Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Archive for the tag “plutonium”

Technology’s Fatal Flaw

Two ideas came to me last week and I struggled with them until I realized they were both the same idea, just expressed differently. For this post in Digital Minefield, it is expressed as “Technology’s Fatal Flaw.” For my post in Pelf and Weal, it is called “Gambler’s Paradise.”

Daily in the news we hear of technological failures. Only the problems are attributed to separate specific sources, like drones and abandoned mines. No one sees the risk-taking of technology as the common element.

It’s easier to blame technology, that is new technology, for society’s inability to control drones. It’s not so easy to see that exactly the same moral approach has lead to a quarter of a million abandoned mines here in the US.

Where do we draw the line between scientific experimentation and technological innovation? In the eighteenth century, chemists rushed to discover new elements. Often they did so by smelling the results of chemical reactions. It killed some of them.

Many, however, got rich. In England, the best were made peers of the realm. Most were not simply chemists but also inventors, lecturers, and famous authors. We remember the successful ones and forget the risks they took.

No one has forgotten the risks taken by Marie Curie. The radioactivity she discovered—and that killed her—made her famous in her lifetime (two Nobel prizes). We forget such risk-taking was the norm.

Most of the risk-taking in the days of get-rich-quick mining centered around success or failure. Less discussed were the actual physical dangers. Never mentioned were the costs to posterity.

This was true for the precursors of the chemists, the alchemists, so it remains true for their modern day atomic wizards. Society has committed to the risk of nuclear reactors without any viable solution for its extraordinarily dangerous waste product, plutonium—deadly for 25,000 years.

It is obvious that any new technology (and science) has always been ahead of laws to regulate it. By definition, if it’s really new, how could there be laws in place to deal with it? We have no answer, because we are technology’s fatal flaw.


Hoarding: An Economic Good?

In the eighties, after hours in an IBM office building, I noticed a few computers sitting in the hallways. I asked my host and was told they were headed for the dumpster. Getting new computers was necessary, but tossing useful machines seemed to me sacrilege. I asked, why not donate them to charity? I was told it was complicated company politics.

Waste, in some form or another, is an inherent part of our economy. Yet we are oblivious to the problem, even ignoring the planet’s accumulation of plutonium. This is insane. An unavoidable by-product of nuclear reactors, plutonium is deadly in the smallest amounts—for twenty-five thousand years!

When last week’s post suggested shooting garbage into the sun, it may have appeared impractical. But it’s the only safe place for deadly materials. Sending a payload into the sun is far easier and cheaper than putting a satellite into orbit: it merely needs to escape earth’s gravity. (Plus a little math to avoid Venus and Mercury.)

Last week’s post may have looked like exaggeration, but the truth is this economy is completely dependent on getting rid of the now-not-so-new. Have-nots cannot afford to keep buying the next used thing, which leaves disposal. Or not. Many hoarders are merely accumulators of the once new.

Unlike neophiles who buy because it’s new, I buy because I need. I bought my car in 2004 because of improved airbags. My batteries also last (recyclable), as do my lights (florescent). However, it’s time to replace this aging computer. The parts might be useful for a while, so it will join the four older machines still here. One man’s garbage is another man’s hoard.

Our economy simply cannot afford to shoot dead computers into the sun. Could we go hi-tech and separate the components into raw materials? Another expensive solution, We are locked into economic choices that send them to landfills to poison the earth. My old computers may look like junk or hoarding but they’re just waiting for the landfill.

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