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Technology: Can We Put the Genie Back in the Bottle?

05/26/2010 03:39 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Jerry Mander is a kind of technology prophet. As an ex-advertising guru he 'got religion' and in 1977 began to herald the dangers of technology in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. In his 1992 book, In the Absence of the Sacred, he shows how the introduction of technology takes on a life of its own and leads to untended consequences--from potential environmental disasters and economic upheaval to unlawful and inhumane control and manipulation of others. He also asserts that, while new technologies can be extremely positive, at least initially they almost always have a strong negative impact as well. Mander's prognosis is gloomy--with consequences ranging from environmental degradation (such as climate change and catastrophic oil spills), quality of life issues (such as permanent gridlock in traffic and increased pressure to respond faster), the assault of media overload on our consciousness, the growing threat of "super bugs" on our health, or long-term threats to civilization from uncontained nuclear waste or some as yet unnamed cyber virus. He says, "Technological evolution is leading to something new: a worldwide, interlocked, monolithic, technical-political web of unprecedented negative proportions."

While I think this observation is correct, I do not think our future needs to be bleak. The usual counter to Mander's concerns is some variation of "Science will save us". So far, that has been the case, although with ever-increasing costs to humanity and our planet in terms of complexity and material resources. Technology has always driven human progress--from the invention of the wheel and the printing press to the discovery of the human genome. We are curious by nature and we have an innate need to create--simply because we can.

The fact is that the "technological genie" is out of the bottle. Two things are very clear. The first point is that we can never really control technological progress, even though this is what Jerry Mander is suggesting. Even if we could, how would we debate the pros and cons of a new technology when most of the unintended consequences are unimaginable and unthinkable from the outset? We would either end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater or becoming Luddites and eschewing any new technology just because it was technology.

The second point is that the problems are never inherent in the technology. The problems are in how human beings develop, exploit and utilize it. The bigger question is: does technology serve us or do we serve it? This inquiry requires that we begin to question our decisions and choices and take unlimited responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Now we're being confronted by both ends of the technological spectrum. On one hand, we're witnessing the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that may well destroy a good portion of the environment and economic vitality of that region. Who knows if future generations will be able to enjoy the simple pleasures of walking on our beautiful beaches or watching children building castles in the sand in the affected states? Regardless of how blame is allocated or where the money to clean it up (if it can be cleaned up) comes from, this "reality" is an unintended consequence of technology.

At the same time, we read that science has created life from nothing for the first time in human history. Where this can go is more a function of creative writing and scientific speculation than knowledge. Do we evolve into 'designer beings' capable of living on planets without oxygen or other similar science fiction scenarios? Or do we create monsters that devour us or render us "extinct" in the evolutionary lottery? The fact is we don't know where this scientific breakthrough will lead. And we probably can never know until it is too late to do anything about it.

Should we spurn and punish the oil companies as "evil doers" and create legislative barriers to "life-creating" research as we tried to do with stem cells? Is science a venue for ideological or religious debate? Can these kinds of questions ever be resolved by argument anyway? Aren't all decisions in the final analysis just choices? And isn't the power of the chooser all that counts when the final decisions are made?

I think it is fair to say we are always imperfect in our knowledge and capacity for making "right" decisions. The processes we have for good decision-making are also imperfect and, while well intended, can lead us awry just as surely as the technologies we're developing can lead to unintended consequences.

At the end of the day, all we have is our relationships and our capacity to learn from our mistakes and move forward with good will and faith in "doing our best". We cannot put the technological genie back in the bottle. But if we learn to work together and manage the risks of living in a world where what is unknown outweighs the known, a world where technological progress is accelerating faster than anyone can predict or control, then perhaps we can have a genie who serves us (rather than we serving the genie).

© 2010 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.