Since the start of the Industrial Revolution 150 years ago technology has brought many material objects as well as the security, health, leisure time, and education to enjoy these objects. If the fruits of Watt's steam engine can be summed up in a word, it is choice. People in the developed countries now have the freedom to select careers, mates, family size, personal possessions, and travel horizons. Hair transplants and breast enlargements let us chose our personal appearance. Would you prefer a busy international city like New York? Maybe a quiet rural community in Iowa? No problem. Towns in the Great Plains are practically giving away houses to families who want to move there.

Most of the dissatisfaction with technology today, in fact, is caused by technological limits, which prevent us from combining our choices in ways never imagined in the past. We have not quite figured out (and maybe never will) how to combine the stimulation and opportunities of New York with the pure air and sense of community that small town Iowa has. Hydroelectric stations can produce inexpensive electricity, but we also want undisturbed rivers to enjoy on vacations. Satisfying such combinations of desires has, quite rightly, always driven technology. In the early 19th century rural workers flocked to Manchester and other English industrial cities (described by contemporaries as "visions of hell") for steady wages and better opportunities in spite of the back breaking labor and smoky, unhealthy conditions. Although progress is still needed, technology has improved the environment in cities so that the choices for workers today are not nearly so stark.

What could be better than these choices? And if history is any lesson, we can be sure that technology will expand these choices in the future. It is my thesis, however, that such freedom has put an unexpected strain on mankind and even forced us to make choices that we do not want and maybe should not make.


There is no shortage of books telling what happened in the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. For the overwhelming majority of people, however, the most significant fact is that nothing happened. It is almost impossible for us imagine that for 50 generations life in rural communities (and 95% of people lived in rural villages) did not change in significant ways. The occasional war, plague, or crop failure was all that distinguished one century from another. Women worked in the fields and raised children while men did what their fathers had done in the village where they were born. The sense of distance and geography was so limited that when life was disrupted by the occasional war, a soldier might be 20 miles from his village and never find it because no one knew anything more than the next village a day's walk away. Highwaymen and wild animals made it too dangerous to travel farther. Even the path they walked was very likely a Neolithic trail from thousands of years past.

When you did have a new idea, which was rare enough since just staying alive required all your energies, it was best to keep the idea to yourself. Any modern engineer knows that for every good idea they're a dozen bad ones, and the margin for error was too slim to try out ideas that probably would not work. In any case, new ideas might challenge the existing religious and power relationships and could cause problems regardless of their technical worth. A good example of this is the cross bow which was outlawed (not very effectively) in England as unchivalrous. The actual reason it was outlawed was that it permitted a poor peasant to kill an armored knight.

Obviously, in such a world choices were few. People ate the food that had always been grown locally, wore the clothes their parents did, went into the family profession, married one of the few locally available men or women, and had the same religious faith as everyone else in the community. Personal possessions were limited to the absolute necessities. Women were barren, or children were born and lived or were born and died according to some unknowable fate, and there was nothing to be done about it. It was not that choices were very limited; it was that the idea of choice did not even exist.


At last the world began to change in the 16th century. Cities grew. Trade in goods and ideas expanded. The New World was explored. The Protestant Revolt took place and Galileo and later Newton finally figured out what force, velocity, and acceleration were. Change was slow--Galileo was threatened with torture for suggesting that the earth revolves around the sun--but change was happening and choice started to become a possibility. Cities were so pestilential that people died often enough that there was always room for more immigrants from the countryside. Thousands went to the New World and new lives. Although literacy was still rare, books became available and with them wider horizons.

Choice, however, did not really expand to the masses until the Industrial Revolution around 1750 when Newcomen and Watt developed a practical steam engine. Suddenly (at least by the glacial standards of the last millenium) the chemical power stored in wood and coal was available to enormously expand man's capabilities. Factories run by the new power source developed, and workers gathered in large cities where there were no centuries old traditions to limit choices. The terrible wages and working conditions of the early Industrial Revolution were born by millions of workers first in Europe and later in the United States in exchange for the freedom and possibilities that the new technology brought. The same process is taking place in developing countries today. The "megacities" of Latin America, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, and Buenos Aires, as well as cities such as Lagos in Nigeria are filling beyond capacity with rural workers seeking the choices that are denied them in the non-industrial countryside.

