Technology is the use of scientific knowledge to develop and produce goods and services useful to man. Technologists use the discoveries of science to produce tools, machines, and methods for industry, communications, transportations, medicine, warfare, and other human activities. In turn, the products of technology are often used by scientists to further their investigation.
A nation’s level of technology depends on the extent to which current scientific knowledge is put to practical use. The United States is considered a technologically advanced nation; its major industries used advanced production techniques such as automation, its health institutions used advanced treatments such as laser-beam surgery, and use of up-to-date scientific knowledge is made in most other everyday activities (Clarke, 2001). A nation in which most production is carried on by handicraft methods, and communications and transportation are equally old-fashioned, is considered technologically backward, or underdeveloped.
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Technologically advancement, however, brings not only wealth and benefits to the world but also serious problems—pollution and other damage to the environment and a rapid consumption of natural resources.
Just as some countries are more technologically advanced than others, so are some industries. The electronics and aerosphere industries, for example, are generally technologically advanced wherever they are established. (Because of the great investment in money, plants and equipment, and skilled personnel required to operate them, these industries are found only in those countries that have a generally high level of technology). Agriculture, on the other hand, is a technologically backward industry in mot parts of the world.
This study discusses the issues in advancement in technology and how it affects our world today.
A. Historical progression of technology
In recent decades we have become increasingly aware that the problems of human life cannot always be solved by technological means. The “technological fix” can have adverse consequences. In the case of medical technology, vital ethical issues must be addressed. Other technologies, such as nuclear power and chemical plants, can directly threaten human life. As Charles Perrow (2000) writes, “Human-made catastrophes appear to have increased with industrialization as we built devices that could crash, sink, burn, or explode.” Perrow also points out that the increasing complexity of modern technology has led to a new kind of whole system (i.e., activities and organizational networks as well as apparatus), as in the case of the Three Mile Island accident or the Challenger disaster.
The enormous risks associated with complex technologies have led many observers to call for a more thorough assessment of the potential impact of new technologies before they are put into operation. According to Perrow it is important to study technological systems in their entirety rather than focusing on inpidual components of those systems. For example, in the case of Three Mile Island the accident was not a simple matter of a faulty valve but the consequence of a combination of factors—an overworked maintenance staff, equipment failures, ineffective safety precautions, inadequate training, and the unwillingness of scientists and bureaucrats to admit that they might be mistaken.
Similar conditions led to the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. Once again we are reminded that technology consists not just apparatus that can malfunction but also of knowledge and skills that may be deficient and of organizational networks that occasionally break down.
B. Current Status/Issues
New technologies often cause new forms of pollution and environmental stress. Pollution may be defined as the addition to the environment of agents that are potentially damaging to the welfare of humans or other organisms.
Environmental stress is a more general term that refers to the effects of society on the natural environment. Pollution is the most common form of environmental stress, but it is not only one (Kornblum & Julian, 2001).
One example of environmental stress resulting from technology is the surprising finding that winter fish kills in Wisconsin lakes were caused by snowmobiles. Heavy snowmobile use on a lake compacts the snow, thereby reducing the amount of sunlight filtering through the ice and interfering with photosynthesis by aquatic plants. As the plant life dies, its decomposition further reduces the amount of oxygen in the water. The fish then die of asphyxiation.
The fish-plant-oxygen relationship is a natural ecological system. The snowmobile is a technological innovation with a variety of potential uses. The production, marketing, and use of snowmobiles are elements of a social system. It is the social system that is responsible for the environmental stress resulting from snowmobile use. The land available for snowmobiling is increasingly scarce in an urban society like the United States (McCaull, 2001). Frozen lakes near urban centers thus seem ideal for this purpose, but snowmobiles cause environmental stress in the form of fish kills and thereby create the need for new social controls over the uses of this technology.
