The Downside of Technology

Stephen H. Unger
July 10, 2017

Beginning as a high school student (Brooklyn Tech), I studied subjects related to electrical engineering for about 12 years. My principal motivation was fascination with the subject matter. A secondary factor was a desire to do useful work that would benefit people. I did achieve a measure of success, and had a good time doing it. But looking back over the past several decades has caused me to revise my views about the value of technology to humanity.

I believe that, as a species, we have thus far failed to develop appropriate ways to use the increasingly powerful tools that science and technology is putting in our hands. Sadly, a major application of advances in technology is to produce more deadly military weapons. Despite the fact that, at least since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has been, by far, the world's dominant military power, we have done nothing to promote disarmament, we continue to spend vast amounts of money on the development and production of military hardware, and are currently killing people in 7 countries.

There are other ways in which technology is misused, and many failures to use our scientific and engineering knowledge to promote the well being of the general population. Consider first who benefits from progress in science and engineering.

Where do the benefits of technology go?

Before thinking about the matter in any detail, my implicit assumption was that advances in technology would better the lives of the people affected by it. If, for example, some technological advance led to a better way to make widgets, I assumed that this would benefit widget users, and those involved in widget manufacture and sale. This sounds plausible, but let's take a closer look.

Suppose the improvement consists of a more efficient production technique, reducing the number of person-hours needed to make a widget. There are several ways manufacturers could exploit this improvement. They could

1. leave the price they charge unchanged, and reduce their work force to the point where their production capacity was unchanged, thereby, via the reduction in labor costs, increasing their profit per item sold.

2. lower the price to wholesalers by just enough to keep their profit per item sold the same. If the wholesalers and retailers did the same, the resulting price decrease, would benefit consumers, and increase sales, which would increase manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer profits. Workers would not be affected. p>3. leave the price unchanged, and increase worker pay just enough to restore the original labor cost per item.

In our current era, with effective labor unions in industry a quaint memory, I doubt that option 3 is exercised by any company that is not one of the minuscule number of worker-owned co-ops [1]. In general, we might reasonably assume a mix of options 1 and 2. To the extent that option 1 is used, workers, via job loss, are hurt by advances in technology. Where a major cost reduction leads to a major increase in sales of product, workers might benefit by an increase in job availability via option 2. However, in an era when American factories are being exported, and automation is cutting employment in the remaining factories, advances in technology, which is, in effect, owned by those with the big bucks, are far more likely to eliminate than to create jobs for Americans.

We should also take into account the fact that the virtual disappearance of effective labor unions means that workers have no means for preserving their jobs, or negotiating for reasonable compensation when they lose their jobs under circumstances resembling those sketched above. It is clear that advances in computer-related technology are often associated with automating work done by humans, and so eliminate jobs. The jobs eliminated by technology are often tedious, repetitive jobs--but not aways. For example, work done by skilled machinists can often be automated, as can the work involved in the control of complex chemical manufacturing processes. Also, when many low-skill jobs are eliminated, such as those of many workers on automobile assembly lines, the supervisory, and personnel department jobs associated with those jobs are also eliminated. Often the work of engineers automates, not only work done by unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled workers, but also some of the work done by other engineers, and so eliminates some engineering jobs as well.

Yet another factor hurting workers is the effect of modern technology in facilitating the transportation of goods over long distances. This makes profitable the export of factories to countries where workers are grossly underpaid and abused. And, of course, it also facilitates shipping various goods from low-wage countries to higher wage countries. In particular, American workers, particularly the least skilled, but also many skilled people, have lost their jobs or been forced to work for less pay.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that most advances in science and technology benefit the owners of companies, often at the expense of company employees, sometimes including the engineers and scientists responsible for the advances. There is no effective mechanism in our economic system that enables company employees to share in the benefits of advances in technology. On the contrary, as illustrated above, they are often victims of progress. The effects over the past half century are dramatic. For example, median inflation-adjusted real income for full-time male workers in the US was lower in 2016 than it was in the mid 1970s. This despite (often because of) major improvements in productivity resulting from technological progress [2].

Growing income inequality

In 1970, the average income of chief executive officers (CEOs) was about 40 times that of the average pay of workers in their companies. In the 2000s this ratio soared to over 350 [3]. In 2009, the total wealth of the richest 400 Americans exceeded the total wealth of poorest half of the population (about 150 million people) [4]. So, while advances in technology have made a very small proportion of the population super rich, they have slashed the incomes of the great majority of the population. Note also that very few, if any, of those who became super rich were engineers or scientists whose ideas led to substantial advances benefiting society.

