Technological Myopia

Three system changers who have shaped our world

At this first Culture Talk of the semester, we had the opportunity to hear Prof. Edwards, who has been working at ETH for more than 25 years. His research focuses on ecosystems and ecological processes. The founder of the GeoData Institute in Southhampton is a British citizen and has gained a lot of international experience like Singapore, where he conducted research for several years or during his dissertation, which he wrote in a tropical mountain rainforest in New Guinea.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…..”

These words from Charles Dickens’s “A tale of two cities”, describing new beginnings and the process of innovation opened this presentation, which introduced us to three examples of disruptive technologies, namely:

1. the green revolution

2. oral contraception

3. the internet

In this first example, we learned about the green revolution in the 1960s with its intention of stopping hunger. To increase food production, rice and wheat yields were arranged with the help of fertilizers and mechanization. As people started to move away, this process had an enormous impact on cities. A startling example was Jakarta, whose population grew from 2.7 to 31.2 million! Although the initiator of the green revolution Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Prize for saving one billion starving people, he did not consider the negative effects such as the creation of slums, heavy pollution, pest infestation and inequality.

A second system changer was the introduction of oral contraceptives in the 1960s. The „pill“ led to a social revolution as women became pregnant in an older age range. Moreover, birth rates dropped dramatically and democracy reshaped. The „pyramid“, where birth rates and the number of young people should be highest, was reformed so that there are more and more older people and fewer births all over the world.

Third, the internet.

The introduction of the World Wide Web in the 2000s created advantages and threats. As well as the new opportunities it opened up, prof. Edwards pointed us to some alarming figures, showing the falling rates of children’s self-esteem and the fact that addiction and loss of control can lead to a huge breakdown and loss of jobs. Another stunning fact: the costs of cyber-crime, like financial fraud etc., were estimated to be $6 trillion in 2021!

Those three system changers are highly disruptive, as the profound consequences are still unfolding. Most of those consequences were unforeseen, creating an irreversible and new reality.

What can WE learn and what can we DO?

Prof. Edwards encouraged us, to question innovations and to think about their impact and possible threats. Experts and professionals may only see the benefits or be influenced by lobbies. Even though we are young, we have the full right to question them by forming our own opinion and contributing to the shaping of OUR future!

As always, the following aperitif opened up the room for questions and vivid discussions – we thank our speaker and all those who were present for this enriching evening!

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