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Good Technologies with Bad Side Effects

Technological changes within our control

I initially used a simple scenario of a commonly occurring natural event that could readily be disastrous for nations that have advanced technology—unless they have the foresight to take pre-emptive action immediately. By contrast, I subsequently considered some of the spectacular natural phenomena that will be devastating for everyone when they next happen. For these latter examples, I see no point in worrying, as their global effects are rare and outside our control. My attitude is totally different for the contents of the following chapters, as now I want to demonstrate things that were potentially in our control, or were predictable, but nevertheless we failed to see the dangers in time. Worse is that in many cases, we realized there were serious side effects, but we actively ignored them because of immediate gains and financial profits.

My difficulty is not to find such examples, but to pick those that are likely to happen again, or are leading us into an irreversible downward direction. There are very many areas where technologies are rushing forward with truly positive features, and in our excitement we fail to consider those areas that may have unexpected or disastrous consequences. With the benefit of hindsight, the dark side of initially excellent ideas and progress may now seem obvious or ludicrous, but we are not critical enough in looking forward for negative factors and into the hidden dangers of new and exciting innovations. This chapter is therefore intended as a stark reminder that in the past we have blundered, and are likely to do so again. For me, the particularly worrying aspect is that the more spectacular advances may be matched by equally spectacularly bad side effects. Since the reality is that technological progress is increasing ever faster, we need to be actively aware that there are pitfalls, and consider what may be unfortunate outcomes from innovations that initially look excellent.

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