by Fabio Tollon
Getting a handle on the various ways that technology influences us is as important as it is difficult. The media is awash with claims of how this or that technology will either save us or doom us. And in some cases, it does seem as though we have a concrete grasp on the various costs and benefits that a technology provides. We know that CO2 emissions from large-scale animal agriculture are very damaging for the environment, notwithstanding the increases in food production we have seen over the years. However, such a ‘balanced’ perspective usually emerges after some time has passed and the technology has become ‘stable’, in the sense that its uses and effects are relatively well understood. We now understand, better than we did in the 1920s, for example, the disastrous effects of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions. We can see that the technology at some point provided a benefit, but that now the costs outweigh those benefits. For emerging technologies, however, such a ‘cost-benefit’ approach might not be possible in practice.
Take a simple example: imagine a private company is accused of polluting a river due to chemical runoff from a new machine they have installed (unfortunately this probably does not require much imagination and can be achieved by looking outside, depending on where you live). In order to determine whether the company is guilty or not we would investigate the effects of their activities. We could take water samples from the river and attempt to show that the chemicals used in the company’s manufacturing process are indeed present in the water. Further, we could make an argument where we show how there is a causal relationship between the presence of these chemicals and certain detrimental effects that might be observed in the area, such as loss of biodiversity, the pollution of drinking water, or an increase in diseases associated with the chemical in question. Read more »