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In Defense of Technology

My local newspaper (The New Hampshire Union Leader at published a comic this weekend that pictured two children dressed in costumes for Halloween, getting ready for the annual Trick or Treat. The caption read Remember, mom says we take only healthy treats like candy. No spinach or lettuce.

Besides the laugh-out-loud nature of the punch line, the comic affords a glimpse of what advances in technology have wrought society. This case clearly demonstrates that processed foods do more good than harm. Processed foods let us trade immediate serious illness or even death for the long-term risk of obesity and heart disease. Certainly the latter are not trivial, but they do work over time and we can avoid them with commitment and moderation. These foods are not an unalloyed good, but they are an improvement over their unprocessed versions.

IT technologies also represent an improvement, though not a panacea. Cell phones, e-mail, and Blackberries (and similar push e-mail devices) make it possible for us to stay in touch in ways that were not possible two decades ago, and at a much cost lower than a landline phone call from that previous era. The downside is that some people do not know when to shut off their devices. I don't think there is any doubt that the tradeoff was worthwhile.

Perhaps the true culprit is our enthusiasm for every advance of technology, and our unbridled optimism that we can use it to change the world. In fact, the world improves through increments, as new technologies fix some problems, only to create others. Fortunately, the ones created are almost always less severe than the ones solved. We should hope that any technology advance offers a net improvement in society. If it does not, it will not last.

I grew up with the cartoon character Popeye, whose ingestion of spinach was portrayed as giving him great strength. It was only when I was older that I realized that the entire goal was to get me to eat my vegetables. Perhaps today it is time for Popeye to eschew his raw vegetables in favor of processed foods in moderation., and simply make sure that he also engages in regular exercise. He may find it an improvement.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 10/15/2006

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