In the mid-1400s, Johannes Gutenberg famously invented the printing press, enabling a new and seemingly irreversible change in the amount of written information in the world. His invention quickly decentralized, democratized, and expanded human knowledge, and ultimately helped to usher in the modern age.
Roughly 500 years later, and though his invention still lacked a graphical interface, Edmund Berkeley created what is often recognized as the first personal computer. And 50 years after this, in a world newly saturated with desktop and then laptop personal computers, Steve Jobs broke open mobile computing, in both phone and tablet forms.
With these specific examples of technological development, a relatively easy case can be made that they provided a substantial net benefit to human life – to our understanding, welfare, and potential for natural progress. With the qualifier “net,” I mean simply that the benefits of these technologies exceeded their costs, or in naturalized terms, that each technology made us more, rather than less, adaptive as a species.
Early Printing Press & Troubled Modern Nuclear Plant
Importantly, it is essential to highlight that there are clear costs involved with each of these highly beneficial technologies, and indeed with all technology. For example, printing accelerated deforestation, computers clogged landfills with plastics and hazardous materials, and mobile computing led to countless lost hours of productive human life, via the taking and sharing of selfies and pet photos.
More seriously, these quick examples of technological costs or downsides of course merely begin what can be a long and substantial list of negative attributes associated with any new technology, even helpful or progressive ones.
Overall, the weighing of the costs and benefits of technologies – past, present, and proposed – is a complex task and one that is sure to be inexact or imperfect, even with great hindsight, owing to the natural veil that is complexity. But practically, we must and do make such assessments every day, whether as consumers, inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, regulators, or social leaders. And how well we make these technology-related judgments is critically important, since the future sustainability and progress of our species literally may be on the line at times.