Friday, May 21, 2010

Human Perception of Technology in Time

I have an interesting view on technology: every new advancement is met with great enthusiasm, and the benefits are touted. Everyone jumps on the bandwagon (a common human behavior) and that new advancement becomes widespread. At some point, after the initial enthusiasm, all of a sudden everyone realizes that dangers and downsides to adopting this new technological advancements do exist , and they become afraid all of a sudden. Over time, the new technology becomes accepted with its pluses and flaws, until a new one comes along, going through the same process.

The newest craze is with cell phones: at the beginning, only the benefits were seen. People could communicate like never before, third world countries with poor telecommunications infrastructure only had to build a few towers and all of a sudden have the communications capabilities of the most developed countries, and so on. Now it seems all we hear about are the health risks of using cell phones, whether through cancer-causing radiation, the dangers of text messaging and talking while driving, and so on. The technology is here to stay, and has enough benefits (despite its cost) to continue existing, until something new is invented. It will eventually be accepted with all its flaws.

Perhaps this initial enthusiasm happens because the vast majority of people do not think in terms of “cost-benefit analysis” in most of their interactions (perhaps it is more efficient to think of “either good or bad” in most actions, saving the time otherwise wasted by thinking things out). Thus the reaction of the masses: “it is good” initially, then “it is bad”; then, once they think about what it would be like without the new technology, finally they accept the “good” and the “bad” associated with it.

I can think of so many new technologies that went through this process of enthusiastic adoption, repudiation, and then ambiguous acceptance (pesticides, agriculture, airplanes, landmines, etc.) They are used extensively at first, since their costs are minimized; then once their costs are becoming known, there is a massive campaign about the evil they cause. With pesticides, there was a campaign against DDT (although from what I learned, an unintended benefit was the eradication of malaria, at the cost of pollution, where it was applied). Agriculture was first considered by scholars the first major achievement of the human race, allowing humans enough surplus food and thus time to develop civilization, instead of foraging in the forest all day; then it was considered the greatest evil to human health (causing sedentarism, starchy diets lowering life expectancy, etc) and paving the way for full time armies, potent warfare, and empire-building. Now most people accept it as something that happened and cannot be turned back (despite the existence of fad diets advocating the consumption of raw food only). Landmines were once considered by armies an effective way to fight invasion. Afterwards, they realized that the costs were enormous after the war was over, since they killed and maimed the local population as well. The list of examples could go on.

I invite my readers to find an exception.