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Should technologists be held to account?

Updated Wednesday 13th April 2005

Certainly technology takes us forward - but sometimes, it takes us forward into darker places. Joyce Fortune responds to Lord Broers' second Reith Lecture.

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In exploring the origins of modern technologies Lord Broers cites many examples of technologies that have had far greater impact that their developers would have ever dreamt. I’m afraid the sheer scope of his examples has led me off at a tangent. They have led me to ask myself a question that have I found I cannot answer. It is as follows:

Most technological developments have a positive side, but is there a technology that we would regard only as good?

RAF Armourers checking a 1000lb laser guided bomb before an Op Jural Tornado sortie; Dhahran; 1991 [Image: BR0WSER under CC-BY-NC-SA licence] Creative commons image Icon BR0WSER via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
RAF Armourers checking a 1000lb laser guided bomb before an Op Jural Tornado sortie; Dhahran; 1991 [Image: BR0WSER under CC-BY-NC-SA licence]

Let me use a couple of his examples to show what led me to this question.

  • The World Wide Web - allows communication and information sharing on a fantastic scale but is said to be a ‘paedophile’s paradise’ and opened up a whole range of cyber-crimes.
  • GPS - all the positive uses to which Lord Broers points, but also raises personal privacy issues.
  • Lasers - behind many medical advances but encourage the belief that, through the use of laser-guided weapons, war without civilian casualties is possible and thus lower the threshold of proof for those seeking to justify military action.

The scientist’s responsibility to consider how his or her discoveries might be used is a much discussed topic. Why isn’t the technologist subjected to the same scrutiny?

 

Further reading

Backroom Boys
Francis Spufford,Faber & Faber

Conquerors of time: exploration and invention in the age of daringTrevor Fishlock, John Murray

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