Often the need for such controls does not become apparent until a great deal of damage has been done. Nor it is ever entirely clear that new social controls or new technologies can solve the problem at hand. For example, we know how to solve the problem of sulfur emissions from burning coal (which cause the acid rain that destroys forests and lakes), but these solutions are costly and hence are politically controversial. Opinion polls have shown that Americans think not enough is being done to improve and protect the environment. A large majority believe environmental quality is declining. But when faced with the higher tax bills and energy rates required to pay the costs of cleaning up the environment, they often protest.
Studies of the impact and social control of technologies are an increasingly active frontier of sociological research. The Environmental Sociology section of the American Sociological Association routinely publishes research reports that assess the polluting and environmentally stressful impacts of technology. Many such studies have shown that the people who bear the heaviest burden of pollution are most often those who are least able to escape to escape its effects (Clarke, 2001).The poor, minorities, and workers and their families in industrial regions are exposed to higher levels of air, water, and solid-waste pollution than more affluent people.
But these studies have also shown that the effects of pollution frequently either are not perceived or are denied by the people who feel them most. For example, a random sample survey on perceptions of pollution in two highly polluted mining and lumbering towns in central Canada found that “half of the total number of respondents interviewed either did not perceive a pollution problem at all, or else regarded it as being of very little importance.” The study also found that effects of pollution in the air and water and on the landscape, a huge majority (83-89%) were “not prepared to do anything about it.”
This is not a surprising finding. People whose livelihoods depend on polluting industries generally learn to tolerate and even ignore the pollution associated with those industries. In fact, when environmental activists protest against the pollution effects of mines and smelters, they often find that their most vocal opponents are those who are most negatively affected by the pollution. In the past twenty years, however, there has been a significant change in attitudes, especially on the part of trade union leaders in polluting industries; such leaders are more likely to press for pollution than they were in the past.
In sum, although scientific discoveries and technological advances have produced tremendous improvements in the quality of human life, they have often had negative consequences as well. The risk of cancer caused by the inhalation of asbestos particles, the possibility of large-scale industrial accidents, the ethical issues raised by the use of life-prolonging technologies, and the ever-present danger of nuclear holocaust are as much a part of the modern era as space travel, miracle drugs, and computers that can operate whole factories.
Although technology us not “out of control,” there is clearly a need for improved procedures for anticipating and preventing the negative consequences of new technologies (Kornblum & Julian, 2001). Sociologists therefore will increasingly be called upon to participate in efforts to understand and control technological change.
C. Future projections
The obvious importance of technology to human cultural and social evolution has led some sociologists to view technology as a basic principle of social change. The classic statement of this view is that of William Fielding Ogburn.
Ogburn hypothesized that inventions affect the size of populations, which in turn influences the course of history. (For example, overpopulation often leads to wars and migrations). Some inventions affect population directly: Improvements in sanitation, the development of cures for fatal illnesses, and more effective contraceptive techniques are examples. But inventions can also have indirect effects on population. For example, techniques that improve crop yields or permit long-term storage of food surpluses make it possible to support a larger population with a given amount of farm land. And improvements in military technology (e.g., the use of horses in warfare, the invention of gunpowder, and the development of the armored tank) have had dramatic effects on the conduct of war and hence on population size (Ogburn, 2001).
In conclusion, the place of technology in modern societies is a subject of continuing controversy. Key issues include not only the impact of technology on daily life but also the need to control the development and uses of technological innovations so that they benefit all sectors of society. The complex interactions between technology and other aspects of the social order can be seen in the case of medical technology.
- Clarke, A.C. (2001). Profiles of the Future: an Inquiry into the Limits of The Possible, revised edition (Holt, Rinehart & Winston).
- Kornblum, W. & Julian, J. (2001). Social problems. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- McCaull, J. (2001). Discriminatory air pollution. In W.R. Burch (ed.), Readings in ecology, energy, and human society. New York: Harper.
- Ogburn, W.F. (2001). Inventions, population, and history. In American Council of Learned Societies, Studies in the history of culture. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press.
- Perrow, C. (2000). Normal accidents: Living with high-risk technologies. New York: Basic Books.