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Technology as a last resort

When was the last time you were hanging out with a friend and decided to check your texts, e-mail or Facebook to fill a lull in conversation? Or how about the last time you were in a noisy environment you could easily have left, but instead tried to block out the sound by blasting music or wearing noise-canceling headphones? Have you ever taken antibiotics for a cold that probably would have gone away on its own? Drunk caffeine to stay awake and work even though a few hours of sleep would probably have made you more productive?

We have a tendency not to see our crutches – to conveniently treat symptoms instead of inconveniently address causes. Historically there have been many ways to do this.  Technology is simply one of the most pervasive. Even on a societal level, our instinct is often to throw more technology at a problem, even when there are other, more effective approaches that should be considered first.

Take air pollution from automobiles.  There are massive efforts underway to use more electric and hybrid cars in place of traditional gasoline-run cars, including financial incentives to use more efficient vehicles.  Yet manufacturing a car produces an amount of carbon dioxide comparable to that released by the car in its lifetime, unless the car is driven for a longer time than most people keep their automobiles.  This includes electric cars, which use more expensive, rare and processing-intensive materials than their petroleum-burning counterparts, and which also have components such as the battery that are difficult to recycle once the car is retired.  Combine that with the so-called Jevons paradox – make something more efficient and people will use it more – and suddenly having more technologically advanced vehicles doesn’t seem like the best way to cut air pollution.

The most straightforward and longest-term solution is to find alternatives to driving: Walk more, bike more, use more public transit.  Because so many people travel in cars alone, even flying in an airplane is more energy-efficient per person than driving.  At the very least we could do a better job of getting the most high-emitting vehicles off the road – perhaps by removing exemptions on old cars from emissions testing, or by increasing the cost of driving these vehicles beyond just the cost of repair.  (I won’t even go into the issue of inefficient ships.)  None of these solutions require better technology.  They require smarter use of what we already have.

This is not to say we should stop researching new energy and transportation technologies.  It just means we need to know when it makes sense to implement them.  Right now further increasing the efficiency of the most efficient cars will make less of a difference than removing the worst vehicles from the road and cutting back on usage overall.  In terms of new electric cars, we ought to consider factors like their cost from cradle to grave, and whether we can develop more efficient manufacturing processes or more common materials to reduce this cost before we saturate the industry with them.

The question of when to use new technology and when to take a step back to consider the consequences also applies to issues beyond sustainability – for example, health care.  A fair amount of research goes into trying to keep the dying alive longer.  This is a noble pursuit with some ignoble consequences. Atul Gawande’s recent bestseller “Being Mortal” addresses the issue in eloquent detail, but in short, end-of-life care often comes at the expense of well-being and dignity.  It is generally more aggressive than patients want and may also hinder the ability of informal caregivers (such as family and friends) to adjust to the loss.  End-of-life conversations are associated with better quality of life in the final days as well as lower healthcare costs – and they don’t require any technology at all.

In the case of end-of-life care, focusing on technological progress dodges the central issue: Should we always prioritize life over death?  This is just one example of when focusing too much on technological progress can obscure bigger, more important questions.  An admittedly trite metaphor is new action movies.  While flashy special effects may sell, they cannot substitute for character and story.

The world is full of unsolved problems.  It is also full of problems for which solutions already exist, if we only leverage them.  When we slow down for a minute, consider the available options and more carefully assess the consequences of various modes of action, we have a better chance of directing our efforts where they ought to go – for the good of ourselves and the issues we face.

Contact Mindy Perkins at mindylp ‘at’ stanford.edu

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