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.
Sometimes, our technology judgments appear accurate and even prescient. Take the case of our judging the highly beneficial public health technologies of water treatment, immunization, and infectious disease control. Millions of lives have been saved from needless suffering and premature death from these technologies, and vast medical expenses have been avoided, with few clear downsides and only modest costs to society.
Conversely, consider the companion case of our accurately judging harmful technologies, or what I will call technilogies – with the affix “nil” meaning emptying or nullifying. Technilogy can be understood as inventions where: 1) social costs greatly exceed benefits, 2) benefits and costs are unequally and thus divisively allocated in society, 3) unethical or unprincipled behavior is facilitated, or 4) use of the invention is irrational, self-defeating, or patently harmful.
Obvious examples of technilogies that we clearly understand as such include weapons of mass destruction, coercive technologies whose use is viewed as unethical or repressive, and machines and chemical processes that impair us, such as ones that produce harmful junk foods or destructive recreational drugs, once again to begin a list. In each case, most (though not all) of us see the harmful nature of these technological or technical innovations, and many of us work or wish to stop their spread.
But these relatively clear examples of our correctly judging beneficial technologies and comprehending harmful technilogies may mask the fact that, on balance, we generally are not doing a good or even adequate job of discriminating between helpful technology and limiting technilogy today.
Consider the perilous and far-reaching contemporary examples of irrational and self-escalating arms technology, reliance on precarious nuclear power production, our dominant food systems that dangerously harm the environment, and the many technologies enabling unchecked, socially and ecologically destructive, materialism. In each example, a strong argument can be made that at least a significant minority of us have misjudged or paid inadequate attention to the technologies highlighted, and have failed to see them as technilogies, on their own or in the larger context of our times.
If you are not yet swayed by my examples, you might further consider that our modern technological world is probably not sustainable as presently structured, and even may be at great risk of ecological collapse, without substantial change and adjustment to the technologies we employ and depend upon (see Turner On the Cusp of Global Collapse? (pdf)). With this trump card of sorts, the questioning of our current technological choices and calls for new attentiveness regarding our use, development, and understanding of technology – and the broad avoidance of technilogy – can be quite compelling.
To help you and others better discern between strongly beneficial technologies, more dubious ones, and likely quite harmful, maladaptive, or unwise technilogies, I’ve prepared two lists. One is a list of features that are likely common to naturally advancing, beneficial, or adaptive technologies. The other list describes likely features of limiting, irrational, or naturally regressive technilogies, especially over time or as they naturally combine with one another and tend to compound in effect.
Once again, my recommended approach to assessing technologies is to gauge them on a net basis, and also with the understanding or humility that perfect prediction is not possible, whether we judge a technology favorably or unfavorably.
Beneficial Technologies Harmful Technilogies
– Increase health & well-being – Reduce health & well-being
– Expand understanding – Limit or impede understanding
– Improve sustainability – Impede or reduce sustainability
– Reduce social risks & hazards – Increase social risks & hazards
– Easy access/low or declining costs – Difficult access/high or increasing costs
– Renewable or recycled resource use – Non-renewable or raw resource use
– Ecologically regenerative – Ecologically degenerative
I would encourage you to spend a moment considering these criteria critically, perhaps adding or subtracting criteria to improve the lists from your perspective. Then, to deepen your understanding of the technology and technilogy around us all, you might think of at least three examples of each. These examples can be from your life, your community, or the world more broadly.
In each case, if you want, score the examples against my or your criteria. You can do this simply by giving the example a +1 score for each alignment with a technology criterion, a -1 score for each alignment with a technilogy criterion, and a 0 score if the example lies between the attribute pairs.
I hope this discussion proves useful for you, that it will make you a better consumer, creator, advocate, or manager of technology, and that it will allow you to better assess and progressively influence the technology in your life, and thus in all our lives, over time. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura.
Tell others about ArchaNatura…encourage modern natural design!