Unification News for July 1996


Technology Today: The Human Perspective

by Goon Koch

Our civilization as a whole, but especially those of us in technical professions, are faced with a curious dilemma. New technologies are being developed at a dizzying rate, yet whether those developments are significantly and unequivocally improving our living conditions remains to be seen. It seems that while demanding, and receiving, ever more technological innovations, we are more than ever at a loss as to how to best integrate them into our lives. In this essay I will approach the technological paradox, from a social, philosophical and ethical perspective.

There can be little doubt that our society places a very high value on the accumulation of scientific knowledge. Why is this so? Science enables mankind to understand and harness the forces around us, to uncover things previously unknown and to accomplish feats thought to be impossible. The appeal of discovery is undeniable. But what are the benefits, in real, human terms, of technological progress?

I was once told that engineers have done more to extend the human lifespan than physicians or members of any other professional metier. It was engineers, after all, who built the roads which facilitated the timely supply of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, thus bolstering the fragile health of the heretofore primitive populace. Engineers built aqueducts and drainage systems to provide the citizenry with fresh, flowing water and to remove sewage, radically improving sanitary conditions as a result. In an age when most succumbed to what are today considered minor infectious diseases before the age of forty, ridding the thoroughfares of stagnant pools of refuse actually eliminated a leading cause of fatalities. These technological advances were born of genuine need and significantly improved the lot of mankind.

Having established that engineers have done much to improve our collective lot, let us examine how the scientific elite are working to increase our well-being today. These days, engineers seem to be working less and less on a human scale, and the fruits of their labors seem very far removed from eventual use by consumers. While civil engineers stolidly propagate the traditions of their ancestors-i.e., "digging holes and building bridges over them"-electrical engineers seem to tinker with every more tiny particles, and chemical engineers seem to plan ever larger and more complex environmental disasters. A microprocessor chip, the workhorse of the computer revolution, or a petroleum refinery belching steam and spewing flame, when compared to a simple steel bridge, mean very little to the average peasant. Occasionally, a useful consumer product does result from the endeavors of the technocracy, and it then falls upon legions of highly-paid professionals to convince us of its virtues. In the end we, the beneficiaries of progress, even shoulder the cost of having ourselves convinced of the benefits of progress.

As a society, we have been convinced very thoroughly. We can hardly imagine life without our high-powered toys. But how have some of the more highly-regarded consumer products really changed the way we go about our daily business? Let's take a closer look at the much- ballyhooed computer. Information technology is advancing and changing our world ever more rapidly. Sales of home computers are up again this month, a satellite service offers 165 channels of programming for a dollar a day, and the Internet offers an ever-increasing resource of information only a few keystrokes away. How have these glorified calculators improved our lives? If we are to believe the industry, just about every household now has a personal computer. Is their vast potential being tapped? Personal experiences show that a great majority of their number serve as glorified typewriters or, at least before passage of the most recent congressional communications bill, to download dirty pictures from the Internet. Never mind that there is a more plentiful supply at the newsstand around the corner. This is the information superhighway!

Especially in the technical professions, the advent of the personal computer has had some subtle but disturbing side-effects. The staggering increase in computing power has, at times, shown a tendency to elude its masters' control. We engineers are often crunching numbers just because we can now crunch them, and often lose sight of the big picture. There is little question that computers have vastly improved our ability to execute many tasks, but they have rarely affected the fundamental way we think about the fundamental processes in our lives.

Even the fine and applied arts, keepers of the sacred humanist flame, have not entered the computer age unscathed. Graphic designers and layout artists now do most of their work in the digital domain. Type sizes need no longer be calculated by hand, and most publications are composed in their entirety on a computer. There is no question that computers have simplified these tasks, but have they really increased the product? Leo Lionni, the legendary artist and graphic designer, when asked by this writer at a Cooper Union seminar if he thought that the introduction of computers in his field had resulted in too uniform and unimaginative a product, replied, "No, on the contrary. Computers create too much chaos. People do not use them wisely; they are seduced by their capabilities and lose sight of the task at hand. The result is ugly. Computers do not make beautiful things."

Leo Lionni was right, of course. Computers don't make beautiful things; people do. Occasionally, when used correctly and responsibly, computers help them. The Internet could truly be the dawn of a bona fide information revolution. Never has so much information been so conveniently accessible to so many. Sadly, its true potential may take some time to be realized. Currently, its novelty seems to overshadow the possibility of a truly networked world and the quality of material available could use some improvement. People would do well to remember that greater and easier access is not necessarily a good thing by itself. The fact that an article is downloaded through a telephone line does not make it more eloquent. The wisdom of lost civilizations was once preserved because cloistered monks dedicated their lives to painstakingly transcribing rotted manuscripts by hand. Today, printed text can be digitized by means of an optical character recognition (OCR) program in seconds and, through Worldwide-Web publishing, be made available to countless millions in a few additional seconds. Needless to say, the aforementioned monks, or at least their abbots, were somewhat more selective in their choice of materials than the average Web denizen.

There has been much talk about the shrinking globe. Advances in communications technology and modern aviation have supposedly brought the world's population closer together. Is all this really progress? Will the effective decrease in distance between the inhabitants of this earth make them happier and more peaceful? So far the global village is a dreary place. The crumbling of the iron curtain has woken long-dominant ethnic tensions and totalitarian terror has been replaced by more petty, but no less destructive, strife. It might be said by a cynic that it sometimes seems as though communism, the grand historical blunder, only temporarily concealed the innate nastiness of the people it oppressed. The inexorable march of science has done little to alleviate the suffering of the victims of war. In the Balkans, Rwanda and, most recently, Liberia, technology has only made slaughter more convenient. Once upon a time, a potential oppressor had to round up a squad of cronies, shoulder his pike and ride off to rape and pillage at considerable personal risk and capital investment.

Today any two-bit thug need only jam a clip into a scrounged kalashnikov rifle to perpetrate the carnage of his fancy. Do the regions currently experiencing ethnic strife need more technology to eliminate the violence? Could it be that the Serbs, Rwandans and Liberians just don't have enough computers or insufficient Internet access?

How has popular mass-entertainment affected our lives? Consumers demand more and more channels of television programming and end up obsessively switching from channel to channel lest they miss something better and end up watching no program in its entirety. For most viewers, television is consumed not as a coherent, sequential text, but simply as a flood of information snippets relieving them of organized, directed thought. Some will argue that television and other mass media are educational, providing us with more information than ever before. Then why is it that the reading and writing skills of today's schoolchildren seem inversely related to the amount of time they spend watching television?

We've all listened to elderly relatives recounting their days without modern technology, all the while insisting they were happier. I too have smiled bemusedly and pitied their lives of deprivation. But maybe we have dismissed their arguments a little prematurely. Previous generations may have had fewer distractions and less sophisticated toys, but their priorities may have been in the right place. Spending countless hours watching network television is not entertainment. We should not let technology erode our finer social skills and devalue human interaction.

It may be argued that technological progress is inevitable. In no way am I suggesting that we should purposely inhibit progress because it is inherently harmful. I am suggesting that, as engineers, we have an ethical responsibility to make our contributions as humanly valuable as possible. Technologies should enhance and ease human endeavors. Human well-being should never be sacrificed on the altar of "pure science." Progress should never be pursued for the sake of progress alone. As the creators and champions of technology, we must keep a watchful eye on its social rank. As its consumers, we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to keep the human element in the foreground.

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