What About the Dangers of Technology?
There are nuclear weapons in the hands of very unstable governments.
Their use could trigger a war that essentially ends human civilization
as we know it. This is a reminder that technologies we develop
can be very dangerous.
Then there are the more mundane examples of the dangers of
technology. Video games can suck the time out of life (or is
it the life out of time?) for addicts. The internet can reduce
office productivity by making it too easy for employees to get
distracted. When first introduced, bicycles almost certainly
caused a surge in the number of injuries compared to walking.
But we have harnessed nuclear power and have used it (mostly)
safely to power our homes and hospitals and businesses. And some
video games, when played in moderation, may actually improve
brain function. The internet offers more opportunities for learning
and easy access to knowledge that any technology before it. Bicycles
provide cheap transportation for distances that are not feasible
Most of what we invent has both benefits and dangers. They
can be used for good purposes, bad ones, and everything in-between.
But technology itself is neutral in a moral sense. Some of the
more important questions are not about the dangers of various
technologies (although when they are so dangerous as to threaten
our existence they perhaps need special attention), but about
how we choose which to use and for what purposes.
Our minds are powerful and creative. We are capable of making
amazing things, some of which are very beneficial to humans.
But the pursuit of knowledge and the using of it to make things
are not motivated solely by the desire to benefit humankind.
We have many other desires that motivate us, and often we are
not even fully aware of them. That brings us to an important
question: With many potential motivations operating in our minds
and many ways to deceive ourselves, how do we know that we are
pursuing actual values when we expand our knowledge and develop
For example, we can design an economy that excels in raw productive
power, but without asking whether economic health beyond a certain
level has any correlation to human happiness. A military genius
can know everything about which weapons to use to win a war,
yet never understand which wars should actually be engaged in
to achieve what really matters. On a more personal level, any
one of us might begin by using the internet as the wonderfully
enriching tool it can be, and then slip into using it as a way
to distract ourselves from accomplishing what we might call "healthier"
Given this potential to misdirect our power because of many
misguided motivations (and a general lack of a more holistic
understanding), it seems possible that in some sense we are living
in a world of "mistaken" technologies. We have poured
genius into creating ever larger and more luxurious living spaces
without ever questioning the underlying premise that having more
and bigger homes will make us happier. We have poured genius
into making cars which perhaps cause more problems than real
value in their current form.
This essay is meant to raise the questions, and not to provide
any simple answers (there may not be any). With that in mind,
here are four questions to get you thinking about this subject:
1. Which dangers of technology are ignored too often?
2. How do we know whether a motivation is aligned with our
3. What current technologies might be wrong for us?
4. How could we measure the value of technologies?
By the way, although I am bringing up questions about the
dangers of technology, I should note that it is not meant to
be anti-technology. I happen to think that many of the problems
we have will only be solved through further technological breakthroughs.
The use of fire, one of our earliest technologies, was a big
step for humans, and a good one in my mind, even if fire can
burn us. Who knows what dangerous and wonderful things will come
next, and whether we will use them to create a better world or
to destroy it. But despite all of our mistakes and delusions
up to this point in history, who would really prefer the cold,
hard, and short lives of our cave-dwelling ancestors?