I got this message via my FB page from Arlene in the Philippines.
Hello there Jakartass,
I really enjoy your blog and the dry wit in your words.
May I ask, do you enjoy technology?
I replied thus: For me, a ‘word’ is more powerful than a ‘sword’ and I don’t need to know how a ball point pen works in order to use it. So, the simple answer is ‘no’.
But your question is an intriguing one, so watch this hyperspace for an article which I may try and get published for money. (But money’s only a dream … even for the rich. Isn’t it?)
Another simple answer is that I don’t “enjoy” technology but I use it and encourage its use when and where appropriate. At the same time, I discourage its use if I feel that it’s ultimately of danger not only to the human race but also to other species.
Simplistically though, depending on the people who harness the tools, technology can be viewed in three ways: the good, the unnecessary, and the evil.
Good technology is of benefit and little or no harm to one’s surroundings. In this category is the archimedes screw, named after the ancient Greek scientist Archimedes (287-212 B.C.), for raising water to a higher level.
The wheel is obviously of great value, not least because it enables personal mobility. I don’t drive cars, mainly because before my lasik ops, an example of good technology in the right hands, I couldn’t see enough to read licence plates and failed the UK driving test. However, in the years before coming here I had a series of MZ 250 motorbikes, carefully chosen because they were of such low maintenance – thinks: fewer knobs and whistles that can go wrong – that even I could service them.
A fine example of human ingenuity can be found in Guatemala where Maya Pedal, a non-profit organisation, turns unwanted bicycles into pedal-powered machines. Set up in 1997 in the small southern Guatemalan town of San Andrés Itzapa, Maya Pedal’s products include blenders for making fruit drinks or grinders for processing corn. Some are used in small businesses, others to make daily life less arduous.
Another answer is that the development of technology can have consequences far beyond the intentions of the original ‘inventors’.
In 1900, more than one-quarter of the almost 4,200 American automobiles produced were electric. However, then as now, the limited range saw the demise of electric cars and the rise of the internal combustion engine which runs on oil. This finite ‘natural resource’ has possibly caused more deaths in the last hundred years through wars, pollution, traffic accidents, and the rise of global capitalism.
Because you know it makes sense, I won’t argue here for greater public transport networks and much increased investment in sustainable energy sources.
Thomas Edison in a Bailey Electric Car equipped with an Edison battery c.1916.
His theories lead to the splitting of the atom, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the nuclear power industry whose waste will need safeguarding for 100,000 years before its radioactivity has decayed to a ‘safe’ level.
Einstein died in 1955, two years before the launch of Sputnik, the first manmade satellite, and now the key technology in the Global Positioning System (GPS) developed at a cost of over $10 billion mainly for military navigation: think ‘drones’ with their targetted deaths. Civilians in countries outside war zones are also at risk because the GPS in their car has given them a false sense of security (video). .
Consequences, folks, a lack of thinking about the ‘what if’s’ after short-term gains.
For example, what if we could harness nature and feed the starving millions? You may think that I’m about to bash Monsanto and its genetically modified seeds because they cause cancer – maybe. Well, they do admit that they produced Agent Orange which was used to devasting effect, still felt today, in the Vietnam War.
But what they did and do has happened before.
This week marks the centenary of an industrial process that has transformed our planet and threatens to bring even greater, more dramatic changes over the next 100 years.
Fritz Haber, a German chemist, found a way to synthesise ammonia using nitrogen from the atmosphere as its key ingredient. A further development of his process by Carl Bosch produced non-organic fertiliser, thus generating a ‘green revolution’ which since fed billions. However, not only has this contributed to our planet’s overpopulation, a contributory factor in the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere but the run off from farms has had severe and detrimental effects on the natural environment.
The process also replaced nitrogen compounds such as saltpetre for explosives, and enabled Germany to fight on in World War 1 for another year and release chemical weapons, also designed by Haber, thus killing a few millions.
As for unnecessary, two words will suffice: ‘planned obsolescence’.
Back in Blighty I knew how to replace a leaking tap (faucet) with a washer whereas here in Jakarta you have to buy a new tap. And the less said about Apple’s iPhones with their non-rechargeable batteries ….
My final simple answer to your question, Arlene, is that I’m ambivalent where technology is concerned and I’ve said that elsewhere.and my closing quote there will do just as well here.
“Without getting hysterical, there seems to be a lot of well-illustrated data about how messed up the machine you’re using to read this is making you.”
Worth reading: An Essay on the Principle of Population (.pdf) by Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834) whose birthday I share.