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Science, Maths & Technology

Where does innovation lead?

Updated Wednesday 13th April 2005

Derek's response to the second lecture of the 2005 series of Reith lectures

The technology Lord Broers describes is simply astonishing. He argues that the complexity involved in modern technological development means that it is now beyond the powers of isolated individuals relying on serendipity and inspiration.

As a result, people need to work in teams and be aware of the research being done, and the products being sold, across the world.

One might think that progress could more easily be made if people worked in disinterested collaboration with each other. However, as Lord Broers describes, the fact that one needs to stay ahead of one’s competitors in order to make a profit gives one a keen incentive to innovate.

(It is sometimes said that the free market is driven by the twin motivations of greed and fear; whilst we might be uncomfortable with this, it cannot be denied that they are pretty good motivators.)

With all this relentless achievement, and astonishing rate of progress, we should not forget that the purpose of technology is instrumental: that is, it helps us live better lives.

This raises two questions (and, in asking them, we should bear in mind Lord Broers remark that it was the military applications of GPS that released the money to develop it).

First, do the ends justify the means? That is, is the cost of producing some of this technology – and I mean the ethical, rather than the financial cost – justified by the results?

CCTV cameras being monitored via an iPod [Image: Exacq under CC-BY-NC licence] Creative commons image Icon Exacq via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
CCTV cameras being monitored via an iPod [Image: Exacq under CC-BY-NC licence]

Second, what are we aiming at? What is a better life? For example, the technology of surveillance has made it the case that we are always being tracked: by CCTV, GPS, mobile phone tracking, use of our credit, debit and loyalty cards. Is this a good thing?

I raise these questions not to answer them, but rather to alert us to the fact that we ought to be thinking about them. Furthermore, we ought to ensure that there are mechanisms in place to ask them.

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