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Boston Colloquium for Philosophy of Science conference, Thomas Reid and the Sciences, Friday, October 10, The Castle

Week of 3 October 2003· Vol. VII, No. 6

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Pardee Center lectures focus on twin forces of technology

By Tim Stoddard

Paul Streeten


Paul Streeten


The Manhattan Project scientists who first split the atom over the New Mexico desert witnessed the awesome destructive power of human ingenuity. Technological innovations have often been corrupted in ways that have haunted their creators. Paul Streeten, a visiting professor of future studies at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, will address technology’s double-edged sword in two lectures, entitled Technological Nightmares, on Tuesday, October 7, and Tuesday, October 14, each at 6 p.m., in the SMG Auditorium.

In the first lecture, Streeten, a CAS professor emeritus of economics, will examine the ways that technological progress can lead to unintended consequences. “Science may suggest that we have a solution to every problem,” he says. “But history has shown us that there is at least one new problem to every solution. Should Prometheus be restrained? Should one contain technological progress, or can it be contained at all?”

Streeten has seen firsthand how technology can benefit and hurt humanity. He is the founding chairman of the editorial board of World Development, a monthly journal exploring ways of improving standards of living and problems such as poverty, disease, lack of shelter, environmental degradation, and inadequate scientific and technological resources. As a consultant to the United Nations Development Program, he has been integral in guiding U.N. efforts to eliminate poverty in developing countries. “He was also one of the first people to define the term human development, which was something he did while he was here at BU,” says Cutler Cleveland, a CAS geography professor and director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. Human development, he explains, is the broad discipline that encompasses the economic, environmental, and social elements of the human condition.

Throughout his career, Streeten has worked with several U.N. bodies, including the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Historian David Fromkin, a CAS professor of international relations and the director of the Pardee Center, notes that Streeten’s experience has given him a broad perspective on human development. “Throughout his long and productive life, Professor Streeten has been among the leading figures — perhaps the leading figure — in the field of economic development. He is recognized as such by the United Nations and the World Bank, so it’s clear that international institutions see him as a giant in this field.”

In his October 14 lecture, Streeten will examine six technological nightmares in detail. The promise and pitfalls of genetic engineering will be at the top of the list, along with issues of electronic privacy. Too, information technology, with all it’s done for business and science and academia, may set in motion a kind of cultural dislocation, Streeten says, “leaving one piece of society — the unskilled and computer-illiterate — evicted.” More likely, however, are the nightmare scenarios Streeten calls “cyberterror and cybererror.” Both involve Y2K-like doom, the first resulting from terrorists crippling electronic communication, the latter from an unintentional system-wide failure such as the recent East Coast blackout.

Nuclear technology will be another issue on point, as Streeten discusses various “atom-bomb-in-the-suitcase” scenarios. And going down to even smaller Pandora’s boxes, he will present what he calls the Final Experiment: the pioneering work in nanotechnology that could possibly lead to the end of the world.

For its annual Distinguished Lecture Series, Fromkin says, the Pardee Center seeks individuals of world stature who have the ability to transcend narrow academic boundaries. “We’re looking for speakers with genuine vision who use a multidisciplinary, big-picture approach to the future,” he says.

Paul Streeten will be on campus from October 6 to 17. For information on his office hours during that time, contact pardee@bu.edu.


3 October 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations