Home Engineering The dark side of technology
Armaments and warfare
Whilst economy-driven obsolescence is both incredibly wasteful of resources and costly, it is now firmly entrenched across the world.
Economic arguments drive it forward on the grounds that we need it to continuously fuel and expand sales and production. The fact that it is also an unsustainable approach is ignored at all levels of society. Our demand for novelty and instant satisfaction has blinkered us to our consideration for future generations.
If greed and consumerism were our only faults, then humanity might have developed quite differently. Unfortunately, just like the pretty little robins, we are totally uninhibited in killing our fellow creatures. These are not just other animals for food (perfectly acceptable if we were lions or polar bears and had no alternative), but also fellow humans. Avarice is driving us to take over their land and possessions, and force them to adopt our own views of how the world should be organized. This includes slavery and imposing ideological or religious lifestyles others, plus destroying their literature, culture, and language.
We have achieved dominance by killing, warfare, and genocide, which have been made possible by a range of advances in different sciences. A modest estimate must therefore be that improved technologies have killed or subjugated many billions of people over the course of our advancing ‘civilization’. Once again, remember that history is written by the winners, so their cruelty and slaughter will rarely be documented.
For example, when learning Latin at school, children were often introduced to the simple books in Latin written by Julius Caesar. His Gallic Wars related how he overcame the Celts in France. He sometimes praises their military skills and bravery, but nowhere does he mention that prior to his campaigns there were around 3 million Celts living in the region we now call France. By the end of the war, his troops had killed 1 million, and taken a further million into slavery. The residual million had lost their culture, religions, and languages, and it was the end of the importance of Celts in mainland Europe. Caesar is presented as a great successful general, never as a practitioner of genocide.
Far from such military and political activity having reached an end point, both our efficiency at killing and devising ever more destructive weaponry are improving. Viewed in terms of technology, these are major advances. Indeed, we are so successful that it is not unreasonable to predict that there will be total destruction of humanity. Our current military technologies could already achieve this, and with the continuing vast investments in new weaponry, there is the danger that we may use these armaments in order to justify their existence.
To praise and catalogue our ingenuity and scientific advances in the realm of killing fellow humans is very easy, but it should be a total condemnation of why many technologies have evolved. Bows and arrows and flint knives for hunting were initial examples, but the early metallurgy of bronze and iron survive in archaeological examples of swords and armour. Therefore, we were already motivated to improve the metal skills for destructive reasons at a time when there was minimal pressure on us in terms of overcrowding. Similarly, the progress in steel making, as for Samurai swords, was highly skilled, but it was not intended or funded for better ploughs.
The pattern has continued on to explosives, machine guns, submarines, land and sea mines, and bombs. The state-of-the-art destructive power can now be delivered by remotely controlled missiles, or drones, and in terms of spectacular power, a single atomic bomb (either fission or fusion versions) can destroy an entire city. So, whereas one arrow or a sword might kill one enemy at relatively close quarters, and require courage as there was a high personal risk, the modern bombs are sent from a safe shelter, and can destroy a million fellow humans. Our innovative skills have also advanced warfare to include chemical and biological weaponry, aircraft and missiles with high speeds and long range, and accurate targeting via inertial, satnav guidance and laser-aiming systems.
The list continues, but the message is clear. We have always been willing to put money and effort and human innovative intelligence into destructive technologies. My initial premise of a dark side to technology may actually be totally incorrect. I am deluding myself, in line with every other commentator. Indeed, one could argue that we have made most progress in developing better materials primarily because we initially intended to use them to kill our fellow humans. From this more cynical viewpoint, the positive benefits of technology are therefore fortuitous spin-offs that are secondary to our initial objectives. There are elements of the same reversal of perception in the progress of medicine and biology, where knowledge was gained by treating wounded soldiers or gladiators, or advances and funding of prosthetics and plastic surgery, which were only enabled as a result of warfare. In reality, I suspect we cannot separate the two opposing views, as human nature has an equal mixture of negative and positive attitudes to our fellow humans.
If we pursue this discussion beyond the confines of Earth and ask if there are civilizations on the other planetary systems across the universe, then we need to expand our list of considerations on whether or not we can detect them. The equation of Frank Drake, which tries to estimate if other civilizations could exist, includes numerous factors, such as the number of planets that exist, and if they are habitable. The equation also includes uncertainties, such as whether they could develop intelligent life and communicate with us. Timing is also difficult, as such life forms could develop and then become extinct, so we might only receive signals from a long-dead historic intelligence. The universe is vast and signals from distant planets could take many thousands of years to reach us.
Despite these huge uncertainties, there are active attempts to receive alien signals, and simultaneously we are broadcasting our presence outwards from Earth. All our TV and radio transmissions do this, as well as more focussed attempts. In the half-century of our search to find signals of such alien societies, no signals have yet been found. This may actually be very encouraging, as any society that has developed the requisite technologies may be as self-destructive and expansionist as humans. Therefore if they find Earth, then we could expect invasion, exploitation of our planetary resources, and no more humans. The model would be precisely the same as for our earlier human civilizations that expanded and acted by destroying the people and resources of other continents.
If the aliens are slightly more intelligent than us, then they may not have the failings of greed, and the need to have power and dominate others. The fact we receive no messages from them is therefore excellent news, as it may imply they are a peaceful, idealistic, Ruritanian society. In that case, their technology will be focussed on other topics than interplanetary communications, space travel, and exploitation.
Knowing that other populated worlds exist would be exciting and extremely humbling for humans, but contacts with them might imply total disaster for us. Nevertheless, advances in the technologies used by astronomers over the last 20 years have identified the presence of planetary objects around other stars. This search is in its infancy, but already, within this very brief period of time, some 20,000 planets have been observed orbiting relatively close neighbouring stars. If we can already see this number from near neighbours, then when we scale up the numbers to match not just our galaxy, but also the myriads of galaxies that we can see, the implication is that there are many millions of other planets that could support intelligent life forms.
This possibility of many alien civilizations is unlikely to be directly relevant to life on Earth. Nevertheless, knowing that life forms may exist (or have existed) on other planets should definitely cause us to reassess our own self-importance. The universe was not created specifically for humans, and therefore we need to consider how we preserve our tiny fragment of the universe for the other creatures and life forms that exist here. Part of this reappraisal will be to limit our destruction of resources and living creatures. This means controlling our own population growth and reducing the demands on limited resources, as part of the present destruction is driven by our commercial activities, such as deliberate obsolescence.
For those who have religious beliefs, there is equally a need to reassess the scale of their thinking. Creation needs to be seen in terms of the entire universe, not just of one tiny infinitesimal planet within it. Hence their view of a Creator needs to be similarly scaled upwards. Copernicus was criticized because he realized Earth is only a planet within our solar system (not the centre of the universe). This dramatically downgraded the importance of humans from the narrow mindset of his time. Taking the truly universal view is a further, many million-fold downgrade. Nevertheless, more intelligent religious thinking will actually welcome the realization of the overall scale, as the alternative belief is to say that the Creator is many billion times more impressive than humans have been able to consider. Quite contrary to the general view, scientific knowledge is not rejecting creation, but putting it in a more sensible, and far greater, perspective.
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