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Technology is only a means

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Column/Robert E. Malchman

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Today's graduates, like others past and future, will be bombarded with a plethora of platitudes, an onslaught of observations and an agglomeration of advice. If one chooses to ponder but one deep thought this day, perhaps the best one concerns the philosophy of the technology so many of today's graduates will study, create and use.

Technology is neither good nor bad, as some technocrats and Luddites might have you believe. Technology is a tool, a means toward an end.

What that end shall be remains open to determination, and therein lie the potential problems. The American system of government, though the best one around, is notoriously inefficient. A poorly informed public elects representatives to make decisions for them. The most important decisions of the future will regard the uses of new technologies.

The solution does not lie in a technocracy. Concentration of the power among the few -- even the best-educated few -- leads inevitably to abuse and statism. We must instead follow two courses of action to ensure the proper implementation of technology.

The long-term course is education. A scientifically knowledgeable public will more likely elect scientifically knowledgeable representatives. The United States has a long way to go, however, even in the basic education of its citizens. One cannot consider the efficacy of the Strategic Defense Initiative if one cannot read so much as a Star Wars comic book.

The government's greatest domestic priority, after food and shelter, should be education. Two immediate improvements would be to raise teacher salaries significantly and to remove all economic bars to higher education. Government -- and the taxpayer -- can make no better investment than in the public's education.

Conversely, scientists must realize they do not live in a bubble. They -- we -- must learn and adopt ethical approaches to their work. A technical education without a philosophical one is like giving a blind man a driver's license.

The second course of action lies in our hands. Whether we like it or not, we are the new elite. In an increasingly technologically oriented society, the creators and managers of that technology assume a prime importance.

We can, of course, duck that responsibility. We can get caught up by the beauty of the process, by the thrill of creation, by the glamour of a new technology.

Then someone else will make the decisions, just as someone else decided to drop the Bomb on Hiroshima, to build the interstate highway system, and to permit or deny human euthanasia. These decisions may have been good or bad, but the people who made them were not technologically knowledgeable.

Who shall decide about future weapons systems, genetic engineering, or an economically efficient robot technology that replaces human workers?

We must consider the potential effects of the technologies we will create. We must make scientific and business decisions that may be unfavorable to us, but that will benefit the public.

An example of a good business decision, but a bad public decision, was made by the Ford Motor Company during the 1970s. Commencement speaker Lee A. Iacocca worked for Ford at the time. Engineers there discovered a design flaw in the Pinto model. Its gasoline tank had a tendency to explode from rear-end collisions.

Some real cost attached to altering the design. Ford managers calculated that cost. It was extremely high. They estimated it would cost less to settle the law suits arising from the design flaw by people injured in the explosions -- or by their estates, than it would to repair the vehicles.

I don't know the extent of Iacocca's culpability in this case. His hierarchical position was somewhere over the Pinto division, but how far over I don't know.

It seems possible, at the very least, that he was aware of the problem. We do know he did nothing about it. That alone would make him an offensive choice for commencement speaker. Iacocca embodies technological materialism at the expense of human beings. His is not the proper model for MIT graduates.

Whoever did make the Pinto decision deserves to be execrated. Somewhere in that process, an engineer did not blow the whistle. He abdicated his responsibility with calamitous results.

We will have the power to adversely affect people's lives. We must carefully consider our actions and creations before allowing others to implement them. To do otherwise is both cowardly and reckless.

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