2001: A tech odyssey
Advertiser Staff Writer
Does technology make our lives better, or worse?
Which answer you get depends partly on whom you ask and how the question is framed. Has it made your work easier, or not? Do you now feel more stress, or less?
This week the worlds odometer has turned again, and the year that appears on the calendar recalls that moment from the opening of "2001: A Space Odyssey," when the man-ape lofts a bone into the air. In the dawn of the first technological age, the creatures take that big step toward realizing their humanity, using skeletal bones as tools. However, the fact that the tools happen to be used as weapons underscores how technology eludes any black-and-white assessment.
Joshua Barnes, a researcher at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, recently found himself thinking about some of the benefits.
"The cost of scientific computing is falling very rapidly," he wrote in response to The Advertisers e-mail inquiry. "A decade ago I needed the fastest supercomputers (Cray XMP or Cyber 205 class machines) to do my research, whereas today the laptop on which Im typing this message is even faster than those electronic giants.
"As a scientist, Im thus in the unusual position that the cost of my research tools is falling," he said. "That's the opposite of what's happening in most areas of science. For example, telescope costs are rising from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars!"
A bone to pick
A lot of people are doing serious thinking about what society has gained and lost through technology. Among those who caused the biggest stir is Bill Joy, cofounder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, who wrote a surprisingly dour appraisal of technology for the April edition of Wired magazine, titled "Why the Future Doesnt Need Us" (read it online at www. wired.com/ wired/archive /8.04).
It focuses on the potential for massive abuses from advances in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics. Its a long piece, encompassing some broad historical territory, but the main thread is a sense of foreboding that these technologies can be easily co-opted by groups set on "self-replication" and dominance, and that few leaders of science, industry or government have thought much about the repercussions.
"We are being propelled into this new century with no plan, no control, no brakes," Joy wrote. "Have we already gone too far down the path to alter course? I don't believe so, but we aren't trying yet, and the last chance to assert control ö the fail-safe point ö is rapidly approaching.
"We have our first pet robots, as well as commercially available genetic engineering techniques, and our nanoscale techniques are advancing rapidly."
Onward and upward
Jim Dator, UH futurist and political science professor, has given Joys essay a careful reading, and while he said he is "undecided" on the issue of genetic engineering, he feels generally positive about the arrival of artificial intelligence in the forms of nanotechnology and robots.
"The word computer greatly downplays what a computer is," Dator said. "It helps us and eventually will marginalize a lot of thinking.
"Thats the part that scares a lot of people," he added. "I find it really intriguing, an evolutionary step . . . I take the point of view of (futurist) Marshall McLuhan: We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us."
The aspect of technology that gives Dator pause is the burning of fossil fuels and the environmental impact of that practice. Gas-guzzling cars remain the undisputed rulers of the road, and alternative strategies have faced obstacles at every turn.
Invention of wheel still rocky
Mark Snyder is general manager of Global Electric Cars of Hawaii, a Kakaako dealership selling "neighborhood electric vehicles" for travel at speeds up to 25 mph. He has watched the conventional car industry convulse over initiatives to support alternative vehicles, including a California mandate enacted in September to require major car manufacturers to offer alternative-fuel cars on dealership lots.
But not all the resistance to alternative energy comes from the industry, he said: Consumers generally will embrace the tradeoffs of electric cars - lower speed and battery life - only if there is some financial incentive.
The development of electric cars that run on hydrogen fuel cells rather than batteries, he said, may be the solution because it asks the public to make few changes in their driving habits. The cars (Chrysler promises its models in 2003) use gas to top up the power; people dont need to curb driving distances to allow for recharging.
"There is an interest in alternative fuel if it is economically rewarding for people to do it," he said. "The general public, given the choice, if they have to pay a substantial penalty to buy something green, they wont pay the penalty."
Where were coming from
As the new millennium dawns, American society demonstrates its unquestioning reliance on technology (in this case, the internal combustion engine), but its an attitude thats been decades in the making. The pendulum has swung to and fro a few times in the last century, Dator said.
He cited the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York City as a pivotal event, with its utopian "Futurama" exhibits on what technology would bring. This vision, the depictions of flying cars and gleaming cities that baby boomers remember from school days, persisted for years, Dator said.
"The (Futurama) theme was called Science invents; technology creates; man conforms, " he said. "Thats an important point. The idea was this technology will cause change, and we will conform to it."
The next shift occurred in the 60s, when the environmentalists revolution called technology into question. Dator pointed to the founding of a federal Office of Technology Assessment, an agency formed to consider environmental impacts of change. The oil crisis of the 70s weakened this commitment, he said, propelling the pendulum back in the other direction and producing the current "general public disinterest" in the relationship between technology and the natural world.
Where we expected to be
This shift is partly what makes reading documents from earlier futuristic musings so fascinating. In 1970, the Governors Conference on the Year 2000 spawned essays on how the new millennium might look in every imaginable respect. They were compiled three years later in "Hawaii 2000: Continuing Experiment in Anticipatory Democracy."
The section on technology, written by former UH medical school dean Terence Rogers, includes some hits ("There will be increased tendency toward microminiaturization") and some misses ("We predict that electric vehicles will replace the internal-combustion-powered automobiles"). Perhaps the biggest miss: The forecast that "institutes for technological assessment" would be in place at the national level.
One area of accurate projections, not surprisingly, was medicine, a field in which the gains and losses through technology can be seen clearly. Big Island physician Earl Bakken is known internationally for his work in pacemaker development (in February he will receive a $250,000 award from the Russ Foundation for that work). But locally hes gained renown for his holistic views on treating mind, body and spirit. Many technologies wont work, he said, unless the patient has enough faith in them.
Just what the doctor ordered
However, he added, people often assume that technology merely alienates, when it can forge crucial connections.
"In some treatments, the information about a patient is electronically telemetered directly to the doctor, and to know that makes the patient feel less alone," he said. "Theyre coupled much better to the doctor."
Survival of fittest consumer
Richard Rohde is a specialist in substance abuse treatment for the state health department and teaches anthropology courses for the UH Outreach College. His doctoral dissertation in anthropology a decade ago concerned the formation of virtual communities among Vietnam veterans, who were united only by e-mail links.
Although Rohde appreciates such benefits, he worries about American society and its pursuit of technology for its own sake.
"I see SUVs on the freeway that never leave pavement," he said with a laugh. "People get them because they think they should.
"The idealogy is that to be a good citizen and participant in American culture you have to consume whatever the latest technology is," he added. "Some groups will enjoy the fruits of technology, while others wont. I think that has always been the case.
"Its like the old adage: Any tool can be used as a weapon. Its how the culture uses it to mediate certain needs that really matters."