How is it that technology has come to take us on this path which is changing the course of Life and Earth? What is this thing called technology? When we think of technology we often envision complex machines, computers, and communication devices. Really though technology is more of an idea than a thing, and much simpler than one might think.
Take for example a chimp that is eating termites using the method of termite fishing. He places a stick in a termite hole and the termites climb on the stick. He pulls the stick out and eats them off the stick.
In the case of the chimp I would suggest that the use of an available stick could be considered a very simple form of technology. Going further, the chimp could have used even more complex reasoning as humans do. For example, he may have climbed the tree looking for a perfect branch, broke it off to the perfect length, peeled it, and then used it for his planned purpose. Regardless of his approach the chimp is manipulating matter and energy in his environment to fulfill the objective of improving his life condition. He is creating technology.
What the chimp is doing to create technology is not so different than what humans do. For example, just as the chimp combines the elements in his environment around him, man does the same by combining potassium nitrate, charcoal powder, and sulfur powder to make gunpowder. Going further, an even more complex example of humans manipulating matter and energy to meet their needs would be in combining plutonium and processing uranium to create nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.
The only difference between the chimp and man is that we use our intelligence to combine matter and energy in more complex ways hence man has a greater impact on the planet in both good and bad ways. What makes the complex technologies that humans create more dangerous is that, unlike the chimp, we often combine matter and energy in ways that are improbable in Nature such as in the example mentioned above when creating nuclear energy. When in Nature could one really expect plutonium and uranium to be processed randomly to create a nuclear device?
When humans created the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland they created a technology that might prove that the big bang theory caused the creation of the universe. The possible concern with such technology, though probably infinitely small, is that it does expose us to a rare combination of matter and energy that may never have occurred in Nature in all the years that Earth has existed. New technologies such as this may create side effects that we have never experienced before hence we should question them very carefully before we proceed with them.
Another example of humans combining matter and energy in ways that would be improbable in Nature is our ability to manipulate matter at a molecular level. This ability has enabled us to create viruses and change the structure of microorganisms. Even if humans explore such biotechnology with good intent, we are still exposed to biological risks that life may have never faced in all the time it has existed. Life may simply be unable to adapt to such unprecedented and improbable biological combinations.
Let's now get back to some simple examples of technology that might be used by animals. In the world of Nature animals use all kinds of objects to create technology that will fulfill the need to survive. For example, a bear finds a cave to have her young and hide from the elements. I consider the cave a simple form of existing technology once the bear chooses to take advantage of it. Consider a crow that finds a mussel on the beach, flies high in the sky, then drops it on the rocks to break it open. The rocks are an available technology, which become a tool to fulfill its needs. These examples seem to suggest technology is the process of any life form manipulating any object (matter) to fulfill its needs. On occasion, as in the examples mentioned, animals will use existing objects such as the caves and rocks. In other cases, as in the chimp breaking the stick from the tree, they may APPLY ENERGY TO CHANGE THE ENVIRONMENT in order to achieve their goals.
Learning to conceptualize and reason how to manipulate the environment, like the chimp breaking off the stick, has been a huge step in the evolution of organisms, especially man, toward creating more complex technologies. For example, consider a caveman who by using his ability to conceptualize and reason was able to tie a sharp piece of flint to a long stick to make a spear. Once again this is a simple technology based on the combination of objects in the environment. Clearly though it's impact on the environment is much more limited than a nuclear device.
I can imagine that in primitive times the spear must have given the caveman a tremendous advantage in survival. It might have taken thousands of years for a species like the rhino to develop a horn for survival through natural selection but in only seconds the caveman with his ability to conceptualize and reason had created a technology the equivalent of a portable 5-foot tusk, the spear. This was the beginning of humankind going beyond just evolving through natural selection. With his new found ability to create technology he would now evolve at the speed of a gazelle while other animals would be left behind to evolve at a snail's pace through natural selection.
You know the rest of the evolution theory. The caveman's intelligence evolves and he creates the bow and arrow, gunpowder, agriculture and irrigation, medicine, computers, and so on and so on. Modern man leaps forward leaving all his fellow creatures in the dust behind him to survive using their traditional means like the brute force and claws of a grizzly bear, the fleetness of a cheetah, or the strength and power of the lion.
It has come to the point that even the King of Beasts, the lion, is at the mercy of man and his technology. In a second, man can choose to destroy an entire ecosystem or species. I hope that he will realize the responsibility that goes with his newfound power from his technology.
As technology has evolved we have come to realize that we need vast amounts of energy to manipulate the objects (matter) around us. For example, if you want to move a boulder without technology the only option is to push it just as any other animal would do. Using our intelligence we might then deduce that there is strength in numbers and we would get our friends to help, which in a sense is a type of technology in itself. The next solution, like the chimp with the stick, might be to get a log and use "leverage" to move the boulder. Ultimately though, concentrated energy is our best resource to maneuver the objects of our technology. Hence, for example, we create gunpowder by combining elements like potassium nitrate, charcoal powder, and sulfur powder. We can then create dynamite and put it under the boulder so that we can move it even farther and with less effort.
We have come to realize that energy is critical to ensure the continued operation of our technologies. We need fuel to power our planes across the sky. We need oil to keep our homes warm and to run our factories. Our growing world population has given us an insatiable desire to consume more and more coal and oil that emit carbon dioxide. Given that we are realizing that this may be affecting global temperatures, we have made an effort to find new sources of energy such as:
a) Solar power to harness the power from the sun.
b) Harnessing wind power from the movement of the air around us and from the movement of the oceans.
c) Nuclear power derived from chemical and physical reactions.
Technology is the process of any life form using or manipulating matter and energy in ways that benefit them. Unfortunately there can be undesirable side effects of technologies especially since they have become more complex and powerful. Technology is something that we will continue to develop in order to improve our chances of survival and give us the things we want. Now that I have given a definition of technology I will discuss in the next section some of the side effects related to current technologies.
Solar Panel Image courtesy of Anusorn P nachol at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Gun Powder Image courtesy of Boaz Yiftach at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Rhinocerous Image courtesy of James Barker at FreeDigitalPhotos.net