A Critical Attitude to Technology

Chapter 14 Case Study: Legacy or Liability? Technological Progress as a Ticking Time Bomb

On January 2, 2019, Aeon published a provocative piece entitled “Time-Bombing the Future” by Rebecca Altman, on the subject of the legacy of polychlorinatedbiphenols (PCBs). Altman begins the story by recounting an event in September 1938 that encapsulated the technological optimism of the day. Westinghouse was burying a time capsule to be opened 5,000 years in the future. The contents of the capsule were the latest cutting edge chemical technology. Altman reports that the publicist for Westinghouse, G. Edward Pendray considered calling it a “time bomb” instead of “time capsule,” and while the latter name stuck, the former better expressed the significance of the technological achievements contained inside.

The capsule was loaded with discoveries of chemistry from DuPont, Westinghouse, and other companies—synthetics such as tungsten filaments and nylon. The sealing of the capsule was an event marked by speeches, and the general atmosphere was one of triumph for the current age’s technological innovators and optimism about what future technology would bring. Altman then explains that the capsule was sealed using 500 pounds of a sealant made from PCB. The PCB was the true time bomb.

PCBs are now recognized as carcinogens that affect basic human development and both neurological and reproductive function. They have been banned in the United States since 1979 but were found in so many products that many doubtlessly remain—power transformers are one common place to find them, along with fluorescent light ballasts, old hydraulic oil, and many electrical components such as capacitors and voltage regulators. Unfortunately, artifacts and products are not the only places PCBs persist. They remain in biological systems permanently until death and are passed down in childbirth. The chemicals were engineering to be enduring and they are—PCBs do not break down inside the body and continue their disruptive activity perpetually, sometimes leading to cancer in addition to the other problems. The PCB problem of today is that compounds are already in the water we drink and found in plants and animals we eat. They are now a permanent part of the biosphere and food web. The effects on testosterone leading to infertility among both humans and animals are already well known as is their potential to cause cancer—classified as a Level 2B carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Altman effectively notes that no time capsule need be opened; humans 5,000 years in the future will in all likelihood bear the witness of PCBs in their bodies: “The implications are disturbing. Change a ship’s course by one degree, and in a decade, a century, a millennium, that ship will be sailing through entirely different waters. Subtle alterations barely perceptible today could mean profound changes in the lives of Pendray’s futurians and beyond.”

Technological pessimists believe that technological change is generally harmful. The response of the critical attitude toward technological pessimism is to agree only that technology can be harmful to humans, but harm can only be known on a case-by-case basis. It is open to technological pessimists to agree that final evaluations of whether a new technology is harmful or not must be made on a case-by-case basis, but that past experience shows that often irreversible and unforeseeable harm is done before we know it. A technological pessimist could argue that cases like PCBs justify adopting a pessimistic stance toward new technology—analogous to the pessimistic meta-induction in philosophy of science.

How should technological optimists and critical attitude theorists respond to such a hypothetical challenge from the technological pessimist? Do cases like PCBs support a technological pessimistic metainduction? If not, how might a technological optimist or critical attitude theorist explain the lesson of PCBs for a stance toward new technology in the future?

Case Study by Robert Reed



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