The Fruits of Civilization (5) Externalities


Technology always has externalities: consequences beyond intended purposes. The effects range from environmental to cerebral and societal.

Culture and technology form an entangled gyre. Just as a culture may engender or discourage engineering, technological advance drives the evolution of social norms and mores. Some of this is intentional. Most is not.

In the beginning, the impact of hominids was no more than other animals. Flakes of flint from stone tools and shavings of wood were negligible waste, though the toll the crafted weapons took on wildlife was of some significance.

With the advent of metallurgy, mankind took a significant step in creating long-lived pollution. By then deforestation was already a problem.

All life has been severely affected by human technology. Those impacts expanded exponentially since industrialization. Pollution became a ubiquitous consequence: fouling the air, water, and land by our way of life.

◊ ◊ ◊

Men have ever prized technology. But in the larger vista – of improving life – the vast majority of technology that has been developed has not even been a mixed blessing. Instead, technology has been a curse disguised as a benefit. Its evolution has lulled people into the illusion of progress while steadily degrading the natural world and our own lives.

Agricultural technology has lessened the nutrient value of the fruits and vegetables we eat. Modern processed foods have gone so far as to be anti-nutritional.

Modern medicine has fostered the foolish belief that it can cure the ills of the bad food choices and lazy lifestyles that most folk have.

Science has even changed the shape that humans take. The plague of obesity that has worsened worldwide from the last 20th century is a product of technology: processed foods that cater to taste at the expense of nutrition.

The portable electronic devices which became ubiquitous in the early 21st century were intended as conveniences for communication and information usage. These devices have decidedly altered social interaction and etiquette, as their users are often more responsive to their gadgets than the people they are with.

In displacing human interaction with a synthetic substitute which is self-oriented, handheld computers have also encouraged narcissism. Further, language skills decline as these devices require typing on awkward keyboards, and so encourage a pidgin form. LOL!


3 areas of engineering have had the most significant impacts: energy, chemistry, and computers.

The ability of humans to contain and control release of power has had the most profound impact on all that lives on the planet. Most significantly, this capacity afforded means of transport that wove the human world together while tearing the natural world apart.

Materials science culminated in chemistry: manipulation of the molecules which comprise matter. The evolution of these endeavors provided appliances that were used for some short duration before becoming waste, and potent chemicals that were always poisonous pollutants, even those few intended to engender life (for example, plant fertilizers). Lacking appreciation of the balance of life necessarily meant unbalancing it via technology targeted at profit.

Mechanical means to empower and substitute for human cognition had been a dream for centuries before its realization in the latter 20th century. Computers have increasingly become an integral aspect of the human world since then, even for those who do not use them.