No quick fix

Author argues technological advances often come with unforeseen, negative consequences


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Before there was an app for that, there were widespread technological fixes in society — some minor, many major — that made life easier.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/06/2020 (848 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Before there was an app for that, there were widespread technological fixes in society — some minor, many major — that made life easier.

Modern society and its technologies have become mutually dependent, but it is time to temper the torrid love affair, Sean F. Johnston, a professor of science, technology and society at the University of Glasgow, says in Techno-Fixers.

Technological fixes have a long history of meeting society’s immediate needs, and their early proponents touted them as a scientific way to deal with social and political problems.

Handout Hydro Quebec’s LG-2 generating station, a key cog in the James Bay hydroelectric project.

Yet those same fixes have left a host of environmental and social problems, from urban sprawl to plastic waste to climate change to nuclear waste — problems that went unrecognized, or hidden, until widespread damage was done.

Johnston, author of several books, including this well-researched investigation of the generally unseen side of tech fixes, pinpoints 1966 as the year the term “technological fix” was coined by well-connected American engineer Dr. Alvin Weinberg.

Weinberg argued that technology soon would solve all the problems of modern society as “rational designers” supplanted social scientists and perhaps policy-makers, lawmakers and educators as the best problem-solvers for society’s ills.

That claim seems hubristic, of course, but the idea of the quick fix caught on and “this pared down sectarian faith has proven notoriously difficult to tame,” Johnston writes. Society becomes attached (addicted, if you will) to quick fixes to real and perceived immediate problems. But the architects of those fixes usually haven’t foreseen problems that may arise from the fix, problems of a greater severity than the original.

Not all fixes turn sour. A long history of positive technological solutions helped humans prosper: stone, copper and bronze tools were exchanged for iron with efficiency and labour-saving effects; invention of agriculture went hand-in-hand with rising populations; and aqueducts and pumps allowed towns to expand, giving them greater political power and social stability.

That trust in technological advances is a cultural perception that has stayed with society and has profound implications, Johnston writes.

He adds: “Examining a century of technological change and debate, Techno-Fixers argues that present-day problems cannot be reduced to mere engineering solutions over the long term: human goals and forms of innovation are diverse and constantly changing.”

For example, wartime innovations such as radar, faster airplanes and code-breaking computers helped the Allies win the war quicker, as did the development of nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. Those bombs, it is argued, ended the war much earlier and prevented casualties.

The nuclear technology also led to the Cold War, with East and West producing vast amounts of radioactive material that still poses health dangers.

Nuclear energy was also an offshoot of the wartime bomb research, touted as a cleaner, easier way to generate energy than coal, but with the same radioactive waste problems.

Those problems came later, weren’t planned for and still persist.

In postwar United States, the automobile became king, and as the numbers increased engineers proposed and built freeways for speedier movement while developers built suburbs for car-owning families who now didn’t have to live near public transit.

The result: suburban sprawl, urban decay, and increasing levels of pollution contributing to climate change.

Wayne Parry / Thte Associated Press files Plastic is popular because of its light weight; it’s now causing serious environmental issues.

As those effects were recognized, the internal-combustion engine was entrenched in society, having replaced alternate transportation modes such as railroads and electric trams that might have lessened the problem.

Meanwhile, as farmers and ranchers struggled with drought years and uncertain livelihoods, engineers built huge dams to provide consistent irrigations, and sometimes to generate hydroelectricity. The dams displaced many landholders, including other ranchers and Indigenous communities.

As those dams age, they pose a threat of bursting and flooding huge tracts of developed land, as seen recently in Michigan. Johnston cites Canada’s James Bay Hydroelectric Project as an example of these problems.

Those and other postwar technological moves, such as plastics becoming popular in manufacturing because of light weight and ease of use, have left long-lasting, major social and environmental problems with no solutions in sight.

Johnston surveys genetic engineering and concerns about genetically modified foods among the many other examples of failures in his comprehensive look at the problems associated with the unbridled use of the tech fix.

A more modern and more common example of the short-sightedness of tech fixes is computer software. It may not have the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear plant failure, but designers put out software to solve the immediate problem, but had bugs that caused other problems. That meant a bug fix had to be installed, but it too often needed a bug fix as well.

Damian Dovarganes / The Associated Press files The development of the automobile was a key advance in human innovation; it has also resulted in urban sprawl, as well as playing a significant role in climate change.

Technological fixes are so ingrained in society that it will take a seismic shift in consumer, political and social attitudes to affect a change, Johnston argues.

We all have something to think about the next time our smartphone asks us to update to a “new version” that, among other things, includes “bug fixes.”

Chris Smith is a Winnipeg writer.

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