Chapter 22 Notes

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7 Apr 2012

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CHAPTER 22 Technology and the Global Environment
Technology: Saviour or Frankenstein?
Scholars interested in the relationship between technology and society also recognize that
the bombing of Hiroshima divided the twentieth century into two distinct periods
The period before Hiroshima the era of naive optimism. During that time, technology
could do no wrong; technology was widely defined as the application of scientific
principles to the improvement of human life; most people regarded technologists with
reverence and awe; they were viewed as a sort of priesthood whose objectivity allowed
them to stand outside the everyday world and perform near-magical acts; with the
bombing of Hiroshima, the blush was off the rose
Growing pessimism was evident three weeks earlier, when the world’s first nuclear bomb
exploded at the Alamagordo Bombing Range in New Mexico; the bomb was the child of
J. Robert Oppenheimer, appointed head of the top-secret M anhattan Project just 28
months earlier; Oppenheimer organized the largest and most sophisticated technological
project in human history up to that time; J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the
atomic bomb
- Oppenheimer’s misgivings continued after the war; having witnessed the
destructive power he helped unleash, he wanted the United States to set an
example to the only other nuclear power at the time, the Soviet Union; he
wanted both countries to halt thermo-nuclear research and refuse to develop the
hydrogen bomb
It was only in the 1970s that a series of horrific disasters alerted many people to the fact
that technological advance is not always beneficial, not even always benign; the most
infamous technological disasters of the 1970s and 1980s include the following:
- the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 42
million litres (9 million gallons) of crude oil, producing a dangerous slick more
than 1600 kilometres (1000 miles) long, causing billions of dollars of damage,
and killing hundreds of thousands of animals
Sociologist Charles Perrow was referring to events such as those listed above as normal
accidents; the term normal accident recognizes that the very complexity of modern
technologies ensures they will inevitably fail, though in unpredictable ways
German sociologist Ulrich Beck also coined a term that stuck when he said we live in a
risk society; a risk society is a society in which technology distributes danger among all
categories of the population; moreover, in a risk society, danger does not result from
technological accidents alone; increased risk is due to mounting environmental threats;
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environmental threats are more widespread, chronic, and ambiguous than technological
accidents they are therefore more stressful
To many people, technology seems to be spinning out of control; from their point of
view, it enables the production of ever-more goods and services but at the cost of
breathable air, drinkable water, safe sunlight, plant and animal diversity, and normal
weather patterns; in the same vein, Neil Postman refers to the United States as a
technopoly; he argues that the U.S. is the first country in which technology has taken
control of culture; technology, he says, compels people to try to solve all problems using
technical rather than moral criteria, although technology is often the source of the
The latest concern of technological skeptics is biotechnology; molecular biologists have
mapped the entire human gene structure and are also mapping the gene structures of
selected animals and plants
- Detractors claim that, without moral and political decisions based on a firm
sociological understanding of who benefits and suffers from these new
techniques, the application of biotechnology may be a greater threat to our well-
being than is any other technology ever developed
Technology and People Make History
Nikolai Kondratiev was the first social scientist to notice that technologies are invented in
clusters; a new group of major inventions has cropped up every 40 to 60 years since the
Industrial Revolution; Kondratiev argued that these flurries of creativity cause major
economic growth spurts beginning 10 to 20 years later and lasting 25 to 35 years each;
thus, Kondratiev subscribed to a form of technological determinism, the belief that
technology is the major force shaping human society and history; however, technology
did not become engines of economic growth until social conditions allowed them to do
so; for instance:
- The original steam engine was invented by Hero of Alexandria in the first
century CE; James Watt’s invention of the steam engine was all the rage once
its potential became evident; but it did not cause the Industrial Revolution and it
was adopted on a wide scale only after the social need for it emerged
- Similarly, Gottlieb Daimler’s internal combustion engine became the basis of
the automobile and petroleum industries thanks to changes in the social
organization of work wrought by Henry Ford; the self-defeating business
practice of Ford’s main competitors, the Stanley brothers; and, an epidemic of
hoof-and-mouth disease
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John Atanasoff was among the first people to invent the computer in 1939
We conclude that technology and society influence each other; scientific discoveries,
once adopted on a wide scale, often transform societies; but scientific discoveries are
turned into useful technologies only when social need demands it
How High Tech Became Big Tech
It was already clear in the last quarter of the 19th century that turning scientific principles
into technological innovations was going to require not just genius but substantial
resources, especially money and organization; thus, Thomas Edison established the first
“invention factory” at Menlo Park, New Jersey, in the late 1870s; Edison boasted that he
could turn out “a minor invention every 10 days and a big thing every six months or so” –
the phonograph and the electric light bulb were two such “big things”
However, only governments and giant multinational corporations could afford to sustain
the research effort of the second half of the 20th century
Because large multinational corporations now routinely invest astronomical sums in
research and development to increase their chance of being the first to bring innovations
to market, the time lag between new scientific discoveries and their technological
application is continually shrinking; as a result of these developments, it should come as
no surprise that military and profit-making considerations now govern the direction of
most research and development
The connection between practicality and research is even more evident today; many
researchers even many of those who do theoretically driven research in universities
are pulled in particular directions by large research grants, well-paying jobs, access to
expensive state-of-the-art equipment, and the possibility of winning patents and
achieving commercial success
Environmental Degradation
Environmental degradation has four main aspects: global warming, industrial pollution,
the decline in biodiversity, and genetic pollution
Global Warming
Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been burning increasing quantities of fossil
fuels (coal, oil, gasoline, natural gas, etc.) to drive their cars, furnaces, and factories;
burning these fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; the accumulation of
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