Unintended consequences of technology

Unintended consequences of technology

Every new technology has a purpose. Nobody invents things for no reason. But many technologies have unintended consequences. They change society in some way that nobody foresaw, not even the inventors.

The example I often use is air conditioning. What an amazing invention, saving people from withering in summer’s heat. The reason to invent air conditioning was to make us more comfortable. But what else did it end up doing?

Air conditioning

By making the indoors more comfortable, people got an incentive to spend more time indoors. And that’s just what people slowly began to do as air conditioning became more common. This, in turn, had many consequences.

House designs changed. The once ubiquitous front porch has all but disappeared from modern housing designs. Why were front porches so common? Because it was often too hot to stay inside.  People would go out onto their front porches and do front-porch things. Families did things together. People got to know their neighbors, as they were all outside either walking by or within sight on their own front porches.

When air conditioning came along, fewer people went out onto their front porches. The demand for front porches disappeared, and so new homes were built porches.

Without spending time on front porches, people grew less close to their neighbors. A passing neighbor would have nobody to wave to. Today, many people don’t have a clue who most of their neighbors re.

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All that time spent indoors meant people could use their downtime for reading and writing. And there was always TV, which had come along not much earlier than air conditioning.  More recently, we’ve had computers and video games to keep us occupied. On the whole, these indoor activities are less social, and often more cerebral. So we got smarter, but society got weaker.

All that time in air conditioning meant less time in the fresh air than when we spent time on front porches. Sure, we got smarter, but we got less healthy overall.

Smart tech

Cutting edge technology is still changing us in unintended ways. All the “smart” technology you read about is actually making us less smart. Smart technology, dumb people.

I have already seen how people flounder without their GPS. It seems to take only a couple of years relying on GPS for people to forget how to read a map or even remember which direction is north. They chuckle about this, but it’s just part of a gadget trend.

Remember the roundish humans in the movie Wall-E? Use it or lose it.

It’s the same with our brains. Use it or lose it. So many smart gadgets are coming out to give us shortcuts to thinking. But those gadgets are making us dumber. Yes, Spell Check …I’m talking to you!

The irony is that we seek out brain exercises to help grow smarter. Yet we learn more and more on devices that bypass natural brain exercise.

Exercise

We do that with our bodies, too. Cars make us flabby. Computers tied to desks make us flabby.

On the one hand, we minimize the walking we need to do by parking as close as possible to the grocery store door. We grab an elevator or use escalators to avoid the stairs. Then we head off the gym to make up for the exercise we missed. Missed? No, the exercise we deprived ourselves of.

Superbugs

Medical technology might end up making us sicker, too. An unintended consequence of relying too much on antibiotics is that resistant bacteria are forming. It seems that too much of a good thing isn’t all that good.

So far, these “superbugs” have been stopped before they break loose. But one of these days, such a superbug will break out and we’ll have the third pandemic on our hands. Or perhaps I am just reading too much Pierre Ouellette. But the risk is real.

If we know about these things, we can take control.

  • I don’t use GPS. So far, I have resisted.
  • I purposefully park far from store entrances.
  • I take the stairs whenever I have the choice, even up several flights.

I wish I could say I was doing something about superbugs, but I don’t see much that I can do on that one.

Whatever the next big invention, there will be unintended consequences. Many of them will affect our health. Many will affect society. All will make great material for a future blog post.

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