Death by Technology: The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Inventions

May 30, 2022

Associate Professor John Cook a clinical psychologist in his new book, ‘Death by Technology’ says that our love affair with technology goes way beyond the practical and into another realm altogether. He says that people’s blind faith in technology and the way they prioritise it in their lives is a kind of deification. ‘The new religion of the modern age is technology,’ he says.

And like religion, the worship of technology involves believing certain dogmas – in this case, that technology equates with progress and that it will solve all of society’s woes. ‘A consequence of deifying technology is the belief that anything is possible and that every action must be carried out using the highest level of technology possible.’ But these beliefs are flawed, says Cook. In fact, history is replete with examples of technologies that augured well but had unintended, and sometimes catastrophic, consequences.

In the case of luminous watches – a wonder at the time – the radium that they were painted with killed the workers who applied it. The internet – a more modern marvel – has spawned the dark web, used for pornography, forgery, prostitution and terrorism.

One of the unintended consequences of technology, especially digital technology, is the consumption of vast amounts of energy. ‘It requires more energy to power a smart phone (361 kW/h/year) than a refrigerator (322 kWh/year)’ he says, and some digital devices use even more power when they’re on standby mode. Cook says, ‘the explosion in energy use is not caused by people in developing nations getting automobiles …, but rather by digital devices in the developed and developing world.’

Technology isn’t solving the problems of the natural world, he says. It’s creating problems like these:

  • depletion of resources (mining, deforestation)
  • decline in populations of plants, animals and insects, including bees (1 million species at risk of extinction)
  • pollution (kills 8 million people a year, according to the WHO)
  • waste (7 billion tons of plastic waste since 1950)
  • damage to waterways (wetland damage, loss of water in aquifers, pollution)
  • climate change (melting glaciers, rising sea levels)

‘In short, humans are killing everything else on the planet,’ he says.

As well, technology is alienating us from nature – in other words, people spend so much of their time and energy in the world of technology, that they no longer spend time in nature. They may even view nature as hostile or threatening.

Another consequence of society’s worship of technology is the evolution of ‘Big data’. ‘The use and manipulation of massive data sets that can be used to predict behavior, commerce patterns and extremely personal information, is ubiquitous (behind the scenes) in the cyber world.’ It allows people and organisation, even governments, to be spied on and monitored. Cook cites examples of smart phones that sent meta-data to an address in China every 72 hours; of a foreign government infecting US utility computers with a virus (‘Black Energy’) that allowed them to control the utilities’ services; of aps that parents use to monitor their children being used by others to monitor their children, too; of mobile phones and televisions being used to monitor and record conversations.

He refers to revelations by whistle blower Edward Snowden which revealed the extent and use of datamining of individuals and public figures. ‘Snowden stated that intelligence agencies of the United States (and China and Russia) can take control of a cell phone the moment it is turned on, using it to record, photograph and locate individuals’ and ‘that the NSA [National Security Agency] has the capability to watch messages as they are being typed keystroke by keystroke.’

The emerging Internet of Things takes this ability to new levels. Cook says, ‘The Internet of Things, whereby all manner of devices are connected for remote control and access, is an open avenue for invasions of privacy.’

Society’s love affair with technology has led to technology for technology’s sake – whether we need it or not or whether it serves a useful purpose or not. For example, is developing cars that have more and more electronic functions ‘progress’? Especially when it makes them harder to repair. What about driverless cars? Cook says, ‘Simply put, progress is often defined in terms of technological innovation, not any necessary improvement in outcome.’

Not all the technologies that have survived are necessarily the ones that most deserve to. Beneficial technologies such as solar-powered vehicles have been squashed by competing commercial interests, while other inventions have survived as a result of good marketing. There is a trend to ‘producing useless material and wasting resources on the production of needless consumer goods.’

A fundamental problem is that technology is developed in isolation from ethics. Inventors invent something because then can, not because they should. ‘Thinking of ideas is not the same as thinking them through,’ Cook says. And this has led to the development of technologies that threaten the survival of the planet and its people.

An obvious example is nuclear energy. ‘Nuclear power is the ultimate technological delusion. A basket of fish to feed the multitude. A reactor full of plutonium and limitless energy for free. It perpetuates a belief in safe, clean energy at little to no costs. This idea bears no resemblance whatsoever to the realities of nuclear power, which is expensive and filthy, and has a high potential for disaster.’ He reports that many countries have nuclear weaponry (Russia has 6850 nuclear warheads and the US has 6550). ‘Multiple nations now possess the potential to blow up the world man times over,’ he says. As well as intentional nuclear attacks, there is the risk of nuclear accidents and he documents a considerable number of these.

Other technologies with a high potential for disaster include artificial intelligence, the genetic manipulation of crops and the genetic manipulation of individuals (yes, it’s happened).

Cook makes some interesting comments on the impacts of technology on human evolution. Humans evolve gradually, he says, but technology evolves rapidly and this dichotomy will have ‘unpredictable’ effects. Already, humans have lost many of the skills necessary for surviving outdoors. Technology has modified the food that we consume and the environment in which we live. Our reliance on machines means that we’re losing skills that we once had – like how to grow crops or navigate with a map.

‘We have a brain that is wired for the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer. Our consciousness is constantly on alert for novelty within the landscape. Change signifies that the normal state has been altered. Enter a device that can provide a steady stream of novelty. Energy that would have been devoted to scanning the landscape for food or danger is now channelled into bouncing from one website to another. A primary need at a neurological level seems to be met, yet there is no payoff to the action, no food captured, nor predator eluded. The drive state is aroused and maintained, yet there is no final resolution because the goal is no longer specified.’

Cook’s thoughtful and meticulously researched book challenges conventional thinking of the role of technology in society and raises issues that can help us shape our collective future.

Professor J.R. Cook, ‘Death by Technology: The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Inventions’, Jefferson (North Carolina, USA) (McFarland & Company, Publishers), 2021). Also available as an e-book.

Dr Cook is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia, USA.

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