Technological progress: A burden in disguise?

A preview of emerging technological trends and their societal implications

The idea of putting our planet on life support is a sobering thought. Tech savvy geo-engineers have been discussing a “Plan B” for saving the planet. If we cannot get the world to collectively agree on cutting carbon emissions then technically interfering with the Earth could offer an alternative.
How does stratospheric aerosol insertion and marine cloud whitening sound? The ideas are as outlandish as they read. The former involves injecting material like sulphur dioxide or soot into the stratosphere to form a hazy layer that cools the Earth’s surface. The latter involves unmanned ships spraying seawater droplets into the air, thickening the clouds to reduce sunlight. These proposals read like something out of a science fiction novel.

“Increasingly … we are witnessing technological inventions that are beyond conceptualization. The fact that we are even considering turning to technology to save our planet shows how highly we regard technology.”

Science fiction on our doorsteps

It is exactly this technology that is becoming today. Technology is something that always has and will continue to amaze us. Up until now new inventions have mostly been within reason. Increasingly though we are witnessing technological inventions that are beyond conceptualization. The fact that we are even considering turning to technology to save our planet shows how highly we regard technology. We are not talking here about green technology such as solar panels – these are sensible.
Instead, this is über-geeky technology that is trying to physically change the natural process happening around our planet. These solutions to climate change have been dreamt up in the US, a country largely self-invented. Technology there has almost received a religious status. If the upward progress of technology gets us into the mess of pollution, then high-tech inventions can also pull us out of it. That is the assumption.
Certainly, engineering your way out of the recession may be possible. But is hoping that it can also save our planet putting too much faith in the wonders of technology?

“Technology is all pervasive. It invents something and a decade later that very thing is unrecognizable.”

Beacon of knowledge

It’s a debatable question. Some see technology as the Devil’s eye; others as the saving angel. One thing that is clear though is that we are in an age of technical determinism. Technology has gathered such prominence that it has its own determining force beyond that of science or politics, governing societal and economic changes.
For example, it has changed the way and how we communicate. The content of our communication has been pushed to secondary place as the medium of communication becomes the message. Media analyst Marshall McLuhan – who described technology as an extension of man – explained that each technological medium has its own intrinsic effects which become its unique message, because “it is the medium which shapes and controls the scale of human association and action.”
We adapt our content to the medium. Historically, the most powerful mediums have changed how we perceive the world – the telephone and the Internet, for instance. As the face of communication is changing, what we communicate changes too. Now we look to technology for the provider of answers and solutions to our problems. It is becoming our encyclopaedia, the source of much of our communication.
Before, knowledge was simply knowing something. Today it is knowing how things are associated with each other, ie where did this knowledge come from, how was it formed and is it reliable? There is technology to save the planet, technology to form relationships with people, technology to conduct academic research and technology to address our human needs and community interests.

2010 – The death of the mobile phone

Technology is all pervasive. It invents something and a decade later that very thing is unrecognizable. The mobile phone illustrates perfectly how technological advancements mean that what was before a technical product is now merely an object and that the technicality lies in how it has evolved. A mobile phone is no longer a phone thanks to the proliferation of applications. The mobile phone is a metaphor for what the next 12 months have in store for technology.
In 2009 when software geeks wanted to test their products they turned to the phone. Thanks largely to Apple, the boundary between phones and computers is now a blurry one.

This blurry line translates into 2010 as the year of platform wars and operating system wars. Mobile platforms will increasingly hand over the data storage and data processing to infrastructures outside the mobile device, known as a “cloud”. This increases the amount of information the phone is able to handle. The first mobile phones powered by the cloud will be business-focused applications where collaboration, data sharing, multitasking and scheduling are key features. For regular consumers, navigation applications will take the lead. Exciting speciality applications will offer remote keys to your house, which lets one control one’s house from a distance, eg switching on lights and even remotely managing one’s PC.

Industrial espionage

The mobile phone is essentially becoming a computer. In order for cloud computing to work there needs to be a certain level of trust. But as more platforms and operating systems come into play there is the risk of a breach of service. The day somebody hacks into the cloud enterprise, trust and security issues will result in a major cloud-computing catastrophe.
Mark Anderson, CEO of Strategic News Service – who holds a 97% success rate on his yearly predictions – says that “Catastrophe is lurking around the corner.” What are initially bright ideas in the world of technology have darker sides to them. By the end of the year the mobile phone as a computer and the cloud-computing catastrophe will increasingly be reality for us.

There is, however, one more item on the 2010 technology agenda, which ratifies the transcendent position that technology in the coming decade will secure. Using technology to interfere in the Earth’s natural processes suddenly becomes more acceptable if we compare Silicon Valley’s next venture, which goes one step further – using technology to alter people’s psychological state.

When technology becomes too clever

Real time is not a new concept but when we use it to connect remote data to people and things the results are rather startling. In the near future specific face recognition will allow us at a party, for example, to have photographed a face without the person knowing and a little voice from our phone device will tell us who this person is, their job and how many children they have, etc. Sounds like a fantastic way of getting to know a person.
Its developers believe we are living in a hostile and difficult world. Apparently it will improve the human condition. Well if that means making the unknown known, it’s as if we weren’t capable of using our own language abilities. It is sending out signals to society where we learn to judge a person through facts about them rather than their character and rapport.

Another, slightly more acceptable, use of the device is voice-queried information about your personal environment and self-guided tours. Whereas this is not as insulting as a machine telling you information about your fellow beings, it nevertheless also dehumanizes us as we begin to lose our own sense of discovery.
On a positive note, from the commercial side these real time devices open up a wealth of opportunities for marketers. They will be able to develop relevant messages based on location, interest and context. The next tactic for marketers is to get on that screen and not simply in a passive manner but also in an interactive way.
That our mobiles are also now becoming commercial hubs will certainly hail in criticism, but as Ian Douglas, technology expert at London’s Daily Telegraph says, “We must accept intrusions into our physical space”, because in the future if advertising does not have a mobile strategy then they are out of the game.

Reigning in our appetites

Imagine the day these applications and devices become mainstream. Such intensive use of technology requires a great deal of energy consumption. Can we really afford that given the pervasiveness of climate change?
It brings us back to square one. Is it right to focus so heavily on technology as the solution to global problems? In transport, business and medicine, yes, but climate change, no. After the huge disruption following the credit crunch such exhaustive development of technology is a bit misplaced.

Maybe we should be more modest in our gusto for new things. Is it right to be employing so much effort and time to come up with these rather silly inventions when we need to think about larger humanitarian issues? Too much technological progress is wrong on two accounts – much of the world is suffering and these inventions do nothing for human progress, rather the contrary, and, secondly, in the light of global warming do we have the disposition for wasteful energy use?

We have the conceit that we have moved on from dirty, sooty, coal-fuelled power stations to this clean light air economy based on processing information. The truth is that we are still dependent on material things. Information and communications technology consumes as much, if not more energy. Goggle’s location choice of its data centres is driven by the need to be close to reliable, cheap power such as nuclear stations, in much the same way that aluminium smelters are strategically situated.

Much of technological progress is predicated on the idea of continuously replacing last year’s invention with this year’s. This creates an awful lot of combustion. Perhaps the technological trend for 2020 will be ethical technology.

Article by Paula Svaton