Posted by: B Gourley | June 26, 2008

Technology Development Shapes Society, Can Society Shape Technology Development?

Had the introduction of nuclear weapons into the world followed a well-considered analysis of what kind of development would optimize strategic stability, what would that introduction have looked like? This is a relevant question as one considers new technologies on the horizon which might share with nuclear technologies a similar tension between the influence of peaceful as opposed to belligerent applications. When one considers emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology, there does not seem to be a consensus about the degree to which the belligerent applications will have a major influence in shaping the nature of society. However, perhaps now is the time to give this a great deal of thought, and to consider whether it is possible for society to influence the adoption of these technologies and their applications in a manner that produces the highest level of strategic stability.

Nuclear weapons certainly shaped the nature of society. They influenced how international relations were conducted, they modified thoughts on the utility of war, they affected how we spent our public funds, and they changed the way we perceived our collective future.  It is hard to say whether the way in which nuclear weapons were adopted was anywhere close to strategically optimal. The initial development by only one country may have made their early use much more likely, and nuclear weapons are like life insurance policies – all is better when they are not used. However, there is great debate about the cost of bringing World War II to a close under alternative strategies. Many believe that a Japanese surrender was inevitable, and, while this may have been true, it is often the case in international relations that what is important is what people think is true – not what is actually true. The documents from the time that attempted to grapple with whether an invasion of Japan would result in a million dead US and Allied servicemen (or only maybe half that figure) indicate that the Truman Administration expected a costly closing of the war under other approaches. 

The way nuclear weapons were introduced spurred arms racing and proxy wars, but may also have prevented further great wars. So the question of interest is whether it is possible to engage in strategic engineering of technology development, or whether we will forever be in a situation of watching in the aftermath? Is it possible to not only predict the charactor of belligerent applications of emerging technologies, but also to engineer a path to the adoption of those applications that minimizes the risk?

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