I had the privilege of chairing the Stanford University program in Science, Technology, and Society (S.T.S) for five years in the 1980’s. I was talked into this by the then president and provost of the university, so had some clout, and was able to push a couple of degree programs through the academic senate, raise some money, hire some people, and think much more deeply about the subject matter than I had before. If you are not familiar with such programs, as the name indicates the subject matter is the interaction of these three broad areas, and there are on the order of 100 such programs existing in universities throughout the world (see this link).
I found that there is resistance to such thinking and such programs at many levels and for many reasons. At Stanford, for instance, there are many majors in both the A.B. and B.S. tracks in the S.T.S. program (begun in 1970 by four professors, two in engineering, one in philosophy, and one in religion), but the program is underfunded and understaffed. There are presently 38 faculty members listed as participants, but their appointments (and salaries and often their hearts) are in other departments, And S.T.S. work is highly interdisciplinary, and although interdisciplinary work is in vogue these days in universities, such things as hiring, promotion, and tenure tend to be judged based on traditional disciplines. As a non-Stanford example of the effect of this, in the 1980’s Jerome Wiesner, a man of outstanding accomplishments in government as well as academe, was president of M.I.T., and attempted to establish a whole S.T.S school. An excellent idea. But the faculty turned against this, I think partly because it threatened traditional disciplines. And to some people, thinking broadly, and especially negatively, about the nature and usage of science and technology is almost sacrilegious.
In countries such as the U.S. the directions of technology, and even science, are heavily influenced by such things as financial profit and war. Granted, there is tremendous satisfaction in working in the areas, and the results make for exciting media and discussion, but the fit between new science and technology and the quality of human life does not get adequate discussion. If you look at the discussion of S.T.S programs on Wikipedia here (not the best in the world) you can see some of the problems that we should think about more, but do not. One example is the old “tragedy of the commons”, which has to do with the loss in supply and quality of necessary resources if they are free. The original example was free grazing on the town commons. Present examples include using the environment including the atmosphere as a dump, the supply of fresh water, and the internet. Another set or problems comes from what is sometimes called technological determinism. Examples abound, such as the oft-heard comment that “technology must be fed”. Always?
We western cultures are loath to thoughtfully criticize technological developments. Do we really want a sky full of drones delivering packages? Do we really want driverless cars? Certainly we are learning a lot in our attempt to control them, but cars? It seems that traffic problems are due to the large and clumsy nature of individually over powered luxury packages as well as drivers. How about the present activities in the U.S, Russia, and China to develop smaller and faster nuclear weapons? Many years ago nuclear artillery shells were being developed, but people realized that it would not be a good idea to scale nuclear weapons down so they seemed more usable. Is it now a better idea? We are thinking a bit about CRISPR/Cas9 DNA technology (put it into your browser), but we will undoubtedly forge ahead. Are we smart enough to improve ourselves through DNA technology?
I was motivated to write this blob by an article in the April 16-22nd edition of The Economist, concerning the decision of Yuri Milner, ((a Russian physicist and investor who intends to spend $100 million on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)), to spend another $100 million on a Laser propelled star ship. I am not criticizing Mr. Milner, since it is his money and he can spend it how he wants and his projects are literally “out there” definitely technologically advanced, and make for good media, but wow! His proposed star ship will tentatively be powered by 10 million 10 kilowatt lasers on earth combined into one 100 gigawatt beam, and reach the planets around other stars in decades rather than hundreds of thousands of years. The catch is that the spacecraft must weigh on the order of one gram. Possible? Read all about it here. But what do you think of it as an expenditure of resources? I wonder whether the wealthy are coming down with Elon Musk envy? But Musk is an idealist and in my opinion getting us to expect zero emission vehicles and re-usable rockets is of more benefit than one gram spacecraft.
I worked on the first lunar and planetary spacecraft at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the later 1950’s and 60’s, and an early and influential SETI study supervised by Barney Oliver, a pioneer in the effort, was funded by a NASA contract I had in the 1960’s, so I am familiar with the origin of such efforts. And as I said, I believe that the wealthy should spend their money how they choose, but when it comes to government money, shouldn’t we have a bit more discussion? Certainly those involved in such things as SETI have discussed the downsides and upsides of detecting extraterrestrial intelligence, but shouldn’t there be more discussion by the public? We will probably send people to Mars, but it has been proven to be an awful place and will cost a lot of money, even though it will be a real adventure for those few who go, as well as a vicarious one for the rest of us. But is that the best way to spend the money, when there are so many useful things that could be accomplished here on earth?
I am certainly not against science and technology, and in fact lead a wonderful and exciting life by being part of them, but I see their purpose as improving the human condition, and what we are capable of doing is not always something that we should do. My years in the S.T.S program changed my life, and perhaps made me less valuable as a contributor to science and technology, but I have definitely come to think that in many situations we should think more before we leap, and perhaps even more while we are leaping.