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On a mature and proper understanding of the role of technology

On a mature and proper understanding of the role of technology

Over the past century, the lives of people have changed greatly. Today, in the developed world, it is normal for people to drive automobiles powered by gasoline, often driving many miles every day to get to and from work. We travel even longer distances on airplanes powered by fossil fuels. We have a large network of computers, created by processes involving fossil fuels, that we use to find information and communicate with each other. We live and work in buildings built to be cooled by air conditioners which need power generated from fossil fuels. We have incorporated a huge amount of new technology into our lives. As with any change, this has had both positive and negative effects. When the technology was invented and then implemented, it was impossible for us to know all of the positive and negative effects that would arise. However, it is important that we do all that we can to consider the short-term and long-term effects of our actions. This piece will discuss some of the possible effects of technology and construct a framework for evaluating them.

Technology is defined by the Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary as "the science of the application of knowledge to practical purposes." It is neither good nor bad, neither positive or negative. It is just a set of ideas. The positive and negative effects result from the choices that people make, and these choices are likely to have positive and negative effects. Take the automobile as an example. It may allow people to get from one place to the other more quickly, saving time that could then be used for other things. This may be considered good. However, because they can travel further in a shorter amount of time, people may choose to spread out more. This, although having been done to further some perceived good, may make people feel less of a reason to be concerned about their community, and this may be a more negative effect of peoples' choices that they did not anticipate when making them. When something negative results from the application of technology, the technology is not to blame. To blame the technology would be to deny that people have free will in their application of it. Rather, the negative effects result from people not seeing or understanding the consequences of using the technology in the way they are using it.

As technologies have become more and more prevalent, societies have acted under the subconscious assumption that they will always be available. When this happens, we may discard the knowledge of how to perform the task without the technology or destroy the resources that it would require. Technological addiction happens when we no longer have the knowledge or resources to operate without the technology as we once could. It is not a coincidence that the term "addiction" would be used with both drugs and technology, as there are many similarities in the process in both cases. A person will start using the drug or technology because of a perceived benefit. Some people may use the drug or technology in moderation without becoming addicted, but others will start to use it more and more, eventually needing it for daily life and losing the ability to be without it. If it suddenly becomes unavailable or much less available, then there are painful withdrawal symptoms. We may perceive that we have become addicted and notice that there are negative consequences, but we do not lessen our usage of that which we are addicted to because the thought of it would seem too painful. The question of whether it is beneficial will rarely be asked because it does not seem realistically possible to be without it. In the "developed" countries, we have become addicted to various types of technologies on a societal scale.

One obvious technology to which many have become addicted to is one I mentioned earlier, the automobile. Since cars are available, society has spread out in a way that would not have been possible without them. We have relied on them for our daily transportation needs for a period of time long enough for us to have become unable to imagine the prospect of being without one We have relied on them for our daily transportation needs for a period of time long enough for us to have become unable to imagine the prospect of being without one. Not knowing a way to live without them, we have become addicted to them.

Air conditioning is another technology to which, particularly in the warmer climates, people in "developed" countries have become addicted. Before air conditioning was available, buildings had to be kept comfortable naturally, and passive cooling techniques were developed for doing that over thousands of years, such as shading the house and placing windows on the south side of the building to minimize contact with direct sunlight. While visiting Austin, I stayed at a coop house called House of Commons. The room I had stayed comfortable with only a ceiling fan even when the temperature outside reached a hundred degrees. One night, I was talking with another person who lived there, and she said that rooms in an addition to the house were very uncomfortable in the summer if the air conditioner was not used because the annex was added after the invention of air conditioning. She also recounted a time when an air conditioner stopped working at the University of Texas at Austin and a class was let out because the building had been built after air conditioning, had no windows that could open to create a breeze, and was unbearable to be in without it, making people unable to function without this technology that we had successfully lived without only a few decades earlier. However, this type of construction is, to a large extent, no longer done because it is assumed that the building will be cooled with central air conditioning. If we wish to curtail our use of power so as to move in the direction of living in harmony with the Earth and ensuring the well-being of the seventh generation, then we will face difficulty because we have a lot of new, poorly-designed buildings that cannot be made comfortable in the summer without a large input of energy.

