When Will Technology Outrun Us?

When you stop to think about it (and yes, I’m asking you to), the technological development the world has undergone in the last century—hell, the last decade—is nothing short of astounding. Or terrifying, depending on your point of view. Here are a few ways we’ve come along, in chronological order:

  • One hundred and ten years ago, there was no such thing as a fixed-wing aircraft. In 2011, 637 million passengers boarded flights in the United States alone (see http://www.transtats.bts.gov/).
  • The world’s first electronic, digital, programmable computer was built in 1943 to crack German codes. It was called the Colossus Mark 1, and it filled a room and spat out reels of tape. Now, we walk around with computers in our hands and complain about wifi connectivity.
  • When Asimov was writing his Foundation trilogy, humankind hadn’t even yet put an object in space. Now there are six astronauts living in orbit above Earth.
  • Speaking of the internet, it didn’t even exist as we know it until the 1980s, and was commercialized in the 90s (think of that—we put a man on the moon without the internet at our disposal). Twelve years ago, Wikipedia didn’t exist. Eight years ago, YouTube didn’t exist.

What does all that mean? It means that our current pace of technological growth is exponential. And what does that mean? Good question. Where is all this going? What new wonders will we invent next, and will they ever catch up to us?

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine what the world will look like a century from now. After all, I’m sure the Wright Brothers would never have predicted that figure of 637 million passengers from where they stood on Kitty Hawk. It’s hard to imagine inventions until someone invents them (a bulb of glass, wire, and electricity replaces fire? Hard to conceive until it happens).

Science fiction, not surprisingly, is full of the implications of technological growth. Films and novels alike have demonstrated the consequences of letting our skill at creating computers go to our heads. But the questions aren’t just about computers, either. Controversies over biotechnology are already on our doorstep, and before too long we’ll have to deal in earnest, publicly, with questions about the ethics of cybernetics or nanotechnology.

In one sense, all this is ironic. We create technology to make life easier, and to be in control. But like a nuclear reactor, the greater the power, the bigger the fallout if it melts down. Control and ease backfire on us.

This is all sounding very gloomy and doomy. I apologize for that, because I don’t actually think we’re doomed, and I don’t think that our uses of advanced technology are all irresponsible or overreaching. Technology can take us to some fascinating places, and that’s one of the things we love most about science fiction. It can do great things for humanity and save and improve lives.

But somewhere in the back of our heads, should we be asking ourselves, “Will we ever push it too far?” Is there a line we’ll cross? In a bioethics course I took a year and a half ago, the professor presented the future of technology as a balance between power and wisdom. Most technology isn’t inherently destructive or constructive, he claimed; those results were left to us to determine.

What do you think? Will humanity’s power exceed its wisdom, or do we have what’s necessary to keep technology reined in?

Suggested further reading:

Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. Print.

Mitchell, C. Ben., et al. Biotechnology and the Human Good. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2007. Print.



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