It seems to leave us with three choices. The first choice is to simply stop. Pick a point in time and freeze all technology at that point. We would be somewhat like the Amish. We would not have certain types of technology and hopefully nothing would become worse. The second choice would be to allow the elite either a political or technological elite determine what types of technology we could have as determined by what they determined was best for “the common good.” The third choice would be to bumble along as we now do. Let creativity bloom and let the market determine success and failure. As for the third alternative it might be useful to note that Thomas Edison allegedly went through 6000 filament designs before he created the first successful incandescent light bulb. One might also wish to visit the Brockton, Mass. Historical Society. Edison convinced the city leaders to allow him to use the City of Brockton as a laboratory to test street lighting. The Society has over 100 bulb designs, most of which were failures.
What would our choice be? Is there anyone who would trade today’s lifestyle for that of 200 years ago? In 1800 the average life span in America was 40 years. In 1900 the average lifespan was 40 years. Today the average lifespan is 79 years. What happened? Better diet and importantly an improvement in medical techniques particularly in surgical methods and vast improvements in pharmacology.
My sister recently passed away after a 50 year career in medical physics at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer center in New York. In the course of her 50 years my sister participated in a complete revolution in cancer treatment. People now talk about living with and managing cancer not just about dying from it. I remember when I was a young person and childhood leukemia meant certain death. Today the cure rate is 90%.
Perhaps the issue is to develop a skill at finding the next “big thing,” the game changer. Game changers in the past have been startling. Consider the role played by the development of accurate clocks. Accurate clocks led to the discovery of longitude. Now you really could plot the path of the sun across the sky. Previously you could determine your location by shooting the sun with a sextant. Later you could shoot the night sky with an astrolabe. But what about cloudy days and bad weather? Accurate clocks solved the problem.
And what about the discovery of writing? Without writing all information, knowledge and history would have to be transmitted by oral culture.
Consider the telegraph, the first successful electronic communication. Make the telegraph wireless. Marry a sound signal to the electrical signal and you have radio still the dominant communication medium. Ad a c visual signal and you have television.
And what of the integrated circuit and the printed circuit? When I arrived at Wentworth in 1986 we still had a printed circuit lab. The room was lined with electrical outlets for the soldering irons as the students crafted the circuits. One of the problems early on in the space program was that all the circuits in everything were hard wired by hand. Into the 1990’s we had Air Force Contracts, a small lab squirreled away where technicians created hand wired circuits for the air Force. Today we have three dimensional printing done with metal particles. General Electric plans “printed” jet engines that have no seams.
What of the long bow and gunpowder. They changed warfare and thus everything. And what of Henry Maudslay. He invented the lead screw in 1800. The lead screw was a cutting guide for a metal lathe. The guide allowed for identical precision metal parts. This was the basis for mass-produced, standard, identical parts which is the basis for mass manufacturing.
But even if we solve the problem of the direction of technology there are a still a large set of problems which are economic, social and political. In 1980, 20% of children lived in single-parent households. By 2008 that figure had risen to 30%. In 2016, 42% of Hispanic children and 66% of Black children lived in single-parent households. While the efforts of the single parent are nothing less than heroic there are problems: poverty, teenage pregnancy, casual sexual partnering, physical, psychological, drug and substance abuse which are more common in the single-parent household than in the traditional, two-parent, heterosexual household.
There are mounting contemporary economic pressures. In Atlanta a traditional (2 adults, 2 children, one major salary0family requires $55,000 to “get by.” In Manhattan that figure has become $64,000. Ominously, the salary figures for health care workers folks probably all of us will see at the end of our days make only 50% of those figures in annual salary.
The international view is no more pleasant. We admire those who “lift themselves by their bootstraps” but what if you have no bootstraps? The average per capita annual income in Haiti is $450. In the U.S. that figure is $3258. Haiti has 60% underemployment and 67% of the people do not have formal jobs. A staggering 80% of the people in underdeveloped countries suffer from health problems associated with unclean water.
We live in a world of paradigms, overarching patterns of ideas that explain the world. In the West there have been three paradigms. The first paradigm was the thought and traditions of Greece and Rome. For the next 1500 years Christianity was the paradigm and since 1500 science and technology has been the paradigm.
In this latest paradigm of science and technology God is the author of a world that is susceptible to analysis by the reason of man and much that happens is the result of human choice. Human life is not the result of magic or the result of the will of quarrelsome gods. Human life involves human choice.
I enjoyed nothing more over the years than telling my eight o’ clock students, their faces foggy from sleep and their heads still damp from the showers they took less than an hour before class, that in no more than 20 years they would be running EVERYTHING! The good news and the bad news was the same: they and their classmates and roommates were it. We could not look for the arrival of their more intelligent and better-looking siblings.
Technology is our world complete with all the choices.