SC210 Online--Week 2--Lecture notes

Who Does Technology Benefit?

Volti Ch. 2, Winners & Losers: The Differential Effects of Technological Change

Volti stresses here that technological change changes a great many things--the ways people do things, the ways people think about what they do, the ways they think about each other. Science alone can have similar effects. In the July 2000 Scientific American, Ernst Mayr ("Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought") tells us that one of the major impacts of Darwin's views was a shift from "typological" thinking (groups such as races are distinct and can be characterized in terms of "types") to more statistical thinking (groups vary over broad ranges on any character you choose). In time this did a great deal to make racist thinking indefensible.

Not all such effects are foreseeable--Later on, we will look at the impact of the printing press. That was such a simple thing, really. Who could have thought it would create a new religion (Protestant Christianity) and stimulate the slaughter of millions in the American, French, Soviet, etc., revolutions?

Consider the use of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil. Alone, each has important and beneficial uses. Put them together, and you have a powerful explosive, as Timothy McVeigh showed the nation when he used the mix to destroy a building.

Some people feel that technology can have such drastic effects in so many ways--supporting war and terrorism, disrupting society, challenging cherished beliefs--that it should be very carefully regulated. Certainly, we should attempt to foresee the effects of every new technology, and if we do not like what we foresee, we should try to strangle the technology in its cradle. That is, we should ban technologies we think will be dangerous.

Should we ban Darwin's ideas? The printing press? Ammonium nitrate fertilizer?

Banning ammonium nitrate fertilizer might mean going back to using animal manures, and in Ye Olden Days, governments would confiscate manure piles in time of war--the reason being that under those piles one found deposits of saltpeter, potassium nitrate, an essential ingredient in gunpowder. Click here for a bit of history. There is no escaping the destructive potentials; the creative mind can find them anywhere.

Some effects are more subtle. Consider Volti's tale of the Yir Yoront. Missionaries introduced steel axes, thinking they were doing these Australian Aborigines a favor. But the Yir Yoront already had an ax-making technology which structured society and defined the roles and values of men and women. Now axes had to be bought or traded for, and women could own them too. "A certain kind of freedom was achieved, but only at the expense of confusion and insecurity. ... The result was rapid cultural disintegration...." Please compare this to what Resnick was saying in "Kirinyaga." His point had a lot to do with this; the Mundumugu Koriba was trying to heal very much that kind of disintegration.

Are there other technologies with similarly subversive potential? How about TV? Birth control pills (THE Pill)? What will be the impact of the morning-after pill? How about the battery-powered Segway Human Transporter?

What is the proper response to the threat of technologically induced change? Some authors suggest forethought, deliberation, regulation, in an effort to avoid the negative effects. Others suggest a very different approach--don't LET yourself be victimized by change, go to school, make sci-tech yours too.

How about the Luddites? The term is usually used to refer to people who wish to destroy technology. Originally, it referred to English workers who felt their jobs threatened at a time when the economy gave them few alternatives. When the economic climate improved after the defeat of Napoleon, the protests stopped. In other words, both problem and solution really lay outside the technology.

Modern "neo-Luddites" seem to have more complex motivations, born partly of disappointment arising from the failure of technology to live up to its most overblown promises. Those promises have said technology can fix social problems, and "techno-fixers" have tried, but the problems are worse than ever. "Techno-fixers" as technocrats have presented themselves as the proper shapers of "scientific management" and government and child-rearing, and they have not succeeded, surely because they insisted on treating people as machines (the "time & motion" movement; Skinnerian psychology, etc.).

The technocrats haven't given up, though. "We have a new vision of the machine people are," they say. "People are not like wind-up clocks but like computers, loaded with feedback and interconnections and information exchanges and so on. Now that we understand that, we can get it right."

Maybe. What do you think?

Volti, Ch. 3, Sources of Technological Change

In this chapter, Volti's topic is where new inventions, techniques, and technologies come from. The short answer is, "not just scientists." There are complex interrelations between various sectors of society. People--meaning the market, politics, even religion--make choices, and this is especially important when alternatives exist. People also drive the evolution of a technology by refinements and improvements (demand-pull). Engineers can and do play a part. Inventors (scientists, engineers, others) provide the revolutionary breakthroughs which create whole new categories of demand (and the breakthrough may not look terribly significant; the transistor made personal computers possible, but games like "Pong" made people take the first ones home).

Context is important. An invention such as hybrid corn can fail in the market largely because those who defined "improvement" and "feasibility" ignored what people would do with the product (tortillas). Babbage's VERY early computer failed because given the technology of the time, his device would work but would be too expensive (labor) and too finicky (too demanding of manufacturing precision) to be more than a one-off concept demo. It took electronics to make the vision real. Technological change thus hung fire for over a century and then in a sense "came from" the appearance of an enabling technology rather than from any single person.

