Boon or Bane
Just as flood-swollen currents carve new paths for a river, so technology has changed the course of our culture. If our culture includes moral and ethical issues and technology has changed our culture, then technology has changed our moral and ethical issues. As these raging waters changed the landscape of our lives, it has changed the ways we process the concepts of good and bad. Have all of those changes been for the good of society? Or have some of them created even more difficult moral and ethical questions?
I come from a time when technology was called “progress” and it was considered heretical to doubt its benefits. We tend to forget the years before antibiotics when people died from pneumonia and infections. We take for granted the warnings about kidney failure, liver damage and replacement therapy for intestinal flora that accompany today’s “bigger and better” medications. The terror felt by parents, in the days prior to polio vaccines, has been forgotten. The days are past when a car owner could get a manual from the library, some parts from Pep Boys and fix his own car.
Now the computerized automobile requires a trip to the dealer for parts as well as labor billed at $50 or $60 an hour! Research papers required a dictionary, an encyclopedia and a trip to the card catalog at the library instead of a computer capable of web-browsing. Referring to research on the Internet, David Rothenberg states: “Search engines . . . are closer to slot machines than library catalogues . . . You may get 234,468 supposed references . . . one in a thousand may help you. ” He describes this as “the hunt-and-peck method of writing a paper” (A44).
I do not subscribe to the cynicism of Swiss playwright Max Frisch who is quoted as saying that “technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it” (qtd. in Gup, A52). In common with many of my sources, literary and personal, I believe we must find a way to make technology our servant rather than our master. There are a myriad of ways in which technology has changed our lives. I will discuss just a few: biological/medical; environmental; political and educational.
In his Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman traces the evolution of technology from a system of support to a monstrous tyranny that overshadows our lives from birth to death. In the fields of medical technology, politics, religion and the media, he deplores the loss of humanity, sacrificed to the techniques of information storage, retrieval and dissemination (115-117). For many, the “wake-up call” regarding the dangers of uncontrolled technology came from reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Her book encouraged the growth of environmental groups which succeeded in outlawing the use of DDT.
Lobbyists have derailed efforts to change, by law, the methods of chemical fertilization and the use of pesticides. These methods are fouling our rivers and streams and killing the Everglades. The miracles of chemical technology in defeating disease does not justify its use in these ways nor does it ameliorate the fears we have regarding biological warfare. This is just one instance of the “tail wagging the dog. ” The improvements in medical care counterbalance these problems. Personally, I must remember that without the advances in cardiac and cancer research, neither my young granddaughter nor I would be alive today.
Dr. Lloyd Young mentions Positron Emission Tomography which may transform the treatment of bi-polar disease and schizophrenia (Young). The combustion engine is another form of technology which has changed our culture for better and worse. At present , more than 160 countries are meeting in Kyoto, Japan, to discuss the problems of global warming. The most recent reports from there are that there is much rhetorical posturing going on but little in the way of solutions or agreement (Washington Post , 12/6/97). Auto emissions are just one of the suspected causes of this frightening phenomenon.
I realize that the automobile is a “sacred cow” to most Americans. The thought of giving up the freedom it provides is abhorrent to most of us, but some solution must be found . Fossil fuels are an unsustainable resource and our reliance on them has colored our policies, domestic and foreign (Fitch). The combustion engine has had a pervasive effect on our culture. The invasion of superhighways has changed our landscape. Millions of acres of farmland have been eaten up and forests denuded. Hillsides and mountains have been opened up to erosion.
Add to this the carnage of automobile deaths on the highways annually. As our society became more mobile, family ties became more flexible and extended families extended from coast to coast. On the other hand, the combustion engine has provided refrigeration for trucks, which in turn have changed the diet of the American people for the better. I remember, as a child, that we saw oranges only as the knob in the toe of our Christmas stockings. Transporting them from Florida or California was not cost-effective and frozen orange juice was not significantly available until long after World War II.
The same can be said for Mid-westerners who never ate shellfish and needed to supplement their diets with iodine to avoid goiters. Let us not forget the impact the automobile has made on our social mores, with drive-in movies and restaurants, and even (according to Holly Welker) our sex lives. In the arena of politics, the media uses technology in a variety of ways. It not only brings the immediacy of the news into our living rooms, but by careful editing sometimes distorts or skews the meaning of what we see. We have become inured to suffering, exploitation and corruption by having them served along with dinner daily.
