Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On rapid responses to technology

To clarify after having received some comments from my last post, what I mean by "technology" is the technology that has been brought into the world in the past few decades, the rate of whose further introduction has followed something like Moore's law. That rate is an incomprehensible one. This is the technology I will continue to talk about in the next few posts.

At our monthly Sustainability Ethics Roundtable, the topic was a timely one, for me at least: Technology, Risk, Ethics and Sustainability, and the discussion was led by Professor Andrew Maynard of the School of Public Health and the Risk Science Center. One of the significant issues with technology that he pointed out is that given the kind of technology being introduced, and the rate at which it is being introduced, we do not have even slightly adequate mechanisms in place to assess whether or not that technology is doing potential harm in the world; we do not have mechanisms in place to respond rapidly to the technology itself. This is somewhat related to what Jon Kabat-Zinn has said, where Kabat-Zinn speaks of an emotional and metaphysical understanding of technology. Regardless, the issue of response and understanding is kind of like the issue of water pollution or air pollution (of course, technology is intimately related to these issues) in which we know toxic chemicals are being released indiscriminately, and yet many laws in place do not allow for adequate protection of those natural gifts and human health. The way that our legal structure is set up, at least around environmental issues, is that significant evidence beyond an ill-defined threshold is required, gathered over a long period of time, before any judgement can be made about the toxicity of a technological process or output. (This raises the significant issue of time scales associated with negative outcomes.) During that time, people have made money, grown in power and grown in influence such that the end result is likely not a discontinuation of the technology, but rather maybe a Pigouvian tax on the technology. Such is the case with technologies that result in greenhouse gas emissions, but in this case, it is politically infeasible to even have a rudimentary tax on emissions.

It seems to me that there are several reasons why we don't have adequate mechanisms and checks on technology in our society, and I hope to elaborate on these in individual posts over the next few days.
  • We equate social prosperity with economic prosperity, but we can only achieve economic prosperity if we can consume, and we can only satisfactorily consume if what we consume is something different that what we have already consumed. Consequently, social prosperity boils down to an increasing reliance on technological advancement. This means we feel that more technology is always better than less technology.
  • We have convinced ourselves that if we don't do it, someone else will, so we should try to make a buck off of it.
  • There is always a vested interest in the development of new technologies, such that its development necessitates its use.
  • There is an increasing diffusion in those with access to technology.
  • The potential negative impacts have much longer time scales for their emergence and recognition, but the positive impacts (increasing amounts of money) is necessarily shorter term.
There are likely several other reasons, but I don't claim to be an expert in knowing them all. But what I do feel is that we are continuing to live in a world in which we don't learn from our mistakes. We therefore will continue in a world in which we can do no harm, and that the answer to any problem caused because of technology is a newer technology. The Watson computer (or the analytic methods) developed by IBM is touted as only a good thing. But if we tried to ask those very developers the potential negative outcomes of their system, will they have an answer? Will they have adequately assessed the risks (not only in terms of money value) of such capabilities? I hope so. How might we envision a future in which not more is the answer, but appropriate is the approach? Just because technology is good for one thing does not mean it is good for, on, or to something else.

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