Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

How dangerous is technology?

Technological advances have provided immense improvements in our lives, but often with a hidden cost. Even the historic skills of bronze and iron working were driven by a desire not only for ploughs and tools, but for better weapons of war. This is still the case for much of modern science. Technical knowledge has helped to combat diseases, improve health, provide more food, offer faster travel, or ease hardship, and this is progress. We like novelty and innovation, but forget they happen at the limits of our understanding. We rarely see, or cannot predict, potential dangers. Innovation and knowledge are expanding at unprecedented rates, but we individually understand an ever-smaller percentage of the total.

The numbers of our daily exchanges of emails, phone calls, texts, photographs, and blogs was unimaginable just a few years ago. We receive them but ignore, delete, or forget them far faster than we did with hand-written letters and photographs. Technological progress means the life expectancy of stored data is rapidly shortening as our computer systems evolve and old data are incompatible with the modern storage and software technologies. We have photos of grandparents but do not expect electronic pictures to survive for our grandchildren. Stone carvings did not say much, but they exist.

Unexpected dangers lie in our reliance on computers and communications that are dependent on electrical power, optical fibre links, and satellites. Satellites are crucial for communications yet they have a finite life expectancy, and can fragment into thousands of high speed components that will destroy other satellites. This is a runaway situation, and current plans to improve data rates by doubling the number may mean satellite-based technology is doomed within a few decades. Failed satellites already contribute to a myriad of orbiting fragments, so further collisions are inevitable. Chunks as small as a mobile phone, at orbital speeds, can have kinetic energy 500 times greater than a military tank shell. Impacts are spectacular. Satellite technology may self-destruct; only the time scale is uncertain. Political, or terrorist, acts could rapidly remove satellites.

Such dangers are predictable, unlike natural phenomena such as sunspot emissions which strike the Earth. They make beautiful aurora in the night sky, but have destroyed power networks. We are vulnerable as we are totally dependent on electrical power, electronics, and satellites. Major solar emissions that intersect our Earth’s orbit are inevitable, and they can cause a total loss of power in advanced societies, including the destruction of satellites. The consequences are so horrendous that few people wish to consider them.

Networking by Comfreak. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

The tangible benefits of technological progress are wonderful, but are matched by irreversible damage to our global resources. To support almost eight billion people, our attempts to provide sufficient food are made with limited regard to the land or other creatures, and we have destroyed cultures and hundreds of languages. Crop yields and health care have advanced with the aid of drugs and chemicals but they are not, and cannot be, confined to their original locations. Food and water supplies are seriously contaminated with a cocktail of chemicals and drugs which no earlier civilization has ever experienced. Despite warnings and research, the potential for allergies, ill health, and mutagenic and fertility changes are ignored by the majority. Humans have always been concerned with the present, self-interest, and profit. This is why we have advanced. The difference now is that we have outgrown our potential resources.

Technologies isolate many people from society, especially the poor or elderly. Our dependence on computers offers an obvious example as the changing systems are expensive or too complex for such people. Instead of benefitting them, they are side-lined. Further, the technologies are invariably designed by, and for, the young, who cannot appreciate how age has reduced sight, sensitivity to pale colours in display contrast, or manual dexterity. Lack of understanding can equally increase vulnerability to computer scams on their data and money. Technology is spawning an exponential growth in cyber-crime. This is globally running at many billions of dollars per year, and steeply rising.

I am highlighting dangers of new technologies that are often unexpected and unforeseen. They are hidden by very positive aspects of new science, but are placing advanced civilizations in danger of a sudden and total collapse. My comments are not anti-technology, but are intended to raise awareness of our vulnerability to the dangers that exist. It is absolutely essential that we recognise this and actively make contingency planning to minimise undesirable consequences. There is urgency, otherwise advanced civilizations will crash within decades. Over exploitation of resources can be addressed if we have the political will. It needs governments with intelligence to recognise that there are natural disasters, such as the sunspot emissions, that are inevitable. These can strike at any time, and we must have contingency measures in place.

Featured Image credit: Satellite by PIRO4D. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Joseph A. Bartolotta

    Really enjoyed reading your article, Pete, about the technological crisis of present, and agree, that the gradual slip of human craft needs to return and work to balance our current state of progress.

  2. Bartosz

    You make really important points. Still i don’t really understand how humans want to controll the technology, if they cannot even controll themselves. There is just no way it will work out like this and at that rate, it will be pure self destruction in the end. To me it seems like the lagg of self controll projected on the outside created the desire to controll at least something else even if it’s mechanical and soulless. (controll is a good thing. The desire not, because if you desire something it means that you haven’t got it allready, right?)

  3. M.Nadeem Nadir

    A realistic prospective depiction of the havoc man’s flirtation with technology….
    …they happen at the limits of our understanding….
    Technology isolates many people…
    My pick of the article….

Comments are closed.