Beneficial use of technology

It would be nice if substantial amounts of the time and energy of engineers and applied scientists were devoted to generating and applying knowledge of a constructive nature, that would, e.g., help cure or eliminate diseases, preserve our environment, reduce the need for tedious or dangerous work, or increase the efficiency of various devices. There are indeed important examples of such beneficial applications of technology. One is the work of civil engineers designing and constructing water supply systems. This work, along with the work of other civil engineers on sewage disposal systems, dramatically made diseases such as cholera rare in developed countries.

Another beneficial technology is that on which the internet is based. This facilitates the democratic process by making it easier to disseminate information and to debate issues. Unfortunately, most of modern technology is driven by a rather different incentive--greed.

The downside

Consider a company producing a patented medication, m1, that, when taken daily, suppresses the symptoms of a disease x, and keeps x from getting worse. Such a company would not welcome the discovery, even in its own labs, of a medication, m2, that would cure x immediately and completely. Clearly the continued profitability of m1 depends on the non-existence of an m2. Sadly, this hypothetical example typifies much, perhaps most, of what drives modern technology today.

Virtually no effort is being made to investigate many issues highly relevant to the health of people where there is no incentive in the form of enhanced corporate profit. For example, altho gargling has been a common folk practice for generations, and some studies in Japan suggest that regular gargling with plain water significantly reduces the occurrence of sore throats (which affect millions of people annually), there has been very little research on this topic. No corporation would profit from it [5].

Over eighty thousand chemicals are used in food products as preservatives, for flavoring, coloring, etc [6]. One might reasonably assume that a chemical would be used in a food product only after extensive study and testing has clearly established that it would not have harmful effects. I.e., that the burden of proof is on the seller to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the product is safe. Unfortunately this is not the case. A new product is assumed to be safe unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. If problems surface only after extensive use, it generally takes many months, usually years, to overcome the "innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt" assumption. Government agencies that are supposed to ensure that we are not exposed to risky chemicals in food, or in other ways, do not have the funding necessary to do this [7]. The "regulation" job is actually done by private companies hired by, and paid by, the companies manufacturing and selling the products!

Electronic Voting--a Bad Idea

A dramatic example of the misuse of technology is e-voting (electronic voting), the use of computer technology for voting. We are accustomed to the successful use of computers in numerous data processing situations, e.g., ATMs (automated teller machines), where a lot of money could be lost if cheating were easy. But election systems are quite different. Unlike ATMs, where we can easily check to see if the transactions are correctly reflected in our monthly bank statements, we have no way to determine if an e-voting system counts our votes correctly.

There are no feasible methods for ensuring that the software and/or hardware of an e-voting system (of any type) does not have clandestine cheating features. So-called "certifying agencies", private companies that report to the machine vendors, do not even pretend to look for cheating features. They confine themselves to looking for design faults that jeopardize accuracy, and don't do even this very well. Despite the crucial role in our democracy played by voting technology, the companies manufacturing voting machines are permitted to keep their designs secret.

Schemes for using random sampling to check the accuracy of computer-based voting systems are almost never carried out properly, and no state has laws providing for appropriate measures to be taken if sampling indicates error or fraud.

Internet voting has all the dangers of ordinary e-voting, plus additional easy opportunities for fraud and coercion. Buying votes becomes simple, as is intimidation of voters by, for example, employers or spouses. Voting by mail is similarly very vulnerable to many fraudulent techniques.

In the real world, hand-marked, hand-counted paper ballots (HCPB) is the only known vote processing scheme that can be executed so as to ensure against significant fraud. If Boss Tweed controls the polls, then serious cheating can occur regardless of the level of the level of technology. An e-voting system, rather than deterring Tweed would have been regarded by him as a labor saving device. HCPB systems are widely used in most other industrialized countries, and in parts of Maine, New Hampshire, and several other states. We do not read about voting scandals in connection with HCPB polling places.

While financial considerations should not weigh heavily when we are discussing a process vital to our democracy, it is interesting that, due to the low duty cycle (voting machines are rarely used more than a few days each year), e-voting is more expensive than HCPB [8].

