Introduction

It might be a familiar progression, transpiring on many worlds—
a planet, newly formed, placidly revolves around its star;
life slowly forms; a kaleidoscopic procession of creatures evolves;
intelligence emerges which, at least up to a point,
confers enormous survival value; and then technology
is invented…In a flash, they create world-altering contrivances.
Some planetary civilizations see their way through,
place limits on what may and what must not be done,
and safely pass through the time of perils.
Others, not so lucky or so prudent, perish.

— Carl Sagan

 

The time of perils has already begun. KnowledgeContext offers a tool for navigating them. It is a personal tool, one we might use in our everyday choices. And it is a global tool, one that could help our civilization survive.

Just how did we get into this situation?  Expanding on Carl Sagan’s description: For most of the earth’s existence it has hosted organic life. Single cell life evolved into multicellular plants and animals. Some animals started to use simple tools—from otters cracking open shellfish with rocks to chimpanzees dipping into termite mounds with sticks—but another animal went farther. It used tools to create even better tools. With spears it hunted. With sewn animal hides it survived the cold. With plows it created surplus. With tablet and scribes it recorded information. These tools led to the printing press, microscope, steam engine, telephone, airplane, and computer. We call these things technology, and for a million years they have been transforming our environment…with ever increasing power, costs, and benefits.

World War II saw the creation of one of our most potent contrivances so far: a weapon based on a nuclear chain reaction. Not as well known as the atomic bomb was a possible side effect of its detonation: a second chain reaction that might incinerate the earth’s entire atmosphere. While the nuclear chain reaction was limited by the amount of radioactive fuel contained in the bomb, the atmospheric chain reaction would be limited only by the amount of oxygen cloaking the earth.

What to do?  Scientists building the first atomic bomb estimated the risk to be as high as three chances in a million. They weighed the costs and benefits…to themselves, their country, and their planet. They considered the objective calculations and their subjective values before proceeding with the detonation.

The atmosphere did burn, but only in proximity to the explosion. There was no atmospheric chain reaction. Had there been, we would not be here to write about it. The atomic bomb is hardly alone in leveraging human power to a perilous height:

  • One of the oldest tools, knives in the new form of box cutters, were used to hijack airplanes, which were used as suicide weapons in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. Technology gives individuals breathtaking power.
  • The Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives synthesized a completely new virus in just two weeks. Unlike a bomb, a virus does not explode once, but can multiply and spread. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) circled the globe in a matter of days.
  • SARS was neither highly infective nor highly deadly, but Vector, the USSR’s secret bioweapons laboratory, genetically modified diseases to be both. One product was a smallpox virus designed to be resistant to all known treatment. Scientists also worked toward viruses and bacteria that would degrade the human immune system or modify behavior.
  • Electric probes implanted in the brains of rats have demonstrated rudimentary “mind control,” foreshadowing the day when entertainment may become as immersive as video games and as addictive as brain-chemistry-altering drugs. What effect might “digital methamphetamine” have on society?
  • Nanotechnology, the technique of creating objects on the molecular scale, would become more efficient if it could create microscopic robots—“nanobots”—that could, in turn, create more nanobots, which would create still more nanobots. Factories would then have workers that could also make more workers. But as Mickey Mouse discovered in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice when his magic broom replicated itself without limit, a self-reproducing tool can quickly escape our control.

There are good reasons for almost any technology. Even though they can be used as weapons and can transport disease, airplanes provide tremendous benefits. Those developing a drug-resistant strain of smallpox must have believed that presented more benefit than cost, at least for them. The question is not, “Should we have technology?”  Obviously, we have it and—barring catastrophe—we will have much more of it. The question is, “How do we evaluate it?”  Unfortunately, the most compelling argument for a considered, critical approach would be a spectacular disaster…and that could exterminate us.

 

We live in an increasingly interdependent world and,
due to the progress of technology, our power over nature
has increased by leaps and bounds. Unless we use that
power wisely, we are in danger of damaging or destroying
both our environment and our civilization.

— George Soros

 

Evaluating technology is not just about saving the world, but is part of our everyday lives. Our education, work, health, and recreation choices pivot on technology. What kind of car is best for you?  Which software should you buy?  Should you take the new drug your doctor prescribed?  Do you write your senator to support or oppose a missile defense shield or cloning?  What jobs will technology move offshore…before it renders them obsolete?  Billions of people making a thousand billion choices, aggregating—like raindrops building to a flood—to transform the earth. We did not get from stone tools to genetic engineering without choices.

Key to our individual and collective future is how we make those choices. But if we are to understand and evaluate technology, we face a monumental problem: technology is complex. There is more of it than we can fully understand and, beyond that, it is changing faster than we can keep up. Stone tools changed little over thousands of human generations, but modern technology changes radically within just a single human generation. Personal computers, cellular telephones, medicinal drugs, and weapons systems render themselves obsolete ever more quickly, and this trend continues to accelerate. So the small percentage of technology that any individual can fully understand is becoming smaller every day.

In our highly specialized world, even experts rely on experts. The auto mechanic fixes the car of the computer technician who fixes the computer of the mechanic. We rely on expert’s reviews, take our doctor’s advice, listen to our friends, and then make gut decisions. And, while our children exhibit an amazing facility for adapting to and using new technology, they are no better prepared to evaluate it. Schools teach them that technology is no more than computers, and that knowing how to operate them is equivalent to understanding them. Learning which buttons to push is no substitute for the ability to evaluate.

In an era of rapidly changing technology, studying the details of what has already been invented is like driving a car while craning out the window and staring down at the blur of asphalt. This is a dangerous way to drive. Learning to operate current tools is important for many occupations, but in order to plan ahead we need a grasp of the timeless patterns that have held true for stone tools, plows, computers, and genetic engineering…and may well continue to hold for future technologies. This is not about how to design a computer or repair a car, but about discovering a big picture that puts these technologies—all technologies—into context. It is technological literacy.

There is a major difference between
technological competence and technological literacy.
Literacy is what everyone needs.
Competence is what a few people need
in order to do a job or make a living.
And we need both.

— William Wulf

 

This form of literacy changes how we perceive technology. Do we treat it as some foreign and strange thing that “experts” create and direct us to use?  Or, quite the opposite, do we create a relationship with technology, putting it within our understanding and influence?  Even a computer engineer or auto mechanic may sometimes take the first view, seeing the other as an expert whose technological domain is completely foreign. Technologically literate people take the second, more powerful view.

This “big picture” contextual view of technology is precisely what we need to navigate these perilous times—both on a personal and a societal level. To gain that view, we need to figure out what is true for many technologies, even those not yet invented. It is in our nature to seek out the patterns around us—all a part of finding our place in the Universe. We look for patterns in technology much the same way we would look for them in anything…by asking the right questions.

 

This webpage is adapted from the book
Technology Challenged: Understanding Our Creations & Choosing Our Future
available at Amazon