PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The effect of technology on society

The effect of technology on society

In 2006 we discussed “The impact of technology on us*” so maybe it was time we had a second look at the subject. This time round I want to have a look at the impact on society when technology fails. I do not mean when our phone dies on us, but rather when the promised technology reaches the point when it becomes unfit for purpose and consequently have an impact on society.

Once again our function is not to look for the facts, nor to verify the facts, that’s the function of scientists and investigators. We are concerned with looking at the thinking and claims of those who make claims and promises about technologies. One of the problems with those who try to investigate what others are doing, thinking or researching, is that we are limited to the information we have access to and is available. For example:

“Big tobacco kept cancer risk in cigarettes secret: Study” By Ryan Jaslow - September 30, 2011 / CBS News (at ) This short article claims that, “tobacco companies have known for 40 years that cigarette smoke contains cancer-causing particles, but deliberately hid the information from the public.” The problem with this situation is that forty or fifty years ago society had a different mindset from us today. To begin with, at least in theory, we can say that today there are more academically educated people, with analytical skills and complex data handling, than in the 50s or 60s. Today we can feel the outrage if people withhold vital information from us on such a product, but what are we supposed to feel if we are not aware that others are acting maliciously?

The consequence of producing cigarettes at an industrial level meant that more people had access to this drug and thus feeling high (similar to alcohol). The perceived benefits of smoking seem to out weight the rational thinking about possible harm caused, which in any case are long term events. Basically we understand feeling good much better than understanding that something that makes us feel good might actually be harmful. Empirical evidence it seems is more powerful than rational analysis.

Moving on, technology might have serious effects on society, not because of some sort of deception, but because of some sort of empirical value returns. I am thinking of antibiotic resistance. There are many academic papers written on this topic, and as many YouTube videos, but you can start with this video: Antimicrobial Resistance: The End of Modern Medicine? with Dame Sally Davies - . What interests us here is not only the bias we seem to have that if something is doing “good” then we ought to pursue it, but what seems to me a certain degree of lack of foresight by those who are responsible for creating and managing antibiotics. I am particularly thinking that at some point someone ought to have made the link that if something is fighting a biological system such as bacteria that bacteria might go into natural selection mode and thus become resistant to antibiotics. Sure, maybe we are not as clever at creating the antibacterial of the millennia as the bacteria are at surviving our antibiotics.

This thinking is not anything special, what might be special is that what would be the situation today if they did consider at the scientific level the evolutionary effect in such drugs. What we know for sure, however, is that bacteria are not clever they are just good at what they do. Maybe society and human beings are rather reckless and stupid by over prescribing and over use of antibiotics. I leave you to check out the horrors of antimicrobial resistance from the video. Technology has failed here not just because of misuse of certain solutions, nor maybe because our limited knowledge of the world, but maybe because we fail to see the big picture and fail to recognise the real nature of the threat: in this example the threat is not only the bacteria but the effectiveness of natural selection.

Sometimes technological failure is good news (somewhat). My favourite example of someone who failed to look at the big picture and compounded the situation by lack of understanding of technology is the failure of Hitler’s technology opinions. My favourite examples are Hitler’s obsession with large battleship such as the Bismarck and the really bad judgement of insisting that the Me262 jet fighter be converted into a bomber for the Eastern front.

The Bismarck was the most powerful battleship at the time and this class of ships were built to destroy the Atlantic convoys. What went wrong for Hitler and good news for us was that the ship was so advanced and efficient killing machine agiant modern technology, but what it couldn’t deal with was the Swordfish biplane which was a WW1 generation plane made with canvas and wire. This plane was so slow and flew so low that the defences of the Bismarck could not destroy these planes efficiently, and one of them managed to cripple the battle ship with a torpedo. The rest is history. It is ironic that one of the most effective solutions against bacterial infection is using soap and water to prevent infection. Advanced technology, it seems, is not immune to bad assumptions and never underestimate the effectiveness of old technology.

The Me 262 was the first operational jet-powered military aircraft, which first flew as a jet in 1942. In mid 1943 Hitler wanted to develop this jet as a bomber; the plane was not built as a bomber. The consequence of all this delay was that had this fighter been introduce in 1943 and used against allied bombers, Germany would have been guaranteed full mastery of the skies over Europe in a matter of months. QED. But the good news does not stop there. Today cheap air fares and fast air travel are possible because of the swept wings concept was inherited from the innovative design of this powerful jet fighter from WW2.  Sure 20/20 hindsight is a marvellous skill but stupid is always stupid. There is no doubt that technology fails, but nothing makes technology fail than human failure.

A similar Hitler type of stupid mistake was achieved by the Americans in what in 1958 was supposed to be the best fighter-bomber of all times, the F-4 Phantom. This was a sort of Me262 story all over again: the powers that be decided that future air combat would be done by missiles and so they did not fit a cannon/machine gun in the airframe. As a consequence at the start of the Vietnam War many of these aircraft were lost to enemy machine gun fire from enemy aircraft many times due to failure of the American missiles. This was eventually fixed and it was also the germ seed of a famous film of elite pilots in the US Navy. You know the film, but from what I know there were no females involved; today they fixed both these oversight in the military!

In built obsolescence is a well know feature in consumer technology, and if manufacturers fail to build this obsolescence correctly, humans will certain cause enough damaged to goods that will need replacement. As I have shown humans are a key cause of technology failure; but it is also true that technology is the result of value judgments. And sometimes we get those judgments wrong as well, not necessarily out of malice but maybe for other human factors.

What is clear, however, is that when we use technology, such as trains, planes, medical equipment, we should not only be afraid because the owners paid the lowest possible price for the technology. But also what false assumptions and invalid thinking went into the technology?

*The impact of technology on us

Best Lawrence

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