Sunday, August 3, 2008

Technology: From Worst to First

Most technology is ambiguous in its effects, creating or furthering both opportunities and problems. As Raymond Williams pointed out a long time ago, I believe in The Politics of Modernism although I could use help on that, technology itself causes no necessary effect. The question is how it’s deployed, although of course how it is made depends greatly on what its makers imagine its deployment might be. Of course we’re living in an era (and have been for awhile) when the overwhelming presence of technology leads to perhaps ever greater levels of problems as well as fascinating new options for problems.

I’m nowhere near any final conclusions just yet, so I hope you’ll check in with your own thoughts. I’m listing here what constitute to my mind major technological developments, mainly in the 20th century but a few from earlier. I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive and would welcome additions. I’m concentrating on widely available technologies though and not, say, developments in fields like medical technology that are used only by a specialized group of people or affect only a small group of people.

What I’ve done is listed these technologies from worst to first: from most purely harmful to those that seem, on balance, most helpful and least harmful. None is without negative effects. A few seem without positive ones. I know the idea of lists is always partially absurd, but the list is helping me compare effects across different kinds of objects. I’m most uncertain about the ones in the middle of the list and how they compare to each other.

Since my thinking about this is only beginning, you’re extremely welcome to critique my order here. Even better would be if you’d supply your own list. My point scale for five most harmful technologies will be 20 points for a first place vote, 10, for second, 5 for third, 3 for fourth, and 1 for fifth. If I get enough people to make a list, I’ll call a “winner.”

For now I’m not going to give my explanations of why I’ve ranked them this way. Except perhaps for one, just so you can see how I’m going about this. I’m ranking machine guns as more purely harmful than nuclear weapons. It’s at least possible to say that nuclear weaponry has had some effect in deterring the kinds of large scale destructive warfare that existed before them, even while they’ve caused mass death and have enabled new forms of warfare. It’s not an argument I would make, but I can see how it could be made. On the other hand I can’t think of any even remotely positive argument that anybody make about machine guns (and other rapid, multiple round guns) except that they kill more people more rapidly than earlier guns could do. And in fact, am I right that machine guns have killed many more people than nuclear weapons? I’m not sure, but I think so.

Machine guns (and other rapid, multiple round guns)
Nuclear weapons
Home Phones
Cell phones
The Internet


Anonymous said...

A most thought-provoking post, Mark. I thank you for introducing me to Raymond Williams, a man whose work I should be acquainted with but who so far had escaped my attention. Lynn White said something quite similar in 1962: "a new device merely opens a door; it does not compel one to enter" (Medieval Technology and Social Change). In both versions the claim is open to doubt; give steel knives to a tribe that has only stone and some effects will be predictable to a degree of confidence that would be the envy of any social scientist. As to the evaluation of these effects, Melvin Kranzberg's self-styled "law" may apply here: "Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral."
Yes, lists do carry more than a trace of the absurd, but all investigation must begin with speculation and all speculation begins with oversimplification. And what better simplification tool than a list?
This particular sort of list, however, is devilishly tricky, in part because the desirable technologies are inevitably close cousins of the undesirable ones, and also because the very power that a technology confers is itself a power for both good and ill. Take the machine gun (please!). If we have cheap steel, nitrocellulose, and brass shell casings, we have the essential ingredients of a machine gun, and if we shun the gun without shunning them, we will leave others all they need to make machine guns and unleash all the horror we hoped to avoid. Thus if we wish to shun the machine gun we must shun the cheap steel on which railroads depend, the nitrocellulose on which film photography depended for its formative decades (until circa 1950), and the electrolytic extraction of of copper (with zinc, for brass shell casings) on which the circuits in the refrigerator depend. And even considering machine guns only as devices, and not as systems, should we nevertheless be grateful for the machine guns in the Spitfires and Hurricanes of 1940, since each Heinkel and Dornier they destroyed saved children and their parents on the ground? I wonder how many thousands of wonderful people are walking the streets of London right now because their parents' lives were saved in this way.
Yes, machine guns have killed about 100x as many people as nuclear weapons. But do we take into account the nature of the victims? Probably at least half of those killed by machine guns would have been called "combatants," while almost none of the victims of atomic weapons were such (though the attempt to so designate them was made). Or is "combatant" a convenient fiction invented by generals and statesmen too old to fight?
I would suggest that medical technologies do belong on any such list. The 20th was the first century when most people could realistically expect to see their small children as grown ups. It's likely that sanitation, vaccines, and antibiotics have saved your life and mine. Sewers alone save many thousands of lives daily. Then there's chlorination of drinking water (but if we embrace chlorine, we have embraced the first gas warfare agent). Or antisepsis, which saves lives at minimum cost. Yet the first medical antiseptic (phenol), became (when nitrated) picric acid, the first military high explosive (and high explosives killed millions in World War I).
I am tempted to attempt a list of my own, but I feel thwarted. Whenever I think of a wonderfully beneficial technology, I find it hopelessly intertwined in horror or ruin. I sense you judge the extrication of related destructive and benevolent devices possible, but I would disagree; their a package deal (like cars and paved roads). I would, however, venture the bicycle, at least, as exceptional in its benevolence. But the bicycle depends for its existence on the cheap steel that gave us--at precisely the same historical moment (1880s)--the machine gun.
With thanks for this and other stimulating posts,
P Nortonymous

K. Lorraine Graham said...

I'm having trouble ranking this. I want to just say that cars and machine guns are the worst: cars for the way they lead to suburban infrastructures that don't encourage walking or public interaction and machine guns for leading the charge in ever-bloodier forms of warfare and violence around the world.

Dan / Daniel Gutstein said...

Electricity, man, is dooming us. But I believe that we need machine guns, tanks, artillery, and airplanes in order to rid ourselves of electricity. Then we will need something to rid ourselves of machine guns, tanks, artillery, and airplanes. We could call in the snake. Then we would need something to rid us of the snake. We could call in the mongoose. You see where I'm going. But then who, pray tell, or what, pray tell, would rid us of the mongoose? I can't even begin to begin to imagine. ----BA

Chris Tiefel said...

What about print?
Consider the printed book as a piece of technology, & other printed materials including pamphlets, propaganda, magazines, advertisements, religious texts, et cetera. Surely the technology of print —though it is so familiar/antiquated now could it even be considered a technology on your list? — has caused a good deal of terrible & good events.

Johannes said...

What about olive oil? And coffee? And coffee machines? What would my life be without pasta?