Technology – Who Needs It?

It’s easy to argue that responsibility for many of the world’s biggest problems can be laid at the door of modern industrial technology. That’s because there is abundant evidence for it: cars, planes, electrically powered devices of every kind and massive amounts of transportation. The net result has been depletion of the earth’s precious resources and pollution on an unprecedented level.

In particular, our dependence on fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) to power these technologies has resulted in a sorry state of affairs. There is now less fossil fuel left in the ground than we have already burned, so at the present rate of progress we will soon be running short. But what we have already burned (since that’s how you extract energy from fossil fuel) has built up a legacy of excess Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere.

So it would seem that the good times are gone. Soon the barrel will run dry and we shall have to sober up with sore heads and a hazy memory of how we got here. The final touch might be a pandemic of biblical proportions with the contagion spread to all parts of the globe thanks, ironically, to our modern transportation networks.

But is it likely that this is how things will pan out and is it all the fault of bad old technology? Err, well no, not really. Running up against the dire consequences of our earlier misguided ideas and actions is nothing new, yet we have always somehow come through.

The fact is that you cannot separate people from technology. It’s what defines us. Go back however far you like into prehistory and wherever a few old bones are identified as being human in origin you will find evidence of technology.

Tracing the human race back as far as possible we can never find a period when we actually didn’t engage in making clothes, decorations, tools and weapons, or cooking food, painting pictures and making music. These things in a sense define what it is to be human, just as wings or a poisonous bite help define other creatures. We are compelled to invent and employ technology just in order to get by.

Early flint spear heads were an improvement on sharp sticks and would later develop into metal heads, then bullets and ultimately into our present weapons of mass destruction. You can equally trace a direct line from this digitally produced information through mass printing, handwritten documents and ultimately back to those first cave paintings. Or take all the complexity of a modern symphony and unravel the trail leading back to simple flutes carved from hollow animal bones.

There has never once been a time when human technological evolution ceased in its quest to adapt and improve. Ironically this is often because the failings of an earlier technology become all too apparent. Our modern sewage systems and clean flushing toilets owe their origins to the success of the steam technology that drove the Industrial Revolution, thereby creating urban crowding and rampant disease from contaminated water supplies.

So if there is one thing we can be sure of it is this: technology almost certainly helped bring us to our present impasse, but it also once again represents our best hope of averting disaster. Salvation lies, not in reverting to some previous pre-tech era, but in moving forward to develop better “eco-technologies” – LED’s to replace incandescent lighting, solar energy in place of fossil fuel, and extend the opportunities offered by the internet.

The eco-technologies promise to be orders of magnitude less wasteful and waste creating and also help avoid much of the excessive travel that has become a feature of modern life. But they also offer possibilities to actually improve our lives and widen our horizons. That said, it’s almost certain that in the future we will find out that these technologies themselves fall short of all we hoped for, and what do you suppose we will then do about that?

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Originally posted 2009-10-28 04:16:50.

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