Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Science and Technology -- Prospects and Problems: A Sufi Perspective

Releasing the Genie

In a variety of movies, the discovery of how to release a given genie from captivity in order to do one's bidding or grant one a certain number of wishes is often accompanied by an ensuing realization that the process is not without potential risks and dangers. Siimilarly, on the surface, everything might seem straightforward with respect to various instances of scientific and technological creativity that, supposedly, will do our bidding, and, as a result, people speak about the wonders of progress and the promise of the future which scientific and technological breakthroughs generate.

However, the shadow of the 'Black Swan' event (or events), along with other possible unpleasantries, tend to lurk in the background awaiting the opportunity to suddenly manifest themselves and turn what seemed to be paradisical into a living nightmare. For example, when people began to unlock the secrets of the atom toward the beginning of the twentieth century, no one anticipated the advent of: nuclear weapons, depleted uranium, Chernobyl, Fukushima, or the problems associated with disposing of nuclear waste materials, but now we know the tragedies which might, and often do, ensue from the nuclear wombs of such scientific and technological fecundity.

Most of us are mesmerized by the amazing capabilities of the increasingly savy smart phone inventions that are rolling off the assembly line with each new generation. Yet, there is an ugly underbelly to this technology which is rooted in the 'coltan wars' which, for more than a decade, have been taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa and during which thousands have died fighting over the possession, mining, sale, and distribution of the metalic ore: Coltan (which is an amalgamation of the words: "Columbite" and "tantalite"). Coltan happens to have rather unique abilities when it comes to the storing and retaining of electical charges ... a capacity which is utilized in many smart phone capacitors.

Moreover, the lives of people all over the world have been transformed through the presence of computer technology. Yet, the appearance of computers in the world also introduced a huge problem -- which still remains largely unsolved -- involving the disposal of the toxic wastes (e.g., involving heavy metals such as: cadmiun, beryllium, and lead) that are entailed by the process of manufacturing computers.

Once the genie has been released, it is not always so easy to try to control what has been set free and, thereby, been enabled to haunt, if not terrorize, the world. People who are good at creating new science and technology are often blind, if not indifferent, to the ramifications and implications of that which has been manifested through them.

The creators -- and associated vested interests -- often label anyone who resists what the former individuals are trying to do as "Luddites" (textile craftspeople in England who resisted the introduction of labor-saving machine technology in the early 1800s). Nevertheless, history is replete with incidents in which, like Pandora's Box, technology and science became like conduits for the flow of problems (social, political, environmental, moral, and legal) into the world.

The Cautionary Principle

Prudence, patience, and wisdom tend to indicate that the activities of science and technology ought to be engaged with a certain degree of circumspection. One application of this sort of perspective is to exercise caution when it comes to such activities For instance, wouldn't it be nice to come up with solutions to problems inherent in technological and scientific innovation before the fact rather than after the fact ... only after tremendous damage already has taken place?

There is a teaching principle among Native Americans which says that unless one understands what impact a given action will have on the seventh generation to follow, one should refrain from such an action. Another related teaching is: we do not bequeath the present world to our children but, rather, we borrow that future from them since what we do today will affect the quality of their lives tomorrow. In both cases, the underlying moral principle is that we need to exercise -- not abandon -- caution when it comes to decisions concerning the release of new scientific and technological innovation into the world.

3D-Printing Technology

The following video is about the emerging technology of 3D printing. One is introduced to some of the potential -- and a few of the possible problems -- associated with 3D printing.

However, although there is a short section near the end of the video concerning one conceivable environmental application of 3D-printing technology, absolutely nothing is mentioned, or even alluded to, in the video with respect to the question: What sort of impact might the heavily plastics-based technology (at least as it is currently operated) have on the world's ecologies? Unless we can find an ecologically safe way to handle the plastics which will be released into the environment, then it is hard not to perceive something like 3D-printing technology as being as big a problem -- if not bigger -- as it is a potential boon. After all, to date, humanity does not have a great track record when it comes to the successful and safe disposal of plastics ... or, for that matter, many other environmentally unfriendly manufactured substances.

For instance, currently one can find 'The Great Pacific Plastic Garbage Flotilla' off the the coast of California which has been estimated to be anywhere from 600,000 square miles to nearly 4 million square miles in size. Furthermore, there is ever-increasing evidence to indicate that all sorts of micro-sized plastic molecules are entering into the food chain and doing irreparable harm to many species of animals ... the micro-sized plastic components give direct expression to the fact that plastics are highly resistant to being completely broken-down into harmless substances via some process of bio-degradation. 

All we need now are millions of people purchasing 3D-printing technology (as it becomes cheaper, faster, and more ingenious) that will exacerbate an already extremely difficult problem. There is something deeply troubling about all of this, and, yet, the underlying issue does not seem to be even on the distant horizonal radar of the following presentation.

One can only hope that someone will come along -- sooner rather than later (if not before the fact) -- and develop a feasible, efficient, cheap way of recycling the plastic products that are generated through the 3D-printing process so that when they break or have lost their uses/attraction, they can be dumped back into the printing process instead of being dumped back into the environment.

And then, of course, there is always the possibility of creating genetically modified organisms (such as bacteria) to consume the plastic refuse and, maybe, secrete, say, gold as an end-product, so to speak. Unfortunately, this might be a 'solution' which transitions us from the frying pan to the proverbial fire.


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