8. Reflections on Technology: Phases in Technological Evolution

Technological changes are taking place at a very rapid pace.  What prompts such changes? Why is it that, even when many people speak out elo­quently and point out clearly that many of these changes are wrought with dangerous consequences, societies continue to develop all kinds of technologies? Although there are no simple answers to these questions some light may be shed on the nature of the problem itself if we try to seek some general patterns in technological changes.  I will now present one model in terms of which the growth and evolution of techno­logy might be understood.

A technological innovation may  be regarded as a solution to a specific problem.  Thus, for example, the invention of the spearhead was a solution to the problem of killing a game animal; the pulley was a solution to the problem of lifting heavy loads with less effort; the electric light was a solution to the problem of coping with darkness, etc.  Until a problem arises, and until one becomes aware of its exis­tence, it is unlikely that a technology of any significance will emerge.

We will say that once the existence of a problem that can, in principle, be solved by human ingenuity has been recognized, the problem has entered Phase 0.  It is not necessary that the problem be an urgent one, or even one that needs to be solved for the happy and healthy continuation of a given society, much less of the human species at large.  For example, when the idea of the written word emerged, one was confronted with the problem of finding a medium on which words could be written without much difficulty.  This was not an urgent problem that had to be solved.

When a solution has been found to the problem in question, the problem has en­tered Phase A.  Phase A corresponds to the state in which the original problem does not exist any longer.  Thus, when it was discovered that certain insects were the causes or carriers of some diseases, one needed to find a method of eliminating those insects.  The synthesis of the insecticide DDT solved this problem.  At this stage the original problem had been fully solved.

When the original problem is in Phase A, one or both of two things could result: There may be a need to improve upon the solution that has been found.  Or, and this is what has made technology not as welcome as it used to be, some risks (i.e. possibility of unpleasant consequences) may be recognized.  When either one of these effects of a technological solution becomes evident, we will say that the corresponding techno­logy is in Phase B.  In other words, Phase B corresponds to one in which a useful tech­nology has turned out to be inadequate or sour or both.  For example when the first electric lamps using carbon filaments were introduced, it was found that it would be better to have the filaments in a completely evacuated (vacuum) bulb.  Or again, when nuclear reactors were developed for electrical energy, one was soon confronted with the problem of disposing the radioactive wastes coming out of the power plants.

At this point attempts will be made to improve upon the solution and to mini­mize or eliminate the risks that have been detected.  When the projected improve­ments have been accomplished and the risks eliminated, the technology may be said to have entered Phase C.  Thus, the discomfort associated with horse buggies was made considerably less by the use of springs and shock absorbers.  When the problem of air pollution from car exhausts became serious, technology came up with cata­lytic converters.

Unusually, like Phase B, Phase C is also unstable.  Indeed this should not be sur­prising since the passage from B to C is merely another instance of the passage from A to B.  In other words, need for improvement and recognition of risks will occur once again, and the original problem will thus have generated further problems to be solved.  One is thus once again in Phase 0.  For example, when the problem of waste disposal from chemical industries was solved by dumping the wastes into lakes or the oceans, it turned out that these eventually enter the food chain and cause danger to human health.

Thus a cycle is established.  Since the starting point now is not the same as before, but rather at a different level, this process may best be described as a spiraling circle.  This model explains two important features of technology.  First, technology once in­troduced will invariably proliferate.  Secondly, when it is recognized that whereas the first problem to be solved may not have been either urgent or necessary, the ones in Phase C are most often unavoidable.  Thus, once a society enters the techno­logical phase it will eventually be faced with ever increasing challenges from which it cannot get out.

This leads us to formulate the following basic law of technological development: Whereas individuals may get in and out of the cycle of technological solutions, no society that has once entered the phase of technological solutions to its problems can ever get out of it without totally destroying itself.

This view has been challenged and even condemned by a number of writers.  They regard it as a self-fulfilling prophesy, resulting from the arro­gance, shortsightedness, and economic power of an elite class of technocrats whose knowledge and expertise are constrained by a narrow vision that is devoid of  wis­dom.  It is further argued that unless these technology-intoxicated experts are tamed, and this fatalistic view is tempered, humanity will be in grave peril.  But history has yet to offer a counter example to the statement made above.

September 14, 2010

Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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