- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

Do we control our technology? Or does it control us? The common view of technology is that it is a tool to be used as we see fit. Another view is that once a technology is invented, its use is determined by the nature of the technology. We use it the only way we can.
For example, once you invent the automobile, you have to have roads, which inevitably lead to suburbs, shopping malls, and a transformation of society. Good or bad, it wasn't a choice we made, but one that the auto made for us.
Another example is television. When it was invented, people spoke hopefully of the ballet and wonderful cultural and educational programming. Actually, it couldn't have been so used. It has to be what it became because of the nature of the technology.
If you have 100 channels running day and night, that's 2,400 hours a day of programming. There aren't that many good writers and actors, so you use bad ones. Because you have to maximize the audience to sell advertising, you can't air "King Lear." The voracious maw requires that you fill air time with anything you can find, as cheaply as possible.
Since many people will watch almost any television rather than no television, there is little incentive for programming. The sex, violence, and laugh track spring unavoidably from the inability to produce a quality product.
This may change again for technological reasons. As bandwidth on the Internet grows, it will become possible to put Lear on a server and let people watch it whenever they want, like visiting a Web site. Because putting a play on a server doesn't cost much, and doesn't occupy an expensive television channel, it becomes possible to distribute Shakespeare.
The political magazines worry greatly over "globalization," and college students demonstrate enthusiastically, apparently in the belief that it is something we can do or not do. A strong case can be made that we have absolutely no choice in the matter.
Computers and the Internet go far in making globalization inevitable. Today, an American retiree can live in a small town in Mexico and use a bank account in the United States to buy stocks in Hong Kong. A bank in New York can employ programmers in Bombay, by Internet, to maintain its financial software. Companies around the globe can collaborate on anything from bond trading to aircraft design by Internet.
Using Indian software designers in a multinational company, operating in 17 countries and banking in another several, all tied together with high-speed digital networks, may not be a frontal assault on national sovereignty. Yet it makes countries largely irrelevant except as complex tax problems. Businesses by their nature go where the labor and markets are most favorable. With electronics and air travel, that can be anywhere.
Americanization of the world, which distresses some countries, is another technological inevitability. Many countries cannot produce as much television as their people want. Who has vast stocks of programs? Hollywood. It is cheaper to subtitle an American film than to produce one locally.
Television is infinitely scalable: By bouncing it off a satellite, you can cover the world almost as easily as a city. And so, around the globe, you find the same American shows being aired, promoting American values.
More disturbing are the galloping advances in biotechnology. Here again, we are not shaping the technology, but following it. Many microbiologists and related researchers are scared by the increasing ability to engineer bacteria and viruses. It is easier to create a dangerous organism than to find a cure.
Will graduate students be able to invent biological viruses the way teenage boys invent computer viruses? There are sane biochemists who fear so. But one thing is sure: If that's where the research leads, that's where we will go.

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