Journal: News & Comment

Thursday, October 13, 2005
# 10:12:00 PM:

The benefits of technology

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I'm simplifying his argument a bit here, but Mack Male writes that:

If we didn't pay so much attention to whether or not technology was negatively affecting society, we would carry on with our lives, technology would continue to develop, and everyone would end up better off, just as in the past.

On balance, that has been true up to now—many of us living today in Western democracies enjoy the highest standard of living of any people who have ever lived, anytime, ever in the world. Most drastically, only a few decades ago it was still common for children to die in infancy or early childhood, and for women to die in childbirth, or for any number of people to die of bacterial infections.

On the other hand, technology does not always make everyone better off, regardless of its speed. The more efficient harvesting and farming techniques of, say, Easter Islanders in the mid centuries of the last millennium, or Mayans of about the same time, or Rwandans of the 1970s and 1980s and early '90s, led to unsustainable population growth, and the eventual collapse of their societies, usually in conjunction with environmental disaster and (in the case of Rwanda) genocide.

More simply, think of what Jakob Nielsen wrote recently:

In most industrialized nations, the biggest health problem today is that people get obese because there's too much food and it's too cheap.

For all the previous several million years of human history, through which many of our ancestors scrabbled for food and died young, they (once they developed speech, anyway) would have said, "Nice problem to have." But there are some who would argue that our vast technological improvements in medicine, agriculture, housing, transportation, communications, energy production and consumption, and other fields since the Industrial Revolution (or, in the grander scheme, since the invention of agriculture itself, which is relatively recent) might lead to a larger-scale collapse of our society as well, for the same population-vs.-environment reasons.

Or, less pessimistically, that we simply do not know whether our advances in the latest technologies of all sorts can keep up quickly enough with the negative consequences of their predecessors. The trend of "technology makes us better off" is a pretty good one, so things may continue to work out well, but we can't guarantee that it's predictive either, regardless of its speed—the future is not always like the past.


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