Tools for Big Brother

Modern high speed computers, with massive memories, have made feasible surveillance on a scale undreamed of 40 years ago. Dramatized in the novel, "1984" (published in 1949), snooping on the lives of private citizens has, more recently, been shown by Edward Snowden (among others) to be a major activity of the US government. The 2010 national intelligence budget was $80 billion, 70% of which was outsourced to private companies [9].

Telephone surveillance on a worldwide basis by the US government, and by other governments, gathers detailed information about billions of phone calls per day. Other sorts of mass surveillance of people, include compiling information about snail-mail and e-mail. Police in several states are experimenting with the use of drones to surveil people [10]. Both major parties have compiled massive data bases with many details about almost all American voters [11].

Progress in the wrong direction

Sad to say, progress in technology is often counterproductive from the point of view of human well being. An obvious example is the fact that a major use of sophisticated technology is the development, manufacture, deployment, and use of deadly weapons. More generally, profit for the wealthy is the implicit goal of technology development today. Any benefits (or harm) to the general population are incidental side effects. Consider the following example illustrating a fundamental problem.

BPA (bisphenol-A) is a widely used chemical that people are exposed to in many ways. Perhaps the most important is its use to coat the inside of food cans. At least as early as 2007, long after it was in wide use, BPA was found to have a number of harmful effects on people exposed to it [12]. Nevertheless, manufacturers using it, for example in tin cans containing food products, vigorously resisted efforts to ban its use. As is typical in such situations, their tactics delayed for years even the partial phasing out of its use. But that is not the end of the story. In many cases BPS (bisphenol-S) was substituted for BPA. Preliminary studies suggest that BPS may be even more harmful than BPA, but it will take years to establish this [13]. Meanwhile BPS will be widely used because of the implicit rule that an ingredient is considered innocent (harmless) until proven guilty (harmful).

Indicative of the deteriorating regulation of our food supply is that, due to inadequate budgets, FDA (Food and Drug Administration) food inspections dropped from about 50,000 in 1972 to about 5,000 in 2005 [14]. The situation is, if anything, even worse with respect to pharmaceutical products [15]. There is no significant political movement aimed at reversing this process, which is, in effect, supported by both major political parties. Instead, the trend is to go further in the wrong direction, which I commented on several years ago [16].

The greatest immediate threat to humanity is posed by the thermonuclear weapons in the arsenals of 9 countries. The detonation of many hundreds of such weapons in various forms (the US and Russia each have many thousands) could conceivably terminate humanity. But, instead of launching a major effort to negotiate the elimination of this terrible menace, the US government (both the previous and current administrations) plans to spend many hundreds of billions of dollars during the next 25 years. on the upgrading of our nuclear arsenal.


[1] Wikipedia, "Worker cooperative"

[2] Joseph E. Stiglitz, Project Syndicate, "Globalization and its New Discontents", August 5, 2016

[3] Wikipedia, "Causes of income inequality in the United States", 6/23/17

[4] Tom Kertscher, "Michael Moore says 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined", PolitiFact, March 10, 2011

[5] Stephen H. Unger, "The Need for People-Friendly Research & Development", Ends and Means, May 4, 2009

[6] Lorraine Chow, "84,000 Chemicals on the Market, Only 1% Have Been Tested for Safety", EcoWatch, July 6, 2015

[7] Dawn Undurraga, "Pew: FDA allows untested chemicals in food", ENVIROBLOG, August 14, 2013

[8] Stephen H. Unger, "Voting: The Case for Low-Tech", Ends and Means, November 8, 2016

[9] "United States intelligence budget", Wikipedia

[10] Hope Reese, "Police are now using drones to apprehend suspects and administer non-lethal force: A police chief weighs in", TechRepublic, November 25, 2015

[11] Neil Hughes, "198 million US voter identities may have been exposed in massive security breach", New York Times, June 19, 2017

[12] Judy S. LaKind, "Can coatings for foods and beverages: issues and options", Int. J. Technology, Policy and Management, Vol. X, No. Y, XXXX

[13] Amy Ellis Nutt, " BPA alternative disrupts normal brain-cell growth, is tied to hyperactivity, study says", Washington Post, January 12, 2015

[14] William Hubbard, "Wrongly Blaming The FDA", Washington Post, May 8, 2006

[15] Stephen H. Unger, "How Pharmaceutical Products Differ From Tennis Balls", Ends and Means, July 2, 2014

[16] Stephen H. Unger, "Is Progress in Technology Always Beneficial?", Ends and Means, May 26, 2014

Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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