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 Tanks Artillery Cars Television Airplanes Radio Air-Conditioning Trains Home Phones Cell phones Films Computers The Internet Refrigerators