The real cost of technology

By Terence Jeyaretnam

As I tap away on my laptop at a café (and therefore on wireless internet) writing this blog post, listening to music from Spotify.com, periodically checking Facebook updates and checking the diary on my smartphone, I begin to fathom the hypocritical mountain I must climb in order to make my point succinctly – that the debate around the real cost of technology on the planet and on society is not being had.

Technology, especially computer technology, is widely heralded as the likely savior from a number of large social and environmental impacts. This ‘enabler’ is seen as having the potential to deliver on the millennium development goals as well as capacity to help mitigate environmental degradation, including climate change. This is because the measurable economic impact and efficiency delivered by technology is unquestionable.

But, three news items in the past few weeks have made me think much deeper about technology, and it’s, largely unintended, potential negative impacts. One was the article on the decline of human intelligence, which suggested that we may be gradually losing intelligence. The study, published in the journal Trends in Genetics, argues that humans lost the evolutionary pressure to be smart once we started living in dense agricultural settlements several thousand years ago. Timothy Taylor is an archaeologist and anthropologist at the University of Bradford, UK says that over the last 30,000 years there has been an overall decrease in brain size and the trend seems to be continuing. “That's because we can outsource our intelligence. I don't need to remember as much as a Neanderthal because I have a computer”, says Taylor.

The second was the key take-out from the largest ever study into the state of the world's health, which revealed that, for the first time, the number of years of healthy living lost as a result of people eating too much outweigh the number lost by people eating too little. For the first time on a global scale, being overweight has become more of a health problem than lack of nutrition, the Global Burden of Disease Report found.

The third was the sad loss of the lives of twenty children and six adults in the Newtown elementary school shooting. The shooter, Adam Lanza, it is understood, would spend hours on his computer, much of the time devoted to playing violent games.

All three of these news items are significant in their connection to technology, and play an important role in how we define our future as a species. Therefore, the debate needs to be had on the real cost of technology. To simply accept the economic benefits on face-value may see us making some fundamental structural and physiological changes to how we live. I believe we need to stop and ask some serious questions around issues such as outsourcing our intelligence, losing our connection to nature, technology’s contribution to the current obesity epidemic, the impact of virtual games and lives on society, the impact of social media on real connections and the way we work, the impact of technology on mental health and well-being and the operational and end-of pipe environmental impact of technology. I will be tackling some of these issues in my 2013 columns, and invite your thoughts and input.

Source: Artificial ape man: How technology created humans, New Scientist, 18th August 2010;
Our Fragile Intellect Parts I&II, Trends in Genetics, Gerald R. Crabtree 13th November 2012;
Overeating now bigger global problem than lack of food, New Scientist, 13th December 2012

Terence Jeyaretnam is a Director of Net Balance (terence@netbalance.com), 
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Terence is based in Melbourne