Technological Nightmares (Lecture): Should Prometheus be Restrained

Series: Pardee Center Distinguished Lecture Series
Date: October 2003
Location: Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Boston University, Boston, MA

Should Prometheus be Restrained?

The motto of our times is “If it can be done, we should do it.” Yet we may ask ourselves whether we should try to halt or slow down or police technical change to avoid some of its dangers. If a country is dependent on international trade, it is necessary for it to be at the frontiers of technical knowledge. Defense is another imperative. But assume these two necessities are removed. Assume that we have a system of global control of arms. Would we then choose to halt or slow down the production of technical knowledge? Or is the Promethean instinct too strong? We apply cost-benefit analysis in other fields; why not here? Our progress can have a harmful impact on the exports of the developing countries. We could apply the Promethean instinct to beauty and artistic creation. Yet, there is much less money spent on the theater, on architecture, and on painting.

There are two questions: can technological progress be controlled? And should it be controlled? In spite of opinions to the contrary, it surely can. The current mood is against government control, but the speed and scope of technological development can surely be controlled. Even in the present mood, nuclear weapons and nuclear power, ballistic missiles, biological and chemical warfare agents, replacement of human body parts, and neuropharmacological drugs cannot be freely developed or traded internationally. They may call for international controls.

The US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which rendered useful services, was closed down in 1995. France and Holland have imitated such an agency, and Britain has rejected it.

There are three principal criteria for allocating resources to technological research: collective greed (trade), collective fear (arms), and collective pride (Nobel Prizes); but there are also more civilized criteria such as to relieve suffering, to maintain ecological balance, and to conduct basic research across the spectrum of human knowledge.

This is a chapter from Technological Nightmares (Lecture).
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Longer-Range, F. (2008). Technological Nightmares (Lecture): Should Prometheus be Restrained. Retrieved from


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