Technology—How It Affects Us
IN Goethe’s fairy tale The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, made popular by Paul Dukas’ music and Walt Disney’s movie Fantasia, the apprentice hit upon the idea of putting to use his master’s uncanny power to lighten his own work. He set a broomstick to work to carry water for him. Not knowing how to control it, he soon found that the obedient but mindless slave carried so much water into the house that a flood resulted. The story, of course, had a happy ending—the master came to the rescue.
Like the apprentice’s broomstick, technology is basically a powerful tool. It can be put to use to make our work easier, more efficient, and perhaps even more enjoyable. But when it is not properly controlled or when it is misused, it, too, can become a force with disastrous, even fatal, consequences.
A prime example of this is the automobile. There is no question that the automobile has brought many advantages and benefits to society in general. Yet, who can deny the harmful side effects, such as air and noise pollution, and deaths and injuries due to accidents and careless driving? This technological innovation is at best a mixed blessing.
But the effect of technology goes much further than that. So pervasive has technology become in our modern world that it is changing not only the way we work and live but also our values, our view of ourselves and of society as a whole. The question arises: Have we used technology wisely to our own blessing, or has technology dominated our way of life to our hurt?
Without doubt, in one way or another most people living today have benefited from the advancement of science and technology. In developed and developing nations alike, technology has brought numerous material advantages in nearly every aspect of life. First and foremost, the use of machines, fertilizers, pesticides, and improved seeds has increased the food supply and nutrition for much of the world’s population. Advancements in medical science have resulted in better health and a longer life span for many. The automobile and the airplane, along with developments in electronics, computers, and satellites, have made it possible for people to travel and to communicate with others around the world with relative ease. On a more personal level, technology has eliminated much of the drudgery and labor both at work and at home.
Although some people in the technologically advanced countries are fond of talking about the ‘good old days,’ few are ready to give up the vast number of time- and labor-saving devices that they have come to take for granted or have grown accustomed to in their daily lives. Technology has indeed become a useful slave, making it possible, as one observer put it, for ordinary people today to live “as kings of an earlier time never could.”
The picture, however, is not altogether a bright one. “Although the massive infusion of technology into society during the past few decades has brought immense benefits,” wrote Colin Norman, a researcher with the Worldwatch Institute, “there is mounting evidence that some technological developments may aggravate, rather than solve, many pressing social and environmental problems.”
Consider, first of all, technology’s impact on the environment. Calling it a “quiet crisis,” former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall described the situation in the United States:
“This nation leads the world in wealth and power, but also leads in the degradation of the human habitat. We have the most automobiles and the worst junkyards. We are the most mobile people on earth and we endure the worst congestion. We produce the most energy and have the foulest air. Our factories pour out more products and our rivers carry the heaviest loads of pollution. We have the most goods to sell and the most unsightly signs to advertise their worth.”
Thus officials and the public are beginning to take note of the heavy price we are paying for the rapid technological growth that we endorse so willingly. Governments, however, could prevent further damage to the environment simply by taking action against the polluters, if they would. But industries and businesses do provide employment for the people, prosperity for the communities, and revenues for the governments. Especially is this true in the developing nations. Thus, it is argued, the material benefits created by technology outweigh the price to be paid in clean air, water, and land.
Another defense for technology is that sooner or later it will come up with the solutions to take care of the problems. The truth of the matter is that the technological know-how already exists to stop or even reverse much of the damage done. But to do the job will cost money, and cost a great deal. For example, just to clean up the 786 toxic-waste dump sites designated by the U.S. government as hazardous would require setting up a fund of $7.5 billion to $10 billion—a sum no one is quite prepared to pay.
Technology’s impact on work and employment has been a much debated topic right from the beginning. The fear has always been that new machines would put people out of work. Early in the Industrial Revolution, textile workers in Nottingham, England, felt so threatened that, led by a Ned Ludd, they destroyed hundreds of the newly introduced machines in the notorious Luddite riots of 1811-12.
The success of the Industrial Revolution makes all such actions seem ludicrous today. Yet, the introduction of computerized automation and robots in offices and factories is rekindling fears in certain quarters. Some, however, dismiss such fears by pointing out that computer technology generates its own jobs—high-tech jobs such as computer operators, designers, programmers, and so on—that will absorb the displaced workers after retraining. But others, brandishing high worldwide unemployment statistics, argue that high tech has not lived up to its promises in this respect.
