Technology and Morality

December 31st, 2019

Photo by Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Canyon Lake Dam, Texas

One drive that every Texan should experience is going north out of Gruene along River Road. It is a narrow strip of pavement in the trees and in most sections, it runs right up next to the Guadalupe River. In fact, as you move north, you cross the river several times. About 16 miles above Hueco Falls and what is called the “First Crossing” (the crossings are numbered from north to south), you come out of the valley and then everything opens up. At the top of the hill, there is a large dam. Behind it—Canyon Lake.

I know Canyon Lake is loved by most Texans, but I can’t help thinking that anyone coming up the River Road after such a beautiful drive can only find it an eyesore. And the dam itself…well, that is even uglier. After that drive along the river, the sight of the lake is way beyond disappointing.

But then, I tend to have a problem with dams in general. I understand that without them, Texas would have very few lakes. But for every dam we see, a part of a river is lost. John Graves wrote a masterpiece about this loss in Goodbye to a River, a story about a long canoe journey down what used to be the Brazos River in the final days before it was wiped out by a series of flood control dams.

Some would argue that dams are as good as, and maybe even superior to, open rivers for a number of reasons, many of them valid. They do indeed create lakes. Lakes are playgrounds for people in multiple ways: fishing, power boating, swimming. . . . We usually see them as fun. I get that; I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan and spent thousands of hours at the beach. But power boats are noisy and smell bad. Artificial beaches usually have less than ideal sand and tend to be small. And is the fishing really any better than it was in the river that was sacrificed? Driving the River Road and seeing all the people on tubes and the fishermen on the banks and in canoes, I have to think, if you can’t have fun on the river, you’re just not doing it right.

Of course, proponents claim there are other benefits to dams. In the western United States, the lakes they create serve as reservoirs that provide water for cities. But is that really a good idea? Most of the evils in America today are centered in the cities. Call me a whack job, but anything that lets them survive, let alone grow, is problematic.

Finally, there is the flood control issue. That’s a big one here in Texas. Yes, the new lakes hold lots of water, but in really heavy rain events, the lakes fill up. The powers that be are then forced to let some of the water out . . . quickly. Open the gates after heavy rains to protect the dams and you get Houston after hurricane Harvey.

But we’re not really talking about dams here at all. In reality, we are looking at the issue of acting before considering all the ramifications of our actions. Politicians specialize in this kind of behavior which results in what we today call “the law of unintended consequences.” We act before we think. And then we pay the price.

This can be scary. Consider for a moment the topic of genetic modification. Yes, by playing with genes, we can create better plants. We know that much. But what are the effects of eating “altered food?” We are guessing, and hoping, that there are no negative consequences. But only time will tell.

And then there is the issue of designer babies. Today we have the technology to choose such traits as sex, eye and hair color. Thankfully, we don’t do that much . . . yet. But what will we “select for” next? Athletic ability? Intelligence? Social skills?

Do we eliminate all genetic disorders? That would increase our lifespans. A good thing, right? Will the longer lifespan cause an even greater population explosion? Will those genetic alterations introduce new issues, new diseases? Are we creating super-humans? Is that okay?

Technology is power; that is undeniable. Our power over nature tempts us to make decisions and take actions without thinking through, or maybe even having the ability to know and fully understand, the consequences of those acts. We do it because we can.

As early as 1954, Martin Heidegger warned us of another problem that technology posed. He claimed it carries a serious, potential danger in that it exerts control over us through its mediating effects. That is, the technology controls what we can and can’t do. Look at the invention of the pocket calculator, for example. One unforeseen effect is that today, many students lack a mastery of the simple math “facts,” such as times tables. They can’t do long division, fractions or decimals. Take away the calculator and they are helpless. Even more obvious, the invention of digital clocks has left us with a generation of students, many of whom cannot tell time on a traditional analog timepiece. Does that surprise you? If so, you haven’t been around a lot of young people lately.

Heidegger says that as a result, technology can limit authenticity of our experience in, and of, the world—the experience that defines life and gives it meaning. The most prominent example of this is, of course, the cell phone.

On the surface, the cell phone (and other social media) appear to be bringing us together—making us more connected to friends and family. We can talk or text from anywhere, at any time. But as Heidegger predicted, the device has exerted a control over our lives and governs how we interact with people. In essence, it is separating us. Look around any restaurant. People are not talking to each other as family and friends but rather have their noses buried in their phones. We are the most disconnected society ever.

One of the most important decisions we as a society will have to make in the near future is about cloning. Dolly, the first cloned sheep, was created in 1996. Just last month we heard of the first pig-monkey created in China. How long before we can do this kind of thing with humans? Will there be unintended consequences? We know about the problem of replicative fading (the degeneration of DNA that accompanies repetitive cloning). What other surprises await us?

Certainly, we need to be concerned about the problems we create when we make and use technology without thinking through the consequences. But I think there is still a more serious aspect we need to consider; that is the issue of morality. The question we need to be asking ourselves regarding technological advances is, “should we?” Is it the “right” thing to do?

When it comes to our use of the new technologies, we are like children. We get excited about the possibilities, overlook potential problems, but most of all, we don’t bother to ask if this is the moral thing to do.

Our power over nature has exceeded our ethical maturity. That is a dangerous place to be.