Letter from the editor

As our understanding of technology matures, we come to realize we have both the right and the obligation to act as citizens, to make conscious choices about research, development, and dissemination of technologies throughout our world.

Dear Reader,

In this issue you may notice some of the creative tension that goes with having people with very different backgrounds shaping an issue of YES!.

Jill Bamburg, a Positive Futures Network board member, has volunteered for the past several months, helping to research, write, and edit the theme section on technology. Jill is a former high–tech executive who is savvy about both the appeal and the shortcomings of the cyber world.

Managing editor Carol Estes finds other topics more interesting—like the upcoming issue on spirituality and social change she will be editing while I'm taking a brief sabbatical (see page 61).

I come from a Quaker background and grew up somewhat skeptical about bold promises for new technologies. On the other hand, I've been using computers, video, and radio production equipment since I was a teenager.

Where we agree is in the view that there is no particular technological path that is inevitable, that some paths are downright scary, and that we have both the right and the responsibility to make thoughtful choices about the role of technology in our future.

This is a very different view than the one held by many in our parents' generation who believed technology could solve every problem, from the drudgery of housework to the pain of hunger. This faith in the all-powerful future of technology, and in our own omnipotence as inventors of these technologies, was interrupted when we began to bump into limits. We found we could “tame the mighty Mississippi,” channeling it through concrete and earthen levies, draining wetlands, and claiming the adjacent lands for agriculture. Then we learned that we had undermined the watershed's natural capacity to absorb high water, prevent catastrophic flooding, recharge aquifers, conserve soil, and provide habitat for wildlife.

We thought the automation of work would reduce drudgery and free up time for more rewarding endeavors, only to see craftsmanship diminish, work hours expand, wages stagnate, and industrial jobs evaporate—to be replaced by “service” jobs that are frequently repetitive, spirit-dulling, and low paying.

But the really dramatic wake-up call was the realization that, for the first time in human history, we could actually destroy all life on the planet with nuclear weapons. More recently came the realization that the petroleum that is fueling our society is disrupting our planet's life-support capacities. Clearly our technical prowess has outpaced our wisdom.

Misgivings are growing among people from across the political spectrum about our society's wholesale plunge into the manipulation of nature, our bodies, our communities, and even our minds. Many now choose to eat organic foods, to limit their children's time in front of televisions, video games, and computers. People from India to France to Brazil to San Diego are seeking to halt the rapid spread of genetically engineered agriculture.

Despite the stereotyping of these people as “neo-Luddites,” those who question the mad rush into technological utopia are neither ignorant nor backward. They are simply people who are questioning some of the technological “wonders” of the past and want to go forward with a more nuanced view. They recognize that anything that goes into the environment will one day wind up in our own bodies or those of our children. They want to reflect on whether a new technology will make life more joyous, work more creative, our families and communities more alive, and our surroundings more beautiful.

These technological skeptics are suggesting we learn from the millions of years of accumulated wisdom manifested by nature and the thousands of years of accumulated wisdom represented in indigenous cultures. But they are also prepared to celebrate the best of what today's technological prowess has to offer, whether that is a new bicycle, a high-speed Internet connection, a clothesline, or a fuel cell.

As our understanding of technology matures, we come to realize we have both the right and the obligation to act as citizens, to make conscious choices both about our own life-styles and, together with other citizens, to make choices about the research, development, and dissemination of technologies throughout our world. The outcome is not always simple, but the democratic process, founded on access to the best scientific research, is the best way we've found yet to make these complex and critically important choices. This sort of democracy would be a radical departure from the reward system that drives technology decision-making today—the bottom line. If we are to have a sustainable planet to leave to our children, we must bring a far broader range of understandings and concerns to making decisions about technologies.

Sarah Ruth van Gelder  

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