It is easy not to consider, in the course of day-to-day life, that we pay a price for these addictions or that it is possible to remove them. I would consider it rather pointless to consider one without the other; if only considering the cost, then our situation would seem hopeless without knowing the possibility to change, while only considering the possibility of removing the addiction would be meaningless since there would be no incentive to do so. However, so that both can be understood, this piece will first discuss costs, then turn to the process of removal. Once we establish the true cost of being addicted to a technology and the benefits, not against what would be if we immediately lost the technology but what would be if we regained the knowledge and resources that we had before gaining the technology, then we will be in a position to truly weigh the costs and benefits from an expanded state of consciousness and determine its usefulness.

One cost of technological addiction is the dependency on its needed resources always being abundantly available. Of course, the resources are not always abundantly available, and this can, and does, cause problems. In the United States, for instance, we are dependent upon the ability and willingness of certain foreign countries to sell us their oil. This created turmoil in the 1970's when the availability of oil was decreased, contributing to the "stagflation" in our economy. More recently, in the wake of Katrina and Rita, some of our ability to receive natural gas has been reduced for the time being, leading to the probability of fuel becoming expensive, possibly leading to future economic recession. Additionally, we face the more long term, and consequently more serious, problem of fossil fuels not being renewable. Because we cannot see a way to live without the use of fossil fuels, we attempt to deny that this is a serious problem. This is done in various ways. Some suggest that the oil sands in Canada and oil shales will provide a vast, relatively untapped source of fossil fuels that will become usable as the supply of petroleum is diminished and it becomes more important to find alternatives. However, these resources would require energy and other resources, such as natural gas, to make them usable. In properly choosing whether to use them, one would have to consider the environmental impacts of extracting and using them. Another issue is that these resources, too, are non-renewable, and so coming to rely on them would only mean facing a similar crisis of resource depletion in the future. In order to prevent future crises of resource depletion, we would need to only use resources that can be renewed.

Another cost of our addiction to technology is that which follows from the environmental damage that results from our indifference to the changes to the planet caused by our actions. The severity of Katrina and Rita is likely to be a manifestation of this, since, if our placing of CO2 into the atmosphere has resulted in the warming of the Gulf of Mexico, and if the warm water causes storms to become more intense, then we indirectly contributed to the intensity of these storms. Further effects of global warming could manifest themselves in the future, and they, too, will likely have been caused by our addiction to technology that requires the burning of fossil fuels.

There are some, especially in positions of political power in the United States, who will say that it is not certain that our actions are causing the Earth to warm. While it is true that we cannot be 100% certain that global warming is caused by our actions, as it would be impossible to construct a controlled scientific experiment to prove such, it would not be appropriate for us to require absolute certainty before taking action. If something harmful is likely but is not certain to happen, yet we can avoid it by taking an action, then the benefits of taking the action may well outweigh the cost, whether it would depending on the probability and the severity of the possible harm. Our administration made the decision not to adhere to the Kyoto Protocol even after pledging to follow it while campaigning. We must ask whether this decision was made because, all things considered, it was thought to be best for the world, or if, rather, their judgment was clouded by technological addiction and the consequent difficulty in seeing the feasibility of sustainable living. Similar decisions must be made on an individual basis. If one owns land, for instance, one must decide how much of it should be lawn and how much should be a garden that would grow food, reducing our need to expend fossil fuels in transporting food to eat. For people who do not have land of their own and cannot easily buy it on their own, the situation in which I currently find myself, it may yet be possible to form or join an intentional community with others who wish to learn to garden effectively and live sustainably. It may seem that such choices are not worth making on an individual scale since they represent a significant change and it seems that the actions of one person will not make a difference. However, we must be present to the possible hidden benefits of making the choice. If we buy things that are produced sustainably, then we are supporting the people who make them, and the extra bit of support from one person could be just enough to cross a threshold, allowing further action that would not have been possible otherwise. From one person taking the action, others may consider what they have not considered before and see that it is possible, and so the effect would be magnified. Having a true understanding of the costs and benefits of our actions to society and unselfishly using that knowledge to benefit the whole will do much to improve our future well-being.

