future!
The Curmudgeon concedes that, in and of itself, technology is inherently neither “good” nor “bad” (although, for example, very few positive attributes might be assigned to a penitentiary’s “electric chair!”). Such value-characterizations are reserved for the uses to which the new technology is put and the results it produces. Beyond even the initial decisions about adoption lies an unseen forest of future possible consequences,
For example, for decades in the 20th century and without any controversy the medical profession routinely prescribed the drug diethylstilbestrol for women to reduce the risks of pregnancy complications and losses. Only much later was it shown that such use led directly to human cancers, and only at that point was the drug withdrawn from routine use. In a parallel fashion, today we still do not know the long-term effects of electromagnetic radiation from hand-held cellular telephones upon brain tissue and brain function. Or the long-term effects of rapidly advancing technology on social organization and function (such as “texting while driving”). But new technology continues to arrive at a dizzying rate and with no slow-down and no critical evaluations in sight.
In summary, then, the Curmudgeon, for his own uses, cautiously views the introduction of new technology in the framework of two great questions:
1. The “Technology Trap” question: “Do I understand the new technology, and before I place my trust and dependence on it do I have a planned work-around if the technology fails?”
2. The “Beneficial Interaction” question: “Is the new technology a ‘net plus;’ does it contribute more to an untroubled and problem-free life than it demands in attention, service, and potential harmfulness to ourselves and our society?”
These are, and should be recognized as, highly significant questions to us and to our continued survival and happiness. They should not be bypassed uncritically in the race to adopt ever more technological “solutions!” We ought to remain humans first, and only secondarily “technology consumers.”
What do you think?
Let’s save the universe for RF!
The Old RF Curmudgeon
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