Volti notes that cross-fertilization is common.

He also notes the idea of "effective demand" for a technology, a function of need and desire (which are not the same thing) and ability to pay for the technology. I love Volti's account of why photography succeeded--a growing middle class wanted an "upper class" image, which called for portraits on the walls, and photography was cheaper than painters. Need was hardly there, but desire was, and the technology was affordable.

Are there other areas of technology where "effective demand" is important? For instance, as long as whole-body cloning remains very expensive--never mind that some people find it scary--we need not worry about it replacing the normal mode of reproduction. It seems doubtful that there will be any real "need," even if there is a desire. But how about heart transplants? Cloning is not involved, just removing viable organs from the newly dead and matching them to the tissue types of potential recipients. Technology is certainly involved, from the drugs that suppress the immune system so the organ is not rejected to the apparatus used for shipping the organs. It's expensive, too. Is there desire? Need? Can we afford it? These are genuine questions, and they can have real effects on public policy. Consider how the Jehovah's Witnesses have thought of heart transplants. Desire and need have conflicted in the past, but desire has changed. Why? Do you think attitudes will change in similar fashion in regard to other new technologies, such as genetic engineering?

Genetic engineering is another interesting example. Applied to food crops, there may be a real need--it holds immense potential to increase yields and decrease the use of toxic chemicals (pesticides). It is very economical. But currently it faces political obstacles driven by fear (in Europe, the "Mad Cow Disease" or BSE experience has left many very anxious about the application of technology to agriculture--though "Mad Cow" involved very conventional, traditional technology, the use of slaughterhouse waste products in animal feed; it had nothing to do with genetic engineering). Here, desire is the problem.

For a brief history of BSE, click here. For a depressingly huge array of source material, click here.

Volti's remarks on planned vs. unplanned economies are also worth noting. Note how this connects to the problems highlighted by the Hindsight study and its kin (see below). Progress cannot be planned.

ISSUE 2: Should "Intelligent Design" Be Taught in Public Schools?

The Taking Sides books seek to identify issues that people are arguing about right now. Here the argument involves the attempt by fundamentalist Christians to impose their view of the origins of the universe, Earth, and humanity--which is in utter contradiction of what scientists have concluded, based on evidence--upon public education. Professor J. Scott Turner argues that the real issue is less a matter of religion than of whether the world is purposeful, as indeed it seems to many people. Intelligent design can in fact be usefully taught, and doing so avoids intrusions on academic freedom. The National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies argue that evolution is so firmly ensconced in the foundations of modern science that nonscientific alternatives to evolution such as creationism (including intelligent design) have no place in the public school science curriculum.

If creationism is to be taught in the public schools, which one (if any) of the various creation myths should be taught? Although Christians, Jews, and Moslems all rely on the Old Testament of the Bible, there are many religions outside the Judeo-Christian framework. And some creation myths are VERY different!

Is evolution just another tradition? It has the advantage of relying on evidence and a clear mechanism (natural selection). To scientists, this means that it is tradition-free--anyone, of any background, can see the evidence and understand the mechanism. It is also such a compelling and broadly useful idea that philosopher Daniel Dennett, in Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), could argue that Charles Darwin had in his theory of evolution by means of natural selection the single best idea of all time, and that it has made its religious predecessors quite obsolete.

Should morality--standards of right and wrong--be taught in the public schools? This question is closely related to the Issue question, for as noted in the Introduction to this Issue in the text, some anti-evolutionists believe that evolution threatens human morality by denying the importance of God. Ernst Mayr, in "Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought," Scientific American (July 2000), credits evolutionary thinking, among other things, with weakening our tendency to think in terms of "types" ("All blacks are like ..."; "All women are like ..."), thus leading to the Civil Rights and feminist revolutions, and creating a more just, equitable, and moral society.

Questions for Discussion

1. We need some more examples of socially subversive technology besides steel axes. We might expand here upon TV or the Pill, but what about the computer? In what ways is it a subversive technology? Bear in mind that "subversive" is not a synonym for evil or immoral, but rather for "undermining of established authority."

2. Can the impacts of technology be positive enough to justify searching for technological fixes to social problems? One social problem is the use of smartphones and tablets in class to do things that have nothing to do with classwork. A "social" solution would be to teach students to knock it off. Or one might just block wireless Internet access in the classroom. Which is the better solution? Why?

3. To what extent do standards of right and wrong depend on religion? Look up "Darwinian morality" on the Internet or in the library, and you will find an overwhelming mass of material! Is there a consensus?