April 06, 2009

Technofixes are fixes too

Man on roofPractical Ethics: Be mindful of results, not the method - I blog about why sometimes technological/biological fixes to complex social problems make sense.

In general, technological fixes have a pretty bad reputation. But as Sarewitz & Nelson point out, if they 1) embody the cause-effect relationship between the problem and solution, 2) the effects can be assessed well, and 3) R&D can improve the technical core of the solution rather than theoretical underpinnings. By this standard, I think many "social fixes" are in trouble at least on point 2 and 3.

Fixes are also about perspective. As Stewart Brand put it in the preface of Unbounding the Future:

“A technofix was deemed always bad because it was a shortcut—an overly focused directing of high tech at a problem with no concern for new and possibly worse problems that the solution might create.

But some technofixes, we began to notice, had the property of changing human perspective in a healthy way. Personal computers empowered individuals and took away centralized control of communication technology. Space satellites—at first rejected by environmentalists—proved to be invaluable environmental surveillance tools, and their images of Earth from space became an engine of the ecology movement.”

This form of positive or game-changing side-effects exist for many technological fixes. The introduction of contraceptives empowered women, changed social mores and made demography culturally controlled. Safer cars lead to higher demands for road safety, not less. Technological fixes can be part of or even drivers of social change.

Posted by Anders3 at April 6, 2009 09:19 PM