What the Atomic Bomb Revealed
recent article in Foreign Policy,
these lines reminds me of incidents in my own personal history. My father was a
theoretical physicist. During World War II, one of his friends was sent to invite
morning of the day the bomb was dropped on
As I study technology, these memories remind me that technology is not just a wonder, it is also a terror. We need to think seriously about the risks as well as the benefits, as McNamara reminds us.
Both risks and benefits have increased enormously since World War II. That was when the most powerful institutions in our societies, governments and corporations, got involved with scientific and technological development. Before that time, few domains of science were of practical value. The most important inventions of the previous century came not from the minds of scientists but from the hands of clever inventors. But the first time all the power of a modern state was placed in the service of scientific discovery the result was a huge leap in the scale of human control of natural forces.
World War II, many of the scientists who had worked on the atom bomb project
advocated nuclear disarmament. Unlike military leaders who were disdainful of
the Russians and believed they would never make a bomb, the scientists had
studied alongside Russian students in
Subtler threats emerged after World War II from the same potent combination of powerful government and corporate sponsors and scientific-technical research. Once again, we are witnessing a rising tide of concern among scientists and engineers regarding the dangers of their own achievements. Just as the atomic scientists called for restraint after creating the bomb, so today scientists who have helped create new technologies in the domains of industrial production, computing and biology are calling for restraint in the application of their inventions.
For example, Bill Joy, cofounder and Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, and coauthor of The Java Language Specification, shocked the technical community with a portentous article in Wired in 2000. There he wrote, “The 21st-century technologies - genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) - are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them….I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals” (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/).
Of course practically no one wants to give up the many benefits of progress, particularly in medicine, agriculture, and communication. The critique of modern technology is not about regression to a premodern condition. The question is what to do about the contradictory effects of progress.
These effects cannot be grasped in the old optimistic view of technology as a benign force for good. The very definition of technology seems to be violated by its evolution. We think of our action as “technical” when it changes the world more than it changes us. The hunter kills the rabbit but nothing happens to him in the process. The driver moves a ton of screaming steel down the highway but sits peacefully in the car listening to music on the radio. This disproportion between action and reaction back on the actor is in the very nature of technique and distinguishes it from activities in which there is more reciprocity such as human relations.
But we seem to have reached the limit to the technical way of being in the world. There is no escape from the reaction when the technologies become so powerful they overwhelm everyone within their range including those who deploy them. Nuclear weapons revealed our vulnerability to our own technologies. Environmental problems such as pollution and global warming continue to teach the same lesson: we exist in the world our technologies transform and cannot escape their effects.
The German social theorist Ulrich Beck calls this new situation the “risk society.” A risk society is one in which technologies have become so powerful as to interfere with their operators and with each other. Restraint is needed, but also a new sophistication in technical disciplines. For example, it used to be possible to keep engineering and medicine separate, each in its own sphere. No longer. Today many engineering decisions have medical consequences and engineers must deal with health and safety as once they dealt with materials strength and raw materials availability. Similarly, medicine employs many engineering marvels and mistakes in design can have fatal consequences. The interference and overlapping of technologies creates a new situation in which specialization must be compensated by frequent appeals to the knowledge contained in other disciplines. Only then can we hope to avoid such consequences of modern technology as environmental pollution.
But there is a more basic precondition for surviving the unintended consequences of progress and that is the will to live in peace and harmony with others and with nature. So long as that will is lacking and a will to violent domination continues to be the rule in the affairs of nations, human survival is at risk. After World War II, the scientists who made the bomb formulated the situation in terms of the growth of the human species. Once the toys become too powerful, it is a race between the habits of childhood and responsible maturity. We are still in this race and the outcome is uncertain.