Sunday, May 30, 2010

Mitigating technology risks

The New York Times published an insightful article by Elizabeth Rosenthal a couple of days ago entitled "Our Fix-It Faith and the Oil Spill." The thrust of the article is that we place an inordinate amount of faith in the ability of technology to fix problems and have a too-rosy picture of the benefits of technology compared with its risks. I think this is frequently true.

The question is, how can we mitigate this problem? The article seems to suggest (implicitly, not overtly) that we should give up the idea that technology can resolve natural problems — that perhaps the natural world is too complex and unpredictable to be dealt with by technology. I would disagree with such an assessment. It may be (in fact, I hope it is so) that the world will always exceed our understanding at any given point in time. But this does not imply that we should lose faith in the benefits of technology or imagine that its risks always outweigh its benefits. Rather, it suggests (as does the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) that we should invest more heavily in mitigation strategies and technologies and perhaps proceed more cautiously with certain types of exploratory technologies, with the realization that there will always be unforeseen risks.

We need two things: the willingness to pay the price to develop mitigation strategies and technologies and the benevolence to work together to mitigate unforeseen problems when they arise.


  1. What are the alternatives? Giving up or passive hope? Maybe we should pray ourselves into apathy and then try to disappear quietly.

  2. So, what can we do to encourage increased investment in mitigation strategies? Part of the problem, it seems to me, is greed.