The steam engine was made mobile and railroads came into existence in the 1840's. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of such an unglamorous vehicle as the steam locomotive. Until their invention it was impossible to move heavy goods except by water, and large populations could only exist on rivers or coasts. An interesting example of this transportation problem was perhaps the greatest crisis of George Washington's presidency--the Whiskey Rebellion. Congress had imposed a tax on distilled spirits and the farmers of the then frontier territory of western Pennsylvania rebelled because transporting their corn to the cities of the east coast by ox cart was too expensive. The farmers preferred to concentrate their corn into distilled whiskey and save transport costs. Had their rebellion succeeded and the western part of the United States formed another country, our history would be very different.

In the industrialized world today, nearly everything about our lives is open for selection. "You can be anything you want to be" is the mantra of every high school guidance councilor. Nearly every city in the country has a public college or university with a complete selection of courses to prepare for whatever career you choose. If your interests or career goals are unusual enough, most colleges even have a Directed Studies Program that allows you to shape course work to your individual desires.
The choice of food is independent of season. Fresh fruit is available year round, and in any most cities, the list of restaurants represents a decent subset of the United Nations. I recently counted seven different kinds of olive oil at my rather unchic local grocery store. Several brands of water are even available. Electricity markets are being deregulated, and you can buy your kilowatts from nuclear, fossil fuel, or renewable generating plants.

The number and variety of consumer goods is so large that billions of dollars are spent annually in advertising trying to attract our attention to them. Some stores, having already covered the walls, have resorted to putting advertisements on the floors, and even upscale restaurants place advertisements over the urinals so it is almost impossible not to read them.

If the man or woman next door is not to your liking, the Internet lets you shop the world for possible mates, presorted by height, weight and smoking habits. Hormones and surgery even let us choose our sex if we are not happy with our present one.

Until the Industrial Revolution millions had died in the west over religion. Today, in the industrialized countries your choice of religion is just another decision like Pepsi or Coke. Bertrand Russell, the English mathematician and philosopher, tells an amusing story about how unimportant religion is to most people. When he was entering prison during World War I for being a conscientious objector, he was asked, among other questions, what his religion was. After helping the guard to spell "agnostic", the guard told him, "I guess it doesn't really matter what you call Him, its all one God."


Restricting our choices in any major way is, of course, unthinkable. Every young person could write on slips of paper every profession he can imagine and draw one at random, but I doubt if anyone has ever chosen his life work this way. This freedom, however, is only a couple of hundred years old and seems to be expanding with a Moore's Law kind of inevitability. Choice is only the thinnest of veneers on our 20,000 years of physical and societal evolution, and it is quite reasonable to ask whether all these choices really make us happy--which, of course, has to be our ultimate goal. The existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (although almost certainly not thinking about technology) said that we are "condemned to be free" because, like it or not, we must make choices about our lives without guidance. Every parenting manual tells us that children need and enjoy structure. It would be very odd indeed if at age eighteen, we suddenly did not need any structure whatsoever. Colleges no longer even discuss their four year graduation rate. It is the six-year rate that is important. Maybe young people are bewildered by the choices of the real world after college and are not sure what to do. Maybe they are just hesitant to leave the structure that college provides.
Early pregnancy, marriages, and large mortgages seem to be enduring phenomena that all limit our choices. Maybe we are happiest that way. In any case, it is for the sociologists not the engineers to give guidance about how much and what kind of structure we need, but it seems certain that technology has given us more choices than we can take advantage of.

Technology, however, has forced another class of less personal choices on us that may be equally unwelcome. Let us examine some of these difficult and unwanted choices.

We now have to answer questions like "What is a living creature?". The great mathematician Alan Turing proposed a famous test for an "intelligent computer". His test goes as follows: Suppose a computer with a suitable program is in a closed room and a person is in another closed room. The person cannot see the computer and can only communicate using a keyboard. The person is entitled to ask any questions he or she wants and the computer will answer. According to Turing's criteria, if the person is unable to determine whether the computer is in fact a computer rather than a person, we should say that the computer is intelligent. There are those who dispute the validity of this test for determining intelligence. For example, if the room had a man pretending to be a woman and he was able to fool the person asking questions, no one would say that the man is now a woman.

