How technologically obsessed are you? Are you on your computer or on your phone all day? Conversely, can you confidently say that technology does not play a significant role in your life? Those of you who said the latter are wrong. If you are reading this lesson on a computer, you can safely say that you live in the contemporary era. But even if you don’t know it, every modern existence is completely dependent on technology.
The definition of the word technology gives the first hint. Simply put, technology is any practical application of scientific knowledge. Therefore, technology need not be electric or advanced. You use technology whether your house is built with nails, painted any color, has running water, is heated or air-conditioned, or even if you grow vegetables. In reality, even if you live in a remote native tribe, your tribe will probably use rudimentary technology. Tools such as hammers and spears were among the early forms of technology, as were simple shelters. This is all technology.
Limits to technology
A look into a modern home shows how utterly dependent we are on technology. Almost everything you see around you now is most likely technology. When we spend our lives immersed in technology, it’s tempting to believe that it can accomplish anything. Still, the technology has its limitations. In this lesson, we’ll discuss some of those limitations.
Natural constraints, economic constraints and ethical constraints are the three main categories. A limit can be rigid or soft. It is possible for a limit to describe something that is impossible to exceed (a hard limit), but limits can also be soft limits – limits depend on how human society works and thinks, and in other circumstances they may not be restrictions.
Natural constraints are hard limits – things that technology cannot physically do. Even though no limit is definitely a hard limit, because our understanding of the cosmos is always evolving. It is conceivable that what we now consider impossible is actually achievable. But whatever the reality, there will always be inherent limits to what is conceivable in the cosmos.
For example, the laws of physics state that we cannot go faster than the speed of light. Consequently, no matter what technology we develop, we feel that no starship will ever be able to break through that barrier. A logical limit is another kind of natural limit: something cannot be true and false at the same time. For example, technology cannot allow us to utilize every inch of land on Earth and still protect every natural habitat. Technology can help us protect the environment by enabling us to achieve the same thing with fewer resources, but it can’t do much.
Then there are financial constraints. Several things may be technologically possible, but so expensive that they are absolutely impracticable. Many of today’s most advanced drugs, from gene therapies to stem cell treatments to complicated pharmaceuticals, are too expensive to develop and produce. As a result, it is likely that there are other drugs that may work but are not commercially practical.
In fact, economic restrictions aren’t always permanent – just because something is cheap now doesn’t mean it will be in the future. Still, there are some proposals to mitigate the effects of climate change, such as taking carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or erecting a large enough barrier between us and the sun to minimize the energy we receive from it. However, they are way too expensive to be worth it. For example, if Earth’s living space is an issue, we could terraform Mars over several decades to create an Earth-like environment. But the cost would be completely prohibitive at this point.
Finally, there are ethical limits to technology, or limitations imposed by preconceived beliefs about what is acceptable and wrong in a given culture. Humans have made significant advances in areas such as genetic engineering (including gene therapy), cloning, artificial intelligence, surveillance, cybernetics, and biological warfare. People are concerned about the ethics of these technologies for a variety of reasons. Gene therapy and cybernetics have both promised to increase human capabilities, but what about people who can’t afford the technologies? And are we trying to play God? We are approaching the point where human privacy can be completely removed. But are we going too far in violating human rights? Concerns about the use of technology in combat are understandable. All of these issues will have to be addressed in the coming centuries, whether through laws, public outcry or self-regulation.
Let’s take a moment to review everything we’ve learned. As we have learned, technology is simply any practical application of scientific knowledge. Technology has been part of human culture since the first tool was created, and we are now surrounded by it. Technology can be quite simple or extremely electric and complicated. Still, the technology has its limitations.
Natural, economic and ethical constraints on technology are the three basic categories. Natural restrictions, as we learned, are those where the rules of the universe physically prohibit us from doing anything. There is a hard limit that we cannot overcome until our understanding of the cosmos changes. An example is that the rules of physics state that we cannot reach the speed of light. Moreover, economic constraints refer to things that are conceivable, but so expensive that they are simply not viable. Terraforming Mars or erecting huge barriers between us and the sun to cool the Earth are examples of this.
Finally, ethical constraints are situations where we can do something but not feel it is ethically correct. Genetic engineering, cloning, artificial intelligence, surveillance, cybernetics and biological warfare all raise ethical concerns. Many question whether it is ethical to alter people’s genetics, play God, destroy privacy, and advance combat technology. All these topics need to be studied and researched in the coming years.