Paul Streeten on “Technological Nightmares, Part 2”

VIDEO: Distinguished Lecture Series

October 14, 2003

Paul Streeten, 2003–2004 Visiting Professor of Future Studies at the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, completes his two-part lecture on technological progress. In this second discussion, he poses a question to his audience: should we try to slow down technological progress? He gives reasons why we shouldn’t—international trade and military defense require up-to-speed technology, for example—but also lists reasons we should control technological progress.

First, he says, there is the concern of an “electronic nightmare.” This broaches the issue of privacy, something that often comes second to technological advancement. “Cameras the size of wasps,” tiny microphones tapping in from across the street—where does it end? Using the famous film Truman Show to illustrate his point, Streeten ponders the issue. The dilemma, he says, is that the same technologies that destroy privacy also make it easier to detect terrorists, fraud, and the like.

Next, Streeten discusses the sticky issue of genetic engineering, a concept he deems the “Frankenstein nightmare.” Should biotechnologists be allowed to experiment with the genetic structure of human beings? The benefits of genetic manipulation, longer lives and freedom from depression, among others, are more obvious than the costs, he says. For example, enhancing genes seems wonderful—who wouldn’t want a beautiful baby with a high IQ?—but it threatens equality. Only society’s elite would be able to afford this luxury.

Streeten digs deep into the issue of technological advancement, posing dozens of questions to his audience. What will the future be with a genetic-engineering society? What will life expectancy be in 2020? Is it OK to forgo civil liberties to prevent terrorism? Could terrorists learn how to compromise our water supply? Could they achieve a technological takeover of computers or telephones?

But the biggest question, he says, is how do we balance the low probability that these things will happen with the potential catastrophe if they do? Streeten is steadfast on one point: only time will tell. All we can do for now, he says, is weigh the costs and benefits of technological advancement and keep asking questions.

Video length is 01:06:00.

About the Speaker

Paul Streeten is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Boston University, and the founder of the Board of World Development, a consultant to the United Nations Development Program and to UNESCO.  His recent research has been on globalization, international interdependence, foreign investment, aid, trade, sustainable human development, culture, and development and social capital. Prof. Streeten’s previous UN positions include: Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Director of the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex, Deputy Director-General at the Ministry of Overseas Development, and Special Adviser to the World Bank.