Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Essays on Technology and Civilization

Industrial Technology 198
Technology & Civilization
Instructor Jack McKeller

Essays on Technology and Civilization

What role does moral obligation play in the development and use of aspects of biotechnology, the environment, social issues and information technologies?

The concept of technology has no moral sense or obligations. Technology is a process where scientific knowledge and mechanical engineering is brought together to create new tools and develop new processes of which to perform certain tasks. The only obligation of a technology is to perform the task it was designed for, adapt the technology to perform its task or replace the technology with a new technology that can perform the task with improved results. While technology has no moral sense or obligations, society and the individuals who use the technology must understand and accept the morals and values of their society as humanity embraces a technology of which its power can possibly destroy these social morals and values. Human society must look into itself and examine the morals and values their civilization was founded upon—religious teachings, social customs, mores, stories, laws, literature, arts, music, beliefs, fears, ambitions—and to take all that a civilization can use to define itself, then examine a technology and determine how this technology can be adapted for society’s own benefit of its people.

Of all the technologies, biotechnology is the most serious in how a civilization can define its moral obligations to the technology. Biotechnology affects the very foundation of life and life’s process—life with can be created or destroyed. With the development of the Human Genome Project, scientist would be able to map the entire genetic code for humans and determine which genes affect which human traits. The ability to manipulate human genes gives rise to the concept of eugenics or even the concept of cloning human individuals genetically developed to perform certain tasks. Those selected individuals who have the access and knowledge to understand and use such technology will have the ability to create life in their own image and to become gods to mankind. Such a power can be abused. Genetically engineered food is another example. Those who have the technology to genetically engineered food items can develop food for the specific needs of a small market willing to pay for such items while overlooking the needs of members of a society who may not have the resources. An example would be to genetically engineer baby carrots or baby corn for salads that members of an advanced society may purchase and use while members of an impoverished society may not have the resources to purchase a genetically engineered strain of wheat which can grow in arid or desert conditions. Society must recognize the dangers and benefits of biotechnology and must see that the benefits of a biotechnology are equally shared to all members and not concentrated to only a few.

The environment is a serious problem since environmental waste and pollution affect all members of society in all nations. Pollution does not limit itself inside of a particular nation’s borders, but rather spreads throughout the earth. Sulfur dioxide, which is expelled in the atmosphere from coal plants in the United States, can drift north into the Canadian forests and combine with water moisture to form acid rain and destroy those forests. The nuclear accident at Cherynoble released radioactive gas and particles, which have been dispersed throughout the world. Nations with advanced technology and the resources would have the ability to clean up the environment within their borders for the benefit of their own people. However, nations that are attempting to industrialize their economies and raise the standard of living for their own people will not have the technology or resources to clean the environment of the pollution caused by industrialization. These nations are concentrating on trying to industrialize and raise the standard of living, which is already common in advanced nations. The moral obligation of both advanced societies and societies which are attempting to industrialize is to find some common technologies which can be installed in an industrializing nation’s infrastructure at minimal cost, which can help limit the effects of pollution. For in the end, pollution affects all nations in all borders.

The world’s population is growing at an expanded rate. In 1927, the population was estimated to be around 2 billion people. By 2054, the population is expected to explode to around 9 billion people. Much of this population growth is expected in China and India of which both nations are attempting to industrialize their economies to support this population. In contrast, the populations of the United States and Western Europe are remaining at a relatively stable rate of growth. With the exploding population in China and India, both nations are going to need an increasing amount of resources in food, water, and energy to support this base of people. The goal of technology is to find ways to support an increasing amount of people using resources in an efficient way. What new energy technologies can be developed to reduce the demand for fossil fuels, which can support a greater demand for energy? What agricultural technologies can be developed to increase the food output in order to feed a greater share of people? If these issues are not resolved, then there will be an unequal distribution of resources between the advanced societies of the United States and Europe which have a lower population base, but consume most of the earth’s resources, and the Third World countries of China and India which will have a greater share of the world’s population, but will not have the resources to support that population. This can lead to a dangerous confrontation between the haves and have-nots—especially if the confrontation is between nuclear powers of the United States, China and India.

The information highway and communications technology will also give benefits to those individuals who have access to the technology and knowledge to use this technology over individuals who do not have access. This again corresponds to nations and societies with advanced technological infrastructure will make greater use of this technology over those nations and societies who do not have access. The question here for moral obligations is how can this technology be provided to those individuals who do not have access? An even more important issue is that those individuals who do have access to the technology and the knowledge to use this technology would have the means to provide the information, to determine what information and content can be published on the information superhighway which will suit their own interests over those interests of others. This means that power will be concentrated to the few who control the technology and the gateways to access the technology. How can information and knowledge be shared equally among individuals and societies without censorship due to political, racial, religious or cultural values?

