by Bill Schubart As human beings we’re living in a time when our evolutionary capacity to understand, regulate, and use technological innovation in a way beneficial to mankind and our planetary home is simply overwhelmed by the relentless speed of discovery and invention. While civilization is about six thousand years old, it was the industrial age that first started taxing our management capacity as humans some hundred and seventy years ago.
Our understanding of natural phenomenon and therefore the pace of technical change accelerated greatly between 1850 and 1950 and has only sped up since that time. Technology, like biology, is an evolutionary process. Only the fit, or in the case of technology, the functional, survive to potentiate new waves of invention and discovery.
Think about this: chemists now add 2000 new chemicals a year to our environment. Pharma medicates us annually with 450 million dollars’ worth of drugs. We spread six billion pounds of pesticides annually over our planet. Pilots routinely see 200-mile-wide swirling eddies of plastic trash in the Pacific. And only recently have we come to understand that ocean currents break the plastic flotsam into tiny particles that find their way into much American tap water as well as nearly all ocean fish. Maine scientists in Maine have found visible polyester Fleece fiber in the flesh of some Atlantic species.
We humans don’t necessarily evolve as rapidly as the technology we develop. Just look at the ambivalence of the men working on the 1940s Manhattan Project when they understood the ferocious destructive capacity of their invention. “Job creators,” as businesspeople like to be called, will consistently choose more cost-effective and predictable automation over human labor. Computers and robots now make cars better than people do. Within five years long-haul trucks will drive themselves.
Innovation takes many forms. Mark Zuckerberg is only now acknowledging the Pandora’s box Facebook has opened, as it’s been weaponized in the service of racism and politics. Digitization and streaming of art and entertainment properties have significantly diminished artists’ earning capacity.
When Congress and state legislatures can’t even manage age-old systems such as health care, housing, infrastructure, and taxation, how can we have confidence they will they ever wisely and effectively cope with the flood of innovation and social change that many don’t even understand?
Who will protect us from ourselves?
This piece by Bill Schubart of Hinesburg was first broadcast by VPR.