Innovation: A Double-edged Sword

We humans have been the most successful animals on earth. We’ve accomplished this by changing the environment to suit our needs instead of always adapting ourselves to fit the environment. We use tools, we invent, and we solve problems. Of course, many other species use crude tools, but none have done anything like inventing computers, space travel, or pizza as we have.

Innovation is not without unexpected consequences. No one predicted that the drug thalidomide, often prescribed for morning sickness, would lead to thousands of congenital disabilities. The drug had not been evaluated for safety in pregnant women since that wasn’t legally required. This tragedy led to stricter laws governing the testing and approval of drugs in many countries, so we can also learn from our mistakes.

DDT, a once popular pesticide, is another interesting example. During my lifetime, I’ve always heard about the impact of this chemical on the environment. The bald eagle, the symbol of the US, was almost driven to extinction because of DDT. Since DDT was banned for agricultural use in the US in 1972, the bald eagle has made an amazing comeback and can often be spotted along rivers and streams in many areas of the country. One problem with DDT is that it is fat soluble, so that it accumulates in the bodies of animals, like fish, that accidentally ingest it. The animals at the top of the food chain, such as predator birds – and us! – get exposed to it through the food we eat. It is thought to be toxic in humans, but we also need to protect beneficial insects that are affected by this chemical. There are many reasons to ban its use.

What I didn’t realise, however, is that DDT is responsible for saving the lives of millions of people. DDT helped eradicate malaria in the US and Europe, where it was once endemic. Today, malaria is seen in these regions only when travellers carry it back from tropical areas where it is still a big problem.

While these two examples represent good intentions which had unintended consequences, sometimes innovation can be used purposely for evil as well as for good. Take social media, for example. People’s lives have been changed for the better as they reconnect with long lost friends or keep up with family. On the other hand, it’s easy to spread misinformation on platforms like Facebook or Twitter that can affect what people believe and how they vote. The anonymous nature of these services enables bullying and trolling, which can devastate lives. Moreover, no one is keeping these platforms from misusing information they collect on their members as the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal taught us.

The smartphone is another innovation that many of us can’t live without. Some people have replaced home computers with these portable devices, and use them as navigators, cameras, readers, and more. (It’s also possible to make a phone call on them!) The problem is that we have traded privacy for convenience. A recent Washington Post article talked about how iPhones start transmitting data to third parties as soon as they are plugged in at night.

Because we are driven solve problems, innovation is not going to stop. We do, however, need to understand the consequences of what we create.


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