31 August 2006

The impact of technology on us

The impact of technology on us.

Technology is what gives us an edge over other living creatures. We also have a price to pay for this advantage which we have enjoyed for the past few thousands years.

There is a fundamental question we have to start with. What is the nature of our relationship with technology? An obvious, but simplistic interpretation is that we are the creators/inventors of technology. And this creation/invention is there to serve us for our needs. Notice, how this interpretation is more or less the same interpretation a lot of people give for the relationship between their god and human beings. Not only is the relationship one of hierarchy, but one of master servant.

In fact, today there are attempts to argue against the theory of evolution, by reviving the argument from design which some people rely heavily on the implications of technology. This position is conclusively rejected by such authors as Dawkins in his book, The Blind Watchmaker. The argument first put forward by Paley goes something like this (very short version): Imagine you're walking in the countryside and come across a watch. Our reaction won't be that nature evolved a watch in this part of the world, but that someone designed the watch. Ergo, when we look around us and see the marvels of the world and us in the world, it would be natural and rational to say that someone designed the world and created us. And by implication, that someone must be god.

As I say, this argument is not valid to prove the existence of god. My favourite argument would be that if one finds a watch in the countryside, and knew something about how these things come to existence, the best we can say is that this watch is the result of cooperation between a good number of people. And if we really were that interested, we would discover that the watch was made from raw materials extracted from the ground beneath us. No magic was involved, but read the literature on the subject.

What is important for us is that we can recognise the pivotal role technology plays in human existence. So much so that we can use it in an argument (even though it is invalid) to prove the existence of god. What the Paley experiment shows us is that for once we think we can prove the existence of god, not by appealing to our faith, nor by simply invoking the existence of god as proof in its self, which is a circular and analytical argument anyway, but by appealing to our own existence and our own creations as an argument for the existence of god. The emphasis need no longer be place on god, but on us; god is the conclusion and not the premise. Now, that's a very powerful psychological boost to the human ego; this is self-confidence at its best.

A modern version of this argument would ask us to look at our technological advances and consider, how can we invent such technologies if someone didn't make us clever in the first place? 

What this thinking is doing is to take us back to the pre-Galilean mind-set where the human being was for centuries the centre of the universe. Before Galileo, there was a long period of time where the human being was considered the centre of the universe because god wanted us to be so. Today, we are becoming the centre of the universe because we use technology to make ourselves the centre of the universe. Therefore, has the renaissance movement come to an end or are we really the centre of the universe?

Why do I believe that we are moving back to the idea that we are the centre of the universe?

The first reason is the belief that technology can help us solve most problems. In medicine we're always waiting for the next wonder drug, or the next hi-tech operation. Technology can even help us produce enough food to feed everyone on this planet. Technology gives us mobility and communication with everyone else. There are even politicians who erroneously think that technology alone can win wars or solve international policy problems.

This dependence on technology not only means that we believe that technology can solve most of our problems, but that we, as human beings, can solve most of our problems. And apart from the occasional natural disaster we interact with our environment on our terms and how we wish to; we go higher, we go faster, we live longer all thanks to technology.

The second reason is that we just feel powerful. Although we are dependent on technology and we usually have the status of a component part of technology, in effect we regard technology as an extension of ourselves. I don't believe that my PC is dictating what I write, but that I am using my PC to reach out to you.

After the end of the cold war, the foreign policy dividend wasn't to reach out and cooperate with everyone else, but to develop a foreign policy underwritten by a high-tech military reach. Technology, in other words, was going to solve our foreign policy issues. The same thinking goes on in other fields. For example, when there is a healthcare issue the first thing governments do is to spend lots of money on some sort of technology fix; preventive medicine or preventive action just does not make the grade as a status symbol. And today's terrorism problems are a direct result of relying on technology for information gathering rather than human ingenuity. The success of technology in our lives means that we have, more or less, abandoned rational thinking or reasoned dialogue.

But we also feel powerful because, due to technology, we rule supreme over other creatures. We domesticated animals, then hunted them and caged them for entertainment, then used them for technological advancement and now even use animals for political ends. Some of this power is made evident in certain documentaries which express a sense of condescension or altruistic benevolence towards animals. You know the ones I'm referring to: look how we're helping these poor animals? Look how much we care for them?

I started by asking what is the nature of our relationship with technology? Many philosophers and other commentators point at the moral implications of technology, for example by pointing at the social justice implications and the inequity of spending huge sums of money on certain technologies such as defence.

We can do a lot for the world's unfortunate people by employing a fraction of today's technology to distribute food more effectively or manufacture cheap construction materials. And we don't even need to touch any defence budgets to make a difference. We can start by controlling the waste in finance and resources generated by governments and companies. We can also help ourselves by having a couple of persuasive talks with the oppressive dictators dotted around the globe. These are things we can do right now. In any case, defence budgets do not exist, because it is usually the next generation that has to come up with the cash. We can also achieve a lot without even having to change our political or business ideologies. Efficiency and effectiveness are ideology neutral strategies anyway.

The moral issue is not so much the nature of the technology we develop, but how we use that technology. One of the marvels of modern technology is the ability to transport food around the world. Thanks to this technology we can now have produce of any kind throughout the world. Of course, we have to suspend judgement about taste for the time being. We no longer depend on the season we’re in for the food we eat. This gives us the opportunity to choose what we want and to eat it when we want to eat it. But, maybe, more important is that this creates employment and investment opportunities in developing countries, for example. Of course, transport technology would play an important part if we were to distribute the world’s food in a way that everyone has a guaranteed meal every day.

The moral issues are more about reaching a balance between the benefits of technology and the costs of that technology. By costs I don’t only mean the price we pay at the shops, but the hidden costs such as pollution, effects on the environment, costs to people’s way of life and so on. This equilibrium is, however, a matter of philosophical consideration and not economics or whatever. Identifying problems, clarifying problems and considering value judgements are the province of philosophy; of course, we might not necessarily describe what we’re doing as philosophy, but that is an another matter.

We can say so far that technology is successful and that it is here to stay. We cannot put the genie back into the bottle. But because it is here and because it is successful does not make for a persuasive philosophical arguments for or against technology. This argument might work for Everest or the North Pole, but it won’t work for a philosophical debate. We need a better argument to accept technology as part of our existence.

If we look at the last two hundred years or so, since the Industrial Revolution, we will see a phenomenal advancement of technology. For example, the first spectacular achievement of the industrial revolution was the steam engine, today we have ships powered by nuclear power. The scale and breath of technological advancement is really impressive. But if we look at technology what we find is not advancement, but an evolution of technology.

If we take the telephone we might be tempted to think that the mobile phone is a marvel of modern technology. But the mobile phone is an evolution of what was the fixed phone and even that was an evolution of fire beacons, messengers on horses and the telegraph. What we have here is a form of continuous linear change punctuated with sudden and abrupt changes. This is more in line with the thinking of catastrophe theory which was developed by the French mathematician, René Thom, to explain sudden and abrupt changes in biology. A common example to explain this theory is to look at boiling water. At some point, the water stops being in a state of room condition and becomes boiling water. An other example, is at which point does a slice of bread become a toast. Catastrophe theory tries to explain mathematically these abrupt changes. I think that this theory can help us to understand evolution conceptually; at least in general terms.

In other words, the development of technology seems to follow the same pattern of evolution as other biological creatures in nature. Is this a coincidence or is there something behind this observation? I’m inclined to argue that technology is literally an extension of us. Technology is part of us as much as our lungs, nose and toes are part of us. In the same way that horns are parts of bulls and pincers are parts of crabs. As you know, I practically don’t do any specific research for these essay, but I have never come across this argument before. I won’t be surprised, however, if someone did put forward this argument already.

This might go a long way to explain why technology seems to follow an evolutionary pattern in the same way that biological creatures seem to follow; change, change, change, abrupt change, and so on. So, we develop technology, then make an abrupt changes to it, which brings about an evolutionary (natural selection) leap in us (physically) by making us healthier, live longer, exploit our environment better and so on.

If we accept this literal interpretation we might also have to consider that sometimes evolution and natural selection do bring about changes in a time frame of a generation or even half that time. One of the problems with the evolution and natural selection theories is that we not see changes happening quickly, we are used to thinking of evolutionary changes in time frames of millions of years. What I am saying is that the impact if technology on us is to bring evolutionary and natural selection changes in time frames of a few generations or less. Think of dentistry, it took sharks millions of years to develop a very efficient dental system; it took human kind a few generations to develop the sophisticated dental medicine we have today.

The answer to the question, what is the nature of our relationship with technology, is first and foremost, a physical extension of the human body and secondly an evolutionary advantage over other biological creatures. If success in nature is measured in terms of survival then surely human beings have survived, if not with a vengeance, certainly in style. One can do a lot of surviving with a convertible sports car and pristine leather upholstery! 

After all is said and done, the impact technology has on us can be summed up in two words; natural survival.

Take care


3rd September, 2006

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