While being addicted to technology, it is difficult to objectively evaluate its usefulness. When imagining our being without a technology that we are addicted to, we would imagine being without not only it but the ability we once had to live without it. When envisioning life without an automobile, for instance, it may seem that it would be impossible to get to work. However, in the past, people would work closer to where they lived, so we could consider the possibility of either moving closer to where we work or working closer to where we live. There are, of course, societal considerations such as zoning regulations that may need to be re-thought to facilitate this, but this could be done by a community that had the will to do it. Similarly, if one considers not having air conditioning, it may seem that many buildings would become extremely uncomfortable in the summer. However, this would, in many cases, be much less of an issue if the buildings and their environment were renovated to take greater advantage of the ability of nature to regulate the temperature of the buildings without requiring input of nonrenewable resources. Thus, when we are addicted to technology, our view of its benefits becomes exaggerated. It is, therefore, vital for us to re-learn how to live without any technology whose use has negative consequences or is not currently sustainable so that we can make an objective evaluation of its true usefulness.

Evaluation of a technology should not be attempted while being addicted to the technology, as the addiction will distort the process. We must, therefore, have a full understanding of the ability to live without the technology before we begin to evaluate it. Even so, as we are limited by our own perspectives, different people will have differing ideas on the costs and benefits of a technology and how to appropriately weigh them, and one person will suggest a cost or benefit, or a method of living without the technology, that another person had not thought of. Thus, it would be well for the evaluation to be a collaborative process. I propose the following questions to assist in the evaluation of a technology:

  1. What are the benefits and potential benefits?
  2. What knowledge have we displaced after adopting this technology?
  3. To what extent would this technology become less important if we re-learned how to live without it?
  4. What are the costs? Include environmental damage resulting from manufacturing it and generating power for it and harm caused by a forced withdrawal (caused by depletion of oil, for instance).
  5. Is the use of this technology sustainable? If not, could it be made sustainable?

Once a proper evaluation is done for a technology, one will find that its use falls into one of three categories. For one, it may be considered mostly beneficial. A second category would be that it is beneficial to a point but currently over-used, and so it would be optimal for it to be used some but less than in the present. If a technology is placed in one of these two categories, then we should evaluate the technology and its requirements for being produced and used. It must be determined whether the production and use is sustainable, and, if not, focus must turn to moving it in a direction of being sustainable. As will be discussed below, improving the efficiency of a technology does not necessarily constitute a move in the direction of making it sustainable. A third category of technology would be that which, given a full understanding of the costs of its use, is not sufficiently beneficial to justify those costs. Such technology should be phased out of our lives.

When the supply of oil seems constrained, people invariably discuss ways to make technology more efficient as a method of resource conservation. It is important that efficiency be distinguished from sustainability, as we ultimately need to re-learn to live sustainably in order to ensure our survival on this planet. Making a technology more efficient could have one of three effects. The most negative effect would result from a lack of understanding of the importance to live sustainably. If fewer resources are needed to use the technology, then it may also become less expensive, and this would cause it to be used more than it would otherwise be, reinforcing the addiction to it. However, this can be avoided in two ways. One would be to fix the price through some kind of tax with the money collected from the tax going to further sustainability. This would be a political solution which I believe, as I will discuss later, could only come about as the inevitable result of a shift in public consciousness. However, such a shift in consciousness would mean that people would understand the danger of taking advantage of improved efficiency by using more of a now cheaper technology that is still unsustainable. They would, therefore, not become more addicted, and the need for the resources used by the technology would decrease. This would allow more time to transition toward sustainable living. Finally, using resources more efficiently could result in a threshold being crossed at which point sustainability would be possible. For instance, if less power is required, then it may become possible to generate the required power using renewable, nondestructive methods. However, it cannot be overemphasized that this would only happen if it is held in the societal consciousness that there is a necessity to learn to live sustainably, since, otherwise, gains through efficiency will be offset by greater use of either the technology being made more efficient or some other technology that would be made possible by the lower cost of money and resources.

Although a case can be made that sustainable living will be necessary to ensure a viable, just, peaceful, and stable society in the future, that we should be willing to lessen or eliminate our use of some technology as needed, and that this will not come about without a conscious effort by people to make it happen, the totality of this perspective has been largely absent from political discourse and from the media. The absence of this discussion within these channels indicates that, if there is to be a change in consciousness, it will not be initiated by them, but, rather, must be initiated by people who consider it to be important. If there is broad public support for this position, then politicians will discuss it and take actions in line with it, as it will then be in line with their desire to be re-elected. Would-be politicians will, in turn, feel more able to run campaigns on a platform of instituting changes geared toward sustainability.

Our relationship with technology is one that must evolve over time. Over the past 10,000 years, civilizations have become more technologically advanced gradually at first but on an ever-increasing speed. In the past, we did not know that we could power fast vehicles by burning oil or produce electricity by burning coal or causing nuclear reactions. Because we did not know how to do these things, we did not do them and did not know the consequences of doing them. When we learned that it was possible to do these things, we had no basis for evaluating their consequences. We allowed ourselves to become addicted to the technology, the knowledge of being with it having mostly replaced the knowledge of being without it. However, it is possible for us to re-learn what life was like without the technology, allowing us to decide what to do from a mature, powerful position. This would not have been possible when the technology was invented, as we could not foresee the effects of adopting it. Our society's relationship with technology is somewhat similar, among other things, to a person's relationship to having a car in a developed country. A child cannot drive, nor hope to in the near future. An adolescent knows that he will soon be able to drive and eagerly anticipates being able to do so. It seems to be a new sense of freedom, a novelty, something that can now be done which could not have been done before, and so he becomes excited at the prospect. However, once the person becomes an adult and has had the car for several years, the novelty and excitement wear off, and it becomes simply a seemingly necessary tool for surviving in day-to-day life, and an expensive and frustrating one at that. So it is with technology in general. Society is like the adolescent moving into adulthood and must now deal with the totality, the long-term costs and consequences, of its addiction to technology. When choosing how to proceed, we can now act from a mature perspective having been informed by our history. History can, and does, repeat itself, but, if a critical mass of people recognize that they are on a course known from the past to be destructive, then the course can be changed. We must, therefore, learn from our present situation in order to survive in the future.

In the present, the consequences of our not living in harmony with the Earth are becoming plain for all to see. Nearly everyone in the "developed" world has become addicted to fossil fuels in some way, and they are becoming increasingly scarce, so there will likely be a painful withdrawal period as these fossil fuels are no longer available. As the ephemerality of our energy sources force us to find a different way of doing things, we are at a junction from which action is necessary, but we have a choice of what kind of action we want to take. On one hand, we can continue to act as though we are individuals separate from other people and the planet. We may then look for other ways to extract hydrocarbons from the Earth, paying relatively little attention to the environmental damage done by the mining and processing of the materials and their conversion to energy. Having the experiences of the last century to guide us, we can attempt to assess the pluses and minuses of following such a path. Not learning how to live sustainably, we would remain addicted to non-renewable energy sources. As a result of our altering the surface and the atmosphere of the planet, there would be environmental changes which we cannot completely predict. Additionally, another crisis would loom as whatever energy sources we were using would, too, run out in time. As I see it, our taking this path would result in our remaining in perpetual turmoil. However, we do have an alternative. Having learned from seeing the consequences of our behavior of the last century, we could choose to devote our lives to re-learning the art of living sustainably, an art developed in different places over thousands of years but which we mostly do not understand in the present because we have allowed our knowledge to be displaced by the knowledge to do things in ways that require fossil fuels and damage to the environment. However, as communication has become global, we do have the advantage of having access to knowledge gained by different groups throughout the world. We could become far-sighted as many indigenous people have been, considering the seventh generation in all of our actions. We could resist the temptation to again grab non-renewable resources or do things that harm the planet, realizing that they can become slippery slopes that could lead to addiction. We could periodically assess our status, becoming present to any technological addictions we have developed that could have harmful long-term consequences. While this may mean more pronounced change in the short term, it would, in my view, create more stability in the long term, as we would not need to face the consequences of depletion of resources and further environmental destruction that would occur if we elect not to live in accordance to the laws of nature. The choice is ours to make.

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Comments

(Anonymous)

Technology

Interesting read... I think technology will shackle you if you let it. I personally try to limit my "plugged in" time and get outdoors. My love of bush walking.

And sadly, we're all part of the problem as we all have to make a living and these days depend on technology.

Still. Worth bringing to a conscious level.

Regards,
Warren

Enercom Industries
http://www.enercomindustries.com.au

July 2014

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