Moral obligations with the development of technologies will not come cheap for societies. Any decision on a technology and how it will be used to society will benefit members of one group while hurting members of another group. There are no easy answers—no quick fixes. But rather, compromising positions, which can benefit all members to an extent, must be addressed and the technologies developed to provide the solutions to these problems. These are the issues that society must confront and provide solutions to for technology.

How can you increase the quality of life in developing countries through technological diffusion and technology transfer?

The question of improving the quality of life in developing countries has been asked throughout the history of the earth. Developed countries would exert their influence and use their technology to subvert or destroy the social and political structures of a less developed society in the name of progress. England would move in and take over a less developed territory and colonize it under the guise of “civilizing the natives” to become model citizens of the British Empire when in reality the colonization of territories meant access to raw materials for the factories back in England. Investment of technology was never emphasized for the true benefit of the citizens in the colony or to use that technology to improve the quality of life for the colony’s citizens. The question is still being debated today as global conglomerates invest the technology of manufacturing in less developed countries for access of cheap raw materials and cheap labor for the development of finished products which will be sold to US and Western European markets with none of the profits benefiting the population of the less developed countries. So the question remains. How can technological diffusion and technology transfer improve the quality of life in less developed countries? The problem is that each individual less developed nation will have its own level of infrastructure. The infrastructure of a developing nation such as Thailand is far different than a developing nation such as Mozambique. Thailand may have more individuals who are educated, and have a greater level of utilities infrastructure such as electrical, gas, and water utilities within its borders than Mozambique may have. Each nation must be examined on a case-by-case basis, then an assessment of what technologies can be provided to these countries that may have the greatest impact. A large manufacturing factory may not be in the best interest for Mozambique since manufacturing technologies require highly skilled workers to operate in the factory and basic utilities of electricity, water, and gas to power the factory. However simple technologies such as windmills, water mills to provide irrigation systems for improved farming would help improve rural areas and the citizens living in those rural areas of Mozambique. Basic technological improvements in metalworking or artisan crafts and ceramics that can produce basic tools and goods for general population may also be necessary. A basic educational system to improve the education of the population would also help. This is a gradual approach to improve the quality of life for the population of a developing country as a whole. However, the problem with this approach is two-fold. First the leaders of a developing country would be educated in schools in the United States and Europe and have western values and ideas instilled in them—these values would be alien to the general population. In addition, these leaders would want to “Westernize” or technologically improve their nation in order to emulate the advanced societies such as the United States even though the county would have a lack of basic economic and technological infrastructure and a lack of a skilled and educated workforce necessary to maintain an advanced technological society. Second, globalized companies and conglomerates have an interest in producing manufactured goods at a reduced cost. These conglomerates may approach a leader of a developing country and offer a deal to build a factory there in order to gain cheap labor to produce their products. While there is a short-term economical benefit to the developing country for having a factory built, the true benefits will go to the company building and running the factory since the company would pay extremely low wages to the workers, taking full advantages of those workers and not giving any benefits or right to the workers in the factories. Thus the benefits of the technology will not benefit the developing country or improve the quality of life for its citizens. This second issue is an even greater problem for developing countries, which do have a semi-skilled workforce who are able to work in factories and whose countries already have a general infrastructure of power, gas and water utilities which are needed to run the factories. In addition, companies building factories in developing countries would not have an incentive to place environmental controls in the factory itself to reduce pollution since environmental controls would raise costs and lower production of manufactured goods. What is necessary for these developing nations is for the governments of these developing nations and global companies negotiate agreements of which a portion of the profits in manufacturing these goods can be invested into the country’s infrastructure and improve the quality of life for the citizens. This can be done either by allowing the government to have a share of ownership in the factory, or having the global company pledge to build schools or homes for their workers. Finally, global companies must realize that exploiting cheap labor and raw materials in developing countries can no longer be done with impunity. Citizens and critics in the developed nations of the United States and Europe have noticed this issue and are already criticizing these practices. One example of such criticism is the general outcry on sweatshops producing clothing for the US market. Another is the general protest movement against the World Trade Organization, which cause major riots in Seattle and paralyzed the WTO meetings last year while generating unfavorable publicity on the WTO in the mainstream press. Technological transfer and diffusion of technology into developing countries must be done at a slow, gradual pace in allowing these technologies to gain hold in a nation and allow the citizens of a developing nation to acquire the skills and knowledge to use these technologies before advancing to more complex technologies.

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