Technology is Like a Flashlight

A recent trip to the woods reminded me of another use for the flashlight. It provides a useful metaphor for the limits and dangers of technology.

When you use a flashlight, you probably get the results you were aiming for: You can see the path in the woods, or find the fusebox in the basement.

What we’re less likely to consider is what happens to the relationship between the flashlight-user and whatever is outside the flashlight’s beam.

As our pupils dilate to accommodate themselves to the bright beam, we become increasingly unable to see whatever is outside that beam. In short, by becoming artificially sighted in one narrow area of focus, we become blind to everything else.

That’s not too much of a problem if the environment we’re in is a completely artificial one, like a house during a blackout. It might be more of a problem if we’re in the woods … watching the path inside our flashlight beam but unable to see, for instance, the bear by the side of the trail, or the tree perilously leaning overhead.

A couple of environmental stories illustrate the metaphor in the wider world.

Just read this morning about the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/23/science/23lobster.html). It seems the lobster population is booming there. But that’s largely because lobsters have the run of the place: The swordfish, cod, halibut and other species that were once abundant as well – including lobsters predators — were all fished out.

Now the lobsters are sustained by baited traps, and both they and the lobstermen are having a field day.

But marine biologists warn that the ecosystem is perilously unbalanced. When one species is allowed (or in this case, encouraged) to grow beyond any natural bounds, it becomes more susceptible to things like disease. The Gulf has become the oceanic equivalent of what in agriculture is called a monocrop: a single species, cultivated over and over again.

One good round of infection could destroy the lobster population – and the Maine lobstermen’s livelihoods’ — just as surely as commercial fishing has destroyed the ancient balance between fish and other creatures in the ecosystem. (The article doesn’t discuss it, but one wonders what the absence of fish and the explosion of lobsters is doing to the health of marine plants, microorganisms, and fish that are not caught commercially.)

In this story, there’s sort of a twin flashlight beam: fishing technology and the human economy (the latter also being a kind of technology). These tools get us what we think we want – lobster rolls that are plentiful and cheap. So we say it’s good technology.

But this narrow success blinds us to greater dangers just outside the flashlight beam.

Another example. In India, cattle farmers started using a veterinary anti-inflammatory to help their animals grow. But the drug is toxic to vultures, who as scavengers often eat dead cattle.

The drug’s use contributed to a massive die-off of the vultures. But who cares? Who likes vultures anyway?

Turns out that fewer vultures means more of other scavengers, like rats and wild dogs. Oops. Both rats and dogs carry and transmit rabies.

And to the extent that vultures scavenged carrion that wasn’t a product of the human economy, the absence of vultures surely tips the ecosystem out of balance in other ways, too — ways that might not be understood for years. (Here’s an article about it all: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/living/the-last-indian-vultures.)

When in the woods, I try to carry a flashlight but to not use it unless it is necessary. Many nights, I find that once my eyes adjust to the dark, I can see quite well without the flashlight.

I still get where I’m going, if a little more slowly – and I can see the night, too, and the moon and stars that go with it.

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