Recent research at Stanford University finds that “not only will technical innovations displace workers, but the industry itself will employ comparatively few people.” The researchers point out that people are often impressed when they hear about the many new jobs opened up by the computer industry. But in reality, this is only a small fraction of the overall job market. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that about 600,000 high-tech jobs were created in the United States from 1972 to 1982. Yet, these made up only about 5 percent of the total job growth in that period. In other words, on an average, only one person in 20 in the job market was absorbed by the high-tech industries.
If technology’s ability to provide new jobs is disappointing, some feel that its failure to elevate the nature of work as anticipated is still more so. Most people envision a degree of sophistication with high-tech jobs. But one labor expert observed that while some such jobs are “spirit-enlarging and mind-challenging,” most are “incredibly mind-stunting, mind-dulling.” Rather than doing away with drudgery, most jobs in the high-tech industry are repetitive, highly supervised, and require little technical skill. Unlike the traditional jobs they replaced, many of them also pay below-average wages.
Of all the things that technology is said to have done, it is perhaps what it has done to us as humans that is of most concern. One common complaint is that mass-production techniques and computerized automation tend to decrease the value of worker individuality, judgment, and experience. This view is expressed by Karen Nussbaum, director of a workers’ association, who argues that for the sake of efficiency “the jobs become monitored and increasingly specialized—meaning that workers do smaller and smaller fractions of the larger task. People are used as extensions of machines. This is dehumanizing.”
What results is a feeling of alienation, or lack of a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Most people find it difficult to develop any real interest in their jobs when they work, day in and day out, in large institutions, doing repetitive piecework. Seldom do they see the end product of their labor, nor do they share in the profit, except in their paychecks. This, in the opinion of Murray Turoff, a professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, will produce “a generation of employees who feel no loyalty to the company and who are, in general, apathetic.”
Even those who do not work in a technological environment are not freed from its influences. In many areas, technology has become so pervasive in people’s daily life—appliances, transportation, entertainment, and so on—that many probably would find it difficult to survive in a less technologically developed society. In fact, Jacques Ellul, in his book La Technique, observed that “modern man’s state of mind is completely dominated by technical values and his goals are represented only by such progress and happiness as is to be achieved through techniques.” In the view of Professor Clark, quoted earlier, as we “rush to embrace technology, we have adopted a very temporal system: A hedonistic society that ignores the future.”
Much has been said about the threat of total destruction facing mankind today. But there is no denying that much of this has been brought about by the technological development that has produced the fearsome weapons of war—from the crossbow to the laser space-weapon. The height of such development, no doubt, was that in just three years, from June 1942 to July 1945, scientists and technicians were able to develop the first atom bomb.
But what has this unprecedented technological feat accomplished? It started and fueled the spiraling arms race, which has created the situation ironically labeled MAD—Mutual Assured Destruction. Perhaps of even greater concern is the fact that more and more nations are gaining the technology to build nuclear devices.
“It is obvious that something has gone wrong during the past few decades,” observed renowned scientist and environmentalist René Dubos. “Increased control over nature is not providing safety and peace of mind; economic prosperity is not making people healthier or happier; technological innovations create problems of their own, which continually necessitate the development of new counter-technologies.” He added: “The feeling prevails that scientists have not yet learned how to direct their attention to the distressing aspects of the modern world that have their origin in scientific technology.”
Thus, unlike the story about the sorcerer’s apprentice, in real life we cannot count on the “master”—scientists and technologists—to come to our rescue. In this case, they also are floundering in the sea of problems created by the shortsighted misuse of technology. Clearly, what is most urgently needed is not more technology but an agency, a government, a superpower that can do away with all the divisive elements in order to come to man’s rescue.
The Bible speaks about such a government: “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be brought to ruin. And the kingdom itself will not be passed on to any other people. It will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms [in existence today], and it itself will stand to times indefinite.” (Daniel 2:44) That Kingdom is none other than God’s Messianic Kingdom in the hands of Jesus Christ.
Under the peaceful rule of God’s Kingdom, what modern technology can only hope to achieve will be realized. Deserts and parched ground will become productive. There will be worthwhile and interesting work for all to do. The blind, lame, deaf, and mute will be rid of their afflictions. And even death itself will be conquered.—See Isaiah 35:1, 5-7; 65:21-23.
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“People are used as extensions of machines. This is dehumanizing”
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“It is obvious that something has gone wrong during the past few decades”
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Do material benefits outweigh the price paid in clean air, water, land—and your health?
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Most high-tech jobs are “incredibly mind-stunting, mind-dulling”
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Scientists have failed to solve the problems brought on by their technology. Who will?
U.S. Air Force photo