How Society Squanders Good Technology

As members of contemporary western society we like to feel that we’re
part of a tradition that embraces technological advancement. We believe
that we tend to adopt new technologies that will make our lives more
comfortable, our workdays more efficient, and our world a better place.

To an extent, this is true. After all, we are able to communicate, travel, and play like never before.

But many of the decisions our society has historically made in terms of
the adoption of new technologies have been misguided or simply wrong.

To my mind, the QWERTY keyboard is the perfect example. In the late 1800s, typewriter manufacturers designed the keyboard layout we now use with the specific intent of making us less efficient. Right-handed people, for example, are forced to use their left hand more to access commonly used letters.

At the time this seemed to make sense. Typewriters were a clunky new invention, and they couldn’t keep up mechanically with fast touch typists. The machines would jam.
There are other examples of society’s short-sightedness in the face of new technology.

Like the fact that the US basically gave the electronic transistor away to Sony in Japan. At the time, there was a stateside fear of competition with its homegrown vacuum tube market. And we all know how big those things are these days.

Or consider the way British cities protected their investments in gas lighting by ensuring its continued use well into the 1920s. They deliberately manipulated local industries and the economy, making electricity’s adoption slow and difficult.

These matters may sound like the eccentric fumblings of our ancestors, but the trend continues today.

Take the automobile. We perpetually fail to significantly improve our four-wheeled friends, despite readily available technologies that would boost their efficiency, quality, and safety by factors.

This is because several key supply industries depend on its technical stasis. The oil and gas industry, working in tandem with auto makers, use their financial clout to sway politicians, ensuring that the government serves their interests.

From 1998-2004, companies like ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, and BP collectively lavished over $440 million dollars on American politicians, their parties, and lobbyists. That’s a fair sum.

Considering that the US represents their single largest customer, though, consuming a quarter of the world’s oil, it’s a small price to pay to keep the gears of consumption greased.

And greased they are. Technology exists today that could make automobiles anywhere from 20% to 50% more fuel efficient. Better engine technologies exist, more aerodynamic bodies could be designed, lighter vehicle structures could be built.

But the oil companies don’t want to see these technologies implemented because they would have a significant negative impact on sales of their products. They maintain pressure on the US government through campaign financing to avoid laws and regulations that would require auto makers to adopt and implement them.

The auto manufacturers are no different. While not quite as generous as big oil (they only anted up about $12 million dollars for the 1998 American election), auto makers like Ford and GM definitely influence government decision makers.

With the industry in the doldrums, these companies are not interested in the perceived costs of researching and developing new automotive design and manufacturing techniques that the adoption of new technologies may require. The status quo is far more affordable and manageable.

This is true of a lot of modern industries, in fact. Take housing construction as another example.

Building materials exist that would cut the cost of construction and ease our dependence on natural resources like timber. Self-powering ventilation systems are available that would negate the requirement for an oil or electric heating system, even in cold climates.

But, as the saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Workers on a construction site are used to 2x4s, drywall and oil burning furnaces. They know how to work with these materials, as they have for years. Even if architects demanded new technologies be implemented in a structure, it’s unlikely workers could implement them without special training and a change of attitude.

But we all share in the guilt of squandering good technology. Change involves risk and uncertainty and everybody hates that stuff.

Would you prefer to live in a house that’s built of recycled wood and paper products as opposed to raw lumber? Could you trust a furnace system that used no fuel? Would you feel comfortable in a car that was structurally composed of carbon fibre instead of iron?

Market research shows that we, as consumers, are just as apprehensive about the adoption of new technologies as industry. So nothing changes. Why should auto manufacturers take a risk on a new type of vehicle if consumers aren’t ready to buy into the concept themselves?

I can imagine in about a half century or so, when the oil runs out and all the trees have been turned into condos, our kids will curse us for our inability to adopt the best technologies available. They’ll look out upon an ocean clogged with white plastic shopping bags (yet another oil and gas product) and shake their heads at our inability to actually be the forward-thinking, technically-advanced culture we think we are.

First published in the Yukon News (new web site) on Friday, October 7, 2005

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