Technology will save the day! (Part 2)

Now some of you may already have picked up on the fact that I’m a huge fan of Tom Murphy’s ‘Do the math’ blog, and he has come up with a great analogy. He likens the alternative energy sources to emergency exits on a plane – everyone takes comfort from knowing they are there, but just because we can rattle off a lot of names for alternative energy sources, doesn’t mean those ‘exits’ will be available or viable when we need them. Going back to the analogy of emergency exits on a plane, imagine that after a crash landing, one exit is wedged shut, there’s a fire directly outside another exit, and while you can’t see the other exits, there are some panicked shouts coming from behind you that don’t bode well… You get the picture, right?

The answers seem relatively easy now while we still have liquid fossil fuels, but if we don’t start making changes while there is still a surplus, we’ll be stuffed. New infrastructure for alternative energy sources will require the very energy that is in short supply (see Tom’s blog post about the energy trap).

And what if we’re wrong? What if the perfect solution is just around the corner, and we’re just wasting our time trying to live more sustainably and come up with alternative energy sources? Well, as best I can tell, we won’t have lost much, apart from a wasteful lifestyle that seems to leave people feeling unhappier and less satisfied as time goes on. The question is, what will we lose if the perfect solution is not around the next corner?

There are no miracles in science, and we are going to be badly disappointed if we expect science to solve all our problems by “magic”. Can anyone give me an example of an actual problem solved by technology? The example only counts if the ‘solution’ didn’t cause a bigger problem…

3 thoughts on “Technology will save the day! (Part 2)

  1. Problem: we deal poorly with extreme climatic conditions.
    Technology: Clothing

    Problem: food does not last a long time, yet is abundant sometimes and scarce at other times.
    Technology: refrigeration, sterilization, salting, etc

    Problem: many things we want to move are heavy
    Technology: the wheel, the wedge, the lever

    Problem: Small cuts or scrapes get infected and cause death or losses of limbs.
    Technology: the recognition of bacteria as pathogens and the development of hand-washing

    Problem: when many humans come together in one place, there is a lot of waste:
    Technology: Sewage systems

    And if you mean to say that all of these things “caused more problems”, you are comparing to the wrong thing – compare to a completely tech-free world where the life expectancy is 40, you basically die when you have a small cut that gets infected and you live in constant fear of animals and other tribes. You have very little idea of how the world works and therefore fear strange and cruel deities, not to mention that food is scarce and just keeping yourself fed probably takes up the majority of your short life.

  2. Sandré says:

    You make a good point, and technology has certainly improved our lives. However, each invention also has a flip-side; it’s not just all good. And that’s why I’m concerned about relying too heavily on technological solutions: whatever we come up with is very unlikely not to cause about as many problems as it solves…

  3. But technology is what we call the solutions to any problems. See my list above: hand-washing is a technology, just as flint-making or agriculture is. Figuring out how to live with less waste is also a technological advance. I suppose you mean technology as something mechanical or electronic, but even then you should be more specific.

    I totally agree that every action we take has unforeseen effects. What I disagree with is this idea that every solution creates as many (or more) problems as it solves, because that would tend to suggest we should just learn to accept the problems we have (and do nothing) rather than do something about it. I think one should remember that inaction is itself a choice that can also have unintended consequences – one should compare the risks associated with inaction along with the other choices on the table and choose the one which has the best expected outcomes overall.

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