Book review: ‘The Dark Side of Technology’ by Peter Townsend
Engineering breakthroughs that have created a networked world and brought us better healthcare and ready access to food aren’t all good news.
The harbingers of world economic collapse, ecological disaster, and the end of life as we know it are many, vocal and often get a bigger platform than their minority views. It would be easy to dismiss academic Peter Townsend’s ‘The Dark Side of Technology’ (Oxford University Press, £25, ISBN 9780198790532) as another such volume. But what’s intriguing about this well-researched book is that the author dwells on all the benefits technologies have brought – increased food supply, more warmth and light, longevity, data storage, crime prevention.
The problem is, there’s always a sting in each of his tales. For every technological light, there’s a dark side. Townsend warns that unless we tackle these, Armageddon will inevitably arrive. His message is stark: “A real disaster scenario is either imminent within our lifetime or very highly probable for the next generation.”
Townsend provides detailed examples of many advances that appear at first to be hugely positive. However, his claim is that on thorough examination any good is outweighed by a great deal of bad. The word ‘but’ is used a lot: “Medical technology may maintain our health, but we ignore possible drug-related mutagenic changes”; “food supplies are varied and increasing, but lack of self-control brings obesity”; “Technologies have brought us immense progress and wealth, but simultaneously are sowing the seeds of our destruction.”
The style does at times slide into a monotonous ‘On the one hand ... on the other hand...,’ so we soon predict that the marvellous invention Townsend has just described will, in fact, have consequences that aren’t marvellous at all. He labours this point a little bit too far and, ironically, in doing so makes us believe him less. A few succinct examples would be enough. In giving so many, he suggests a lack of confidence in their individual ability to carry the argument.
His main thread is that, counter to popular opinion, technology hasn’t made us stronger but more vulnerable. Its interconnectivity exposes us to weakness. His favourite example is the occurrence of sunspots, which, before technological advances, were pretty irrelevant. But now, Townsend argues, our reliance on satellites means that a sunspot could knock them out and cause global catastrophe. Their malfunction would lead to planes losing automatic steering equipment and crashing, credit-card transactions ceasing, and power grid failure so people would get trapped in elevators (his example). He points out that those in less advanced societies would be more likely to survive than those of us who rely upon technology for our everyday living. So technology won’t save our lives; it will destroy them.
There is a ‘brush of hope’, although Townsend’s solutions seem vague compared with the vivid particular scenarios he paints of the calamities. We just need more foresight, knowledge, education, understanding and a smaller world population.
‘The Dark Side of Technology’ isn’t a cheerful read. If I believed all its warnings of doom, I’d buy a kerosene lamp and stove, pack my bags and head for the African bush. In Townsend’s technologically destroyed planet, we need to be Bear Grylls to survive.