In the attempt to sift facts from fiction, we have become cynical and tend to believe nothing. Technological advances in the field of communications, and concurrently the field of politics, from the fireside chats of F. D. R. to the Watergate and Iran scandals, have led us to delude ourselves about the power of the ballot box. We stay away from elections in droves, feeling powerless (Jamieson, 103). In See How They Run, Paul Taylor calls this “political efficacy–the extent to which people feel connected to politics” (240). Education is probably the field which has changed most dramatically in the past decade.
The introduction (or invasion) of the computer into the home and the classroom has changed the way we look at learning. Or does it? When Mrs. Audrea Anderson described the future of education, noting that “The job of teaching will change dramatically from that of a purveyor of information to that of a facilitator of learning who supports and cheers students onward,” I was surprised. This has been the technique used by every good teacher I have known in the past 65 years. Undoubtedly, the computer has changed our lives. Sometimes it frustrates us with incorrect phone and credit card bills.
At other times it amuses us with games and an outlet for creative thinking. In the field of education, it seems to be used primarily for access to information. All over the world there has been a change in attitude regarding the need for the ability to read and write (Resnick, 27). Pre-school children in the U. S. are being taught to use a computer and being computer-literate is often a requirement for employment. I question whether literacy and computer-literacy are one and the same, however. I believe that a real education requires face-to-face confrontation and exchange of views.
My views are not the views of modern educators who are pushing for more and more “distance learning” and computerized classes. Are there solutions for these problems? Probably not. There are, however, ways in which they can be ameliorated. The means require attitudes which we hear little about these days. Words like sacrifice, self-denial, discernment and compassion seem to be disappearing from our vocabularies. My suggestions for reversing some of these problems include all of them. Looking at the problem of global warming, there seems to be a need to replace fossil fuels with something more earth-friendly, like solar energy.
Following the spring floods last year, a town on the Missouri River decided it had had enough! They voted to move the entire town to a hillside, above the reach of the river. This is not what made the move newsworthy. What was amazing is that they decided to build this new town as a “green” town, as environmentally friendly as is possible with available technology. Automobiles are limited to the outskirts of town; mass transit is powered by electricity which in turn is provided by trash incinerators. All homes and public buildings use solar heating and recycling is a way of life there.
Our local, state and federal governments could require that all new construction be done in this way. The planners of Florida Gulf Coast University had a wonderful opportunity to do something along these lines but as far as I can see, did nothing. At the very least , they could reward students who take the bus instead of driving to school! In the biological/medical field, technology must be governed with a universal ethical standard. How this is to be accomplished is beyond my capability. I certainly do not think that a statement from President Clinton will deter human cloning.
I feel that our condemnation of Saddam Hussein for building biological warfare is hypocritical because I believe we have done the same thing. Our government denies this . . . but I remember when we were told that the workers at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, were developing a new form of green camouflage paint! I question some of the medical advances of our time. Just because it is possible to impregnate and deliver septuplets, is it something we really need or want to do? Just because we are able to keep people alive into their 100s, can we assure them of vibrant, interest-filled lives?
The problems with politics and the media are easier to solve. We as individuals and as a society must take back our right to determine our own lives. This entails becoming educated, informed voters and then getting out and voting. This would facilitate the answers to other concerns like those listed above. If we elect ethical, forward-thinking people, we can accomplish some of these goals. We need to make sacrifices (like giving up our gas-guzzling automobiles). We need to give up our jingoism and see ourselves as fellow citizens of the earth.
I am not suggesting a world government, just a concern for the earth and its peoples. We should be spending more on the education of our children and less on their entertainment. We must become discerning readers and listeners and be willing to share ideas and solutions with others. Only in this way can we turn back the flood of Technopoly and make technology our friendly servant. Dr. Fitch put it succinctly: “if we remain complacent, believing that technology can solve all of our problems, we will discover the human species is not only limited but threatened by social pressures as well as pressure for resources. “