Just a few days ago I was chatting with one of the older residents in my complex and the subject of technology and scientific advances came up. He made the statement to the effect that ‘besides making people easier to monitor, manipulate, and kill, tech advances have done little for the betterment of humanity.’ I wanted to laugh at this short sighted statement. How forgetful and often ungrateful we can be. I’ve alluded to tech advances by and large improving things for people in previous posts. In one I made the parallel between what technologies we in 2015 take for granted and what various U.S. presidents didn’t have (i.e. Jefferson not having railroads, Lincoln not having electric lights or telephones, FDR never having a credit card, JFK never having a microwave oven, etc.). And these were things I just came up with at a moment’s notice.
There are drawbacks at times but these are often offset by the benefits of advances over previous techs. Sure antibiotics are often over used and can make some people less resistant to future sickness. But how many people on this planet that are living full, content, and productive lives that would have died if it weren’t for the development of antibiotics to begin with? Or automobiles? Who seriously wants to go back to the late 1800s when cities like London and New York where having problems with the stench, diseases, flies, and rodents that resulted from entire lots piled high with horse manure? I grew up around farming and often worked on my uncle’s farm during the summers. I can tell you that farm animals like horses, cows, and pigs eat lots of grains and hay. Since cars don’t eat wheat or hay, that frees up lots of crops to go to humans. Yeah, I get the whole ethanol being made from corn argument. But ethanol can be made from switch grass, sugar cane or anything else that ferments.
Another place I’m grateful for tech advances is in the field of medicine and health. The two anti psychotic medications I’m currently taking weren’t available even in 2010. And they have fewer side effects and the ones they have are less severe. My current medications aren’t as bad in terms of promoting weight gain. One medication I was on several years ago had sore joints and sleepiness as one of the side effects. But because of the options made available due to advances in medical science I was able to switch to something different and the side effects went away quickly. As far as the argument that psych meds promote mental health problems, have you looked at the history of mental illness treatments? Before the 1950s about the only options for someone with my diagnosis were long term hospitalizations and electroshock therapy. If I were born even in 1920 instead of 1980 with my mental health problems I would have either been long term hospitalization, homeless, or dead. For the first three years of my mental illness problems I wasn’t on any kind of treatment. Went through the last two years of public high school and the first year of college dealing with constant paranoia, depression, anxiety, and anger. I was far more short tempered, argumentative, and paranoid without treatment. It’s a wonder I didn’t assault one of my classmates or anyone else.
To suggest that modern medical tech advances have made us less healthy and lowered our quality of life is not only false, it’s stupid. Some will argue that we have more cases of cancer now than we did three generations ago. For starters we have more people and people are living longer now than three generations ago. In 1900 the average life expectancy even in USA and Western Europe was maybe 50. Now we in USA complain that life expectancy is ‘only’ in the late 70s when in some places like Japan it’s the lower 80s. Even in some of the poorer countries in Africa life expectancy is in the late 50s and even early 60s and that is with AIDS pandemics and civil wars. In the early 1900s these same regions life expectancy was in the early 30s. Cancer is one of those things that the chances of getting go up with age. My grandfather died of pancreatic cancer but he was 87 years old too. He also had serious hepatitis during the 1940s. Had he gotten that in the 1860s instead of the 1940s, he might not have lived past his twenties. What is worse, dying from a stroke at age 70 or dying from chorlea at age 25?
Some my argue that tech advances have led to the breakdown of the traditional family unit. I know the stats state that divorce rates in many first world nations are at 50 percent or higher. But traditionally many people were married more than once in their lives. Men often remarried and had mixed families, not due to divorce, but because their wives dying from childbirth or any number of illnesses. Women often remarried because of their husbands dying in wars, work related accidents, or illnesses. If we were to take the numbers there are probably more people making to their 50 year anniversary celebration now than even 60 years ago, again due to more people and better health. And sometimes men married more than once because they had more than one wife at a time. Polygamy and not having one mate for life are as old as life itself. It could be possible that someday, thanks to advances in medical tech, we could be seeing couples have 100th anniversary parties like some people have 60 year anniversary parties now. What would you get a spouse who has been with you for an entire century?
I could go on but I won’t. But we are often forgetful and even less than grateful. I for one am grateful for tech advances. I would love to see scientists, engineers, researchers, and health care workers get the attention that the media reserves all too often for politicians, musicians, and star athletes. But that is probably not going to happen simply because bad news sells better than good. Yet if you are a scientist, engineer, health care worker, researcher, or anyone who works to provide the essentials for modern living, I am thankful for all you men and women. Keep up the good work. If you are so inclined to see actual data on advances in health, wealth, and overall well being, check out humanprogress.org.