Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reflection Paper #1: The Amazing Aspects of Technology

The Amazing Aspects of Technology
            Pierre Bordieu is known, in part, for his four Pillars of Intellectual Life.  These ideas include the Demolition of Simplistic Either-Ors, The Critique of Received Ideas, the Freedom to Respect Those in Power, and the Respect for the Complexity of Problems (Thurlow, 2009).  To this point, members of our class have spoken volumes that could easily be attributed to one or more of the aspects present in the Pillars of Intellectual Life.  Much of this discourse has revolved around Neil Postman’s speech “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change,” and has, I feel, taken on a bit of his fatalistic tone.  Therefore, I would like to address technological advances from the perspective of the wonders that they have performed.  While I understand the concept that “for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage” as well as the idea “every new technology benefits some and harms others,” I posit that there are some technologies that have advantages that vastly outweigh disadvantages and present benefits that hugely help the masses (Postman, 1998).  The purpose of this reflection paper is to address the amazing aspects of two different technologies: dwarf wheat and vaccines.  This examination will include a description of pre-technology situations, the technology itself, possible disadvantages, and post technology situations in an attempt to show that Postman’s belief that the masses are the losers does not always ring true.
Dwarf Wheat
            In the mid to late 1960s, India was at the brink of destruction.  Due to successive droughts and a focus on industry rather than agriculture, food shortages were plentiful and famine seemed imminent.  The problem seemed so dire that biologist Paul Ehrlich insisted that “India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980” (Singh, 2005).  When situations seemed their bleakest, enter Norman Borlaug.  He and his colleagues had created a strain of pest resistant dwarf wheat with thick stems, making it less likely that the stalk would collapse under the weight of the grain.  This allowed it to produce two to three times more grain that traditional wheat varieties.  Upon hearing of this wheat, India promptly charted Boeing 707s to transport 16,000 metric tons for planting, cultivation, and harvest.  By 1974, India had not only avoided a wide scale famine, it was self-sufficient in the production of all cereal grains.  The successes in India spread to Pakistan, Mexico, and Asia, resulting in higher production of food, and less chance of starvation. 
            Critics of this monumental technological advancement view the production of more food via crossbreeding, and the subsequent sustainment of human population, as contrary to the order of the natural world.  To these people, Burloug responds in two different ways: the first is that Mother Nature herself crosses species and spouts new creations; wheat is example of such a union.  Secondly, in response to the lobbyists against his work, he has said:
Many of them are elitists.  They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger…If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things. (Singh, 2005)

According to the Centers for Disease Control, vaccines are one of the “greatest achievements of biomedical science and public health” (Achievements, 1999).  In the years leading up to the creation of the vaccines for smallpox, polio, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough), illness and death related to these diseases were widely reported in the United States.  Since vaccine invention, smallpox has been completely eradicated, polio has been eliminated from the Western Hemisphere, measles outbreaks have decreased to miniscule numbers in the United States, and US cases of diphtheria are practically nonexistent (Achievements, 1999).  
The prevention of illness, and the resultant improvement in lifestyle due to vaccines can hardly be contradicted.  Unfortunately, there is a current trend by some to move away from vaccines.  These individuals believe that vaccines given to young children are the cause of the increase in autism that is occurring in this country.  The basis for this belief is a report published in 1998 by a British doctor named Dr. Andrew Wakefield where 12 cases of autism were linked to the MMR (mumps, measles, and rubella) vaccine (Snyderman, 2011).  Since the publication of this study, the journal has retracted the work, it has been proven the research was faked for monetary gain, the England General Medical Council has revoked Dr. Wakefield’s medical license, and numerous studies involving upwards of 2 million children have found no link between vaccines and autism (Snyderman, 2011 and Thomson, 2010).  However, critics toward vaccines have continued to refuse to vaccinate their children for fear of autism.  As a result, measles and whooping cough are on the rise once again.  Beginning in 2008, measles cases began to be reported into the hundreds and, in 2010, California experienced its worst outbreak of whooping cough since 1955 with 4,000 cases and nine deaths (FAQ, 2011 and Thomson, 2010).  In defense of vaccines and in response to this growing problem, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, a woman with a severely autistic niece and an autistic son, believes that the rise in autism diagnosis has occurred, in part, due to an expansion in the parameters of what is considered autism.  Furthermore, she states:
I want to say to everyone, you’re entitled to your opinion.  I know the pain of autism.  But you’re not entitled to your own science.  This is where we have to stand back and trust the concrete science.  There is not a conspiracy here. (Snyderman, 2011)

            Technology has been present in our society since the dawn of time.  While some, according to Neil Postman’s position, may be created to sequester the masses, favor the elite, and cause more harm than good, I believe that there are technologies present that primarily provide immense advantage to the masses.  In presenting dwarf wheat and vaccines, I have attempted to show two such technologies that, although containing some fault and detractors, overall have immense benefit to billions of people.  In this sense, the masses are not the losers.  While the elite, the winners in Postman’s view, may receive some monetary benefit from these billions of people, I would argue that their benefit is secondary or tertiary to the widespread good of the average individual.  To Postman, I would finally say, these technologies cannot be to the benefit of the elite simply because they do not number into the billions.

Achievements in public health, 1900-1999 impact of vaccines universally recommended for children – united states, 1990 – 1998 (1999).  Retrieved on January 18, 2011 from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00056803.htm
FAQ: resurgence of measles in the united states (2011).  Retrieved on January 16, 2011 from http://www.childrenshospital.org/clinicalservices/Site1884/printerfriendlypageS1884P13.html
Postman, N.  (1998, March).  Five things we need to know about technological change.  Paper presented in Denver, CO. 
Singh, S. (2005).  Norman borlaug: a billion lives saved.  Retrieved on January 16, 2011 from http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech-info/topics/borlaug/special.html
Snyderman, N. (2011).  Autism-vaccine fraud leaves a lot of mistrust to mop up.  Retrieved on January 16, 2011 from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/cleanprint/CleanPrintProxy.aspx?1295121056794
Thomson, B (2010). As I see it: vaccination saves lives.  Retrieved on January 16, 2011 from http://www.gazettetimes.com/news/opinion/columnists/article_30a1371e-f7a0-11df-b69e-001cc4c002e0.html?print=1
Thurlow, C., Lengel, L., and Tomic, A. (2009).  Computer mediated communication.  London: Sage Publications Ltd.