But can one accept the forgoing? It is surely unpersuasive given the apparently enormous number of cases in which technology appears to be a manifest cause of social problems. A litany of cases comes to mind. For instance, arguably the major issue facing the world today is environmental damage, notably global warming and the associated climatic shifts and potentially catastrophic floods that will accompany this. Profligate use of gasoline, inappropriate use of solid fuels, and CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) are some of the causes of this predicament. As sobering is the issue of nuclear power, the disposal of the waste from which is extraordinarily complex, time dependent, and risky.
Following the disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, no one will need much reminding of the social problems emanating from nuclear power production. Again, consider the issue of nvCJD (new variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, a neurological condition for which there is no cure), which has killed scores of humans in recent years and has been linked to their eating cattle contaminated by BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) during the 1980s and 1990s in Europe. The cause of BSE has been traced to the technology of feeding cattle with the remains of other animals, surely another instance where technology creates social problems.
Moreover, technologies can appear advantageous to some but may cause social problems for others. For example, if a new technology is introduced into the workplace and this requires fewer employees than before, then social problems—unemployment, anxiety, and dislocation—are clearly imposed on some even if the majority is beneficiaries. Indeed, one could go further to suggest that many workplace technologies have resulted in a decline in the autonomy of those who must work with them—machine pacing and intrusive monitoring of performance are some of the maladies frequently complained about by those who work in factories and indeed many offices. Such practices lead to stress, industrial injuries, alienation, and anomie, and the deleterious effects of increased technology in workplaces may outweigh the positive increases in efficiency and production, particularly if a long-term view is taken.
It helps understanding the role of technologies in creating social problems by distinguishing between anticipated and unanticipated consequences of their development. An anticipated social problem might involve the introduction of a technology that leads to there being less work available. For example, the spread of computerization in the newspaper industry led to the demise of the established printer. The technology here contributed to a social problem that might have been addressed in various ways (retraining, early retirements, freeze on new recruitment, etc.), but it is evident that the problem was foreseen by many commentators.
An unanticipated consequence is one where the introduction of the technology produces an effect far away from the intended sphere of influence. For example, the development of modern birth control technologies had an intended consequence in allowing women to control reproduction and was effective in allowing people to choose when and how many children to have. However, few would have expected that a problem would later emerge in Western Europe of a decline in the younger elements of the population, which exacerbates a serious problem of long-term care of the older generation and, in the longer term, to problems of maintaining population levels.
Relatedly, medical technologies help lengthen the life span, and this is usually regarded as a very positive development. But an unanticipated consequence of greater longevity is major pressure on pension funds that were designed on a different actuarial basis. In addition, with more and more people living into and beyond their 80s and supported by improved medical technologies that keep them going, there comes the problem of providing the care they tend to require as they grow frail. With fewer people available in the younger generations and increased geographical spread, we face serious, but unexpected, difficulties posed by the prolongation of life.