Nevertheless, the test is certainly a good starting point for discussing what is intelligence. If such a computer can be made, and it seems very likely that it will, is it wrong to kill this "intelligence" by destroying the computer? Most people would say it is not wrong, but then we have not come into contact with such computers yet. Children become very attached to their electronic pets, and maybe adults will become similarly attached to a computer who is always there to listen to their problems, cheer them up, and give good advice. People have ended marriages based on nothing more than keyboard conversations over the Internet with people whose sex they are not even certain of.

Sacrificing some lives so that others may live or prosper is nothing new. Midwives have had to make the regrettable choice (fortunately, less often with modern medicine) between the life of a mother and the life of an unborn child, and generals send soldiers into battle knowing many will die. Every construction engineer knows how many construction workers will be lost per story of a skyscraper. These choices are made by professionals, and one of the reasons that we respect their profession is that they make these hard choices and their choices are usually wise. Today, however, we have better information about many aspects of society and are able to reduce choices to straightforward monetary transactions. For example, the United States government has recently tried to decide how much arsenic in drinking water is allowable. Cutting the present standards to 5 PPM will save many lives but at an estimated cost of seven to fifty million dollars per life. This seems rather expensive especially since we do not know whose life we are saving. We will probably be saving the lives of a couple of serial killers each decade. Maybe we should choose to spend the money saving the lives of mothers with small children--if, of course, they are good mothers. If you earn enough money, you can purchase bottled water. Should such people be able to help decide on a standard that will not affect their health but will affect their disposable income? I am not sure people really want to make these sorts of decisions and will probably force some bureaucrat to make the decision and avoid the whole issue.

Most people oppose using human embryos to obtain stem cells that can grow into replacement cells for any organ in the body. The principle of horizontal versus vertical medicine comes into play in this situation, however. When we are vertical, health care costs need to be controlled. When we are horizontal in a hospital, the need to control health costs is less compelling. If your child needs heart cells derived from embryonic stem cells to see his fifth birthday, using such stem cells may not seem so wrong. Actually, the situation is even more complicated. Recent studies have shown that in mice stem cells can be obtained by transforming ordinary skin cells. This technique will certainly be extended to human beings, and most people would say that harvesting skin cells for such a useful item as stem cells is acceptable. However, technically one step in the stage of changing ordinary cells into stem cells is making embryos out of them. Will such artificial embryos be acceptable for medicinal use?

Our clever biochemists have presented us with another difficult choice in the drug Thalidomide. During the late 1950's Thalidomide was widely prescribed in as a sedative for pregnant woman. It was soon discovered that the drug is teratogenic and children born after their mothers took the drug had terrible deformities. Only through the vigilance of Frances Kelsey of the Food and Drug Administration was the drug kept off the market in the United States, and Dr. Kelsey was justifiably considered a heroin. Recently, however, other more significant uses have been found for Thalidomide, including treating cancer and a rare form of leprosy, and it has been reintroduced into the prescription drug market. The FDA has specified unprecedented safeguards for its use, but it is clearly only a matter of time before a pregnant woman will take the drug by accident and bear a deformed child. The utilitarian argument can always be made that introducing the drug than will be harmed by it will save more lives, but I doubt if anyone will be eager to explain this to the deformed people born as a result of the drug.

For various reasons society has decided that citizens as a whole should help decide on large public ventures such as power plants and pipelines. The choice between a fossil fuel fired plant and a nuclear plant, cost aside, offers very interesting choices. Both alternatives have relatively well understood near term disadvantages. Fossil fuel plants emit chemical pollutants with a known health cost in terms of respiratory diseases that are sometimes fatal. Nuclear plants have an unlikely but possible worst-case failure mode that involves a core meltdown and hundreds of lives lost. These are short-term disadvantages that the people who build the plants must bear and if a wrong decision is made, the people who made the decision will suffer. Both plants, however, also have long term disadvantages lasting over hundreds or thousands of years. . Fossil fuel plants emit CO2 that may have an effect on climate over the next century. On the other hand, nuclear power plants emit no CO2 but produce spent radioactive fuel that will be dangerous for millennia unless properly isolated. Neither of these long term effects are well understood and are the subject of intensive research. Nevertheless, decