Technology and its side effects

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Progress is messy. On the whole, over the long run, the ad­vance of tech­nol­ogy and in­dus­try has im­proved life along al­most ev­ery di­men­sion. But when you zoom in to look at each step, you find that progress is full of com­pli­ca­tions.

Some ex­am­ples:

  • In­ten­sive agri­cul­ture achieves high crop den­sity (which is good be­cause it im­proves land and la­bor pro­duc­tivity), but this takes fer­til­ity out of the soil faster and makes fields more sus­cep­ti­ble to pests. To solve these prob­lems, we then need things like ar­tifi­cial fer­til­izer, pes­ti­cides, and im­proved crop va­ri­eties.

  • Burn­ing lots of coal pro­vided us with warmth in our homes, with in­dus­trial pro­cesses such as iron smelt­ing, and with mo­tive power from steam en­g­ines. But it also caused air pol­lu­tion, black­ened our skies and de­posited soot on ev­ery­thing—in­clud­ing our lungs. Lon­don in 1659 and Pitts­burgh in 1861 were both likened to hell on earth be­cause of the op­pres­sive clouds of black smoke. Im­prov­ing air qual­ity has been a long pro­cess that in­cluded mov­ing coal-burn­ing away from hu­man habita­tion, switch­ing to cleaner-burn­ing fuels such as gasoline and nat­u­ral gas, and the in­tro­duc­tion of elec­tric­ity.

  • City life pro­vided peo­ple with many op­por­tu­ni­ties for work, com­merce, and so­cial­iza­tion; but crowd­ing peo­ple to­gether in filthy con­di­tions, be­fore sewage and san­i­ta­tion sys­tems, meant an in­crease in con­ta­gious dis­ease and more fre­quent epi­demics. In the 1800s, mor­tal­ity was dis­tinctly higher in ur­ban ar­eas than ru­ral ones; this per­sisted un­til the ad­vent of im­proved wa­ter and sewage sys­tems in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

  • Au­to­mated man­u­fac­tur­ing in the fac­tory sys­tem was far more pro­duc­tive than the pre­vi­ous sys­tem of home pro­duc­tion or “cot­tage in­dus­try”. In that sys­tem, a weaver, for in­stance, would perform his craft at home, us­ing his own loom; keep his own hours; and be paid by the piece. The fac­tory sys­tem cre­ated a need to com­mute, and re­sulted in a loss of au­ton­omy for work­ers, as they could no longer set their own hours or di­rect their own work. This has mostly been a per­ma­nent change, al­though re­cent decades have seen a slight re­ver­sal, as the In­ter­net en­ables flex­ible “gig” work, lets some em­ploy­ees work re­motely, and makes it eas­ier to start small busi­nesses.

Nor can we, in ev­ery in­stance, fall back on “re­vealed prefer­ences” to ar­gue that peo­ple ac­tu­ally want the new thing, since they chose it: some­times in­dus­trial shifts take away old op­tions, as when weavers could not com­pete against the power loom; or tech­nol­ogy runs ahead of gov­er­nance, as when coal be­gan to pol­lute com­mon skies.

So tech­nolog­i­cal changes can be an im­prove­ment along some di­men­sions while hurt­ing oth­ers. To eval­u­ate a tech­nol­ogy, then, we must eval­u­ate its over­all effect, both the costs and the benefits, and com­pare it to the al­ter­na­tives. (One rea­son it’s im­por­tant to know his­tory is that the best al­ter­na­tive to any tech­nol­ogy, at the time it was in­tro­duced, is typ­i­cally the thing it re­placed: cars vs. horses, tran­sis­tors vs. vac­uum tubes.) We must also eval­u­ate not only the im­me­di­ate effects, but the long-term situ­a­tion, af­ter peo­ple have had a chance to ad­just to the new tech­nol­ogy and its ram­ifi­ca­tions: miti­gat­ing its down­sides, work­ing out gov­er­nance is­sues.

Con­versely, a com­mon er­ror con­sists of point­ing to prob­lems caused by a tech­nol­ogy and con­clud­ing from that alone that the tech­nol­ogy is harm­ful—with­out ask­ing: What did we gain? Was the trade­off worth it? And can we solve the new prob­lems that have been cre­ated?

This is well-un­der­stood in some do­mains, such as medicine. Che­mother­apy can treat can­cer, but it can also give you nau­sea. The un­pleas­ant side effects are ac­cept­able given the life-sav­ing benefits of the treat­ment. And there are ways to miti­gate the side effects, such as anti-nau­sea med­i­ca­tion. Nausea might be a rea­son to avoid chemother­apy in a spe­cific case (es­pe­cially since there are al­ter­na­tive can­cer treat­ments), but it’s not a good ar­gu­ment against chemother­apy in gen­eral, which is a valuable tech­nique in the doc­tor’s ar­se­nal. Nor is it a suffi­cient ar­gu­ment even in a spe­cific case, with­out eval­u­at­ing the al­ter­na­tives.

Other do­mains don’t always re­ceive the same rigor­ous logic. The ar­gu­ment “pes­ti­cides aren’t nec­es­sary—they’re just a re­sponse to the prob­lems caused by monocrop­ping!” is analo­gous to “anti-nau­sea pills aren’t nec­es­sary—they’re just a re­sponse to the prob­lems caused by chemother­apy!” Per­haps—but what prob­lem is be­ing solved, and what are the al­ter­na­tives? There are al­ter­na­tives to monocrop­ping, just as there are to chemother­apy—but just be­cause al­ter­na­tives ex­ist doesn’t mean they are vi­able in ev­ery (or any) situ­a­tion. A case must be made in the full con­text. (Un­der­stand­ing the con­text is part of in­dus­trial liter­acy.)

That’s not to say that we can’t iden­tify the draw­backs of pes­ti­cides, or monocrop­ping, or chemother­apy, or coal, or fac­to­ries. We can and should, and we should seek bet­ter solu­tions. No tech­nol­ogy is sa­cred. In­deed, progress con­sists of ob­so­let­ing it­self, of con­tinu­ally mov­ing on to im­proved tech­niques.

But if you want to crit­i­cize a tech­nol­ogy, show that there is a vi­able al­ter­na­tive, and that it doesn’t sac­ri­fice im­por­tant prop­er­ties such as cost, speed, pro­duc­tivity, scal­a­bil­ity, or re­li­a­bil­ity; or that if it loses on some di­men­sions, it makes up for it on oth­ers.