Technology – Friend, or Foe? 
April 2024, Island Voices

Technology – Friend, or Foe? 

By Michael Shook

The question came to mind because we bought an electric car. Well, a partially electric car, a plug-in hybrid. It feels like a tank compared to our 16 year-old Subaru, but nonetheless drives very nicely, and is quiet as can be, even when the gas/hybrid motor kicks in. 

The Subaru was doing just fine, and, since we rarely go anywhere off-Island, it has quite low miles. But, we’ve been talking for several years now about getting something electric, and it seemed like the time was right, a good move to make, for a couple of reasons.

First, there’s the advantage of the hybrid gas engine, so we’re not dependent on charging stations on those occasions when we do venture out into the wide world. And second, since it has a range of about 40 miles on a charge, we can do about 98% of our driving silently whooshing about the island on electricity (almost silently – it makes a weird sort of ringing sound at low speeds, like something from old “Star Trek” reruns). 

And then, about a week after we’d bought the thing, I read an article in the Seattle Times, which spoke to the growing need for electricity, much of which is fueled by … sigh … electric vehicles. Of course, electrical demand is also being driven by the insanity or stupidity, or both, of schemes like “Bitcoin,” along with our compulsion to buy and use electric gadgets of every kind imaginable (and some unimaginable). These range from remote alarm systems (because crime is so rampant within the neighborhoods of people who can afford to buy alarm systems), along with thousands of idiotic games one can play on one’s stupidphone – sorry, “smartphone” – though a phone that diminishes brain function hardly seems to me to be smart.

And speaking of stupid, do we really need refrigerators that link to our phones, so we can check to see if there’s milk, and is it still fresh, while we sit in our cars in the parking lot that is our freeway system? 

But I digress. 

So, technology. And again, I ask … friend, or foe? 

Friend, I suppose, since it allows us to do a great many cool things. Like this. Typing by electric light on an electric keyboard, which makes editing and rewriting a breeze. It beats the heck out of scratching away with a quill, by candlelight.

I wince, though, to consider that, in a rather unfortunate turn, the words typed will go to “the cloud,” which, of course, is not a cloud at all, but a series of massive collections of servers – electrical storage units the size of football fields, that use staggering amounts of electricity. These in turn are backed up by rows of diesel generators, there to provide more electricity in case there is an energy catastrophe. Not very green, but I suppose it’s reassuring to know the pictures that people snap relentlessly, look at a couple of times, and then store in said cloud, never to be seen again, will be saved for eternity. Or at least until the servers burn up, the juice runs out, or the 856th trillionth picture or TikTok video is posted.  

So, perhaps foe. Foe, since to generate some of the immense amount of electricity we need to make all this technology work, we have dammed up just about every river there is in the lower 48, and thereby killed off salmon, trout, and numerous other fishes, not to mention the creatures that feed on them, while turning the rivers into something that resembles a series of very slow-moving ponds.

And let’s not kid ourselves. The dams are not going away. They make too much juice, and every bit of that juice will be needed to help provide the estimated tripling of power we will use by 2050, according to some industry analysts. It is a marvel of cognitive juggling that we carry on with the fantasy that somehow this is “green” energy. When the true cost to the environment is calculated, dams are about as green as a coal-fired plant. 

Sadly, much the same could be said about our new plug-in hybrid electric car. We are already trashing new places on the planet, and exploiting many of its brown-skinned people in new ways, to mine lithium, cobalt, and other rare-earth minerals for our computers, phones, and yes, cars. Not good. Of course, we can and will improve on that, but it will be a fight. As humans, we are loathe to pay upfront for our conveniences. Witness the outrage over the carbon tax that jacked up gas prices last year. 

Still, on a more uplifting personal note, we have a solar panel array, which generates about 35% more electricity in a year than we use, so that’s some comfort. And, also in the Times, it was reported that the total cost to the environment in emissions works out to about half of what a fossil fuel-only vehicle creates (pleasantly surprising to learn was that that includes the mining, manufacturing, and eventual disposal/recycling of the vehicle – huzzah!). This, too, is comforting.

Obviously, it’s silly of me to pose the question in the first place. Technology is just technology, and if there’s a fly in the ointment, it is the same fly it’s always been – humans. We’re still learning how to manage this onslaught of new technology, and in the short term, it’s proving to be more than a little challenging. Nevertheless, history shows that we will, eventually, pull the wagons around so as to head in a good direction. I’m confident we will do so again, even as I wish it to be sooner, rather than later.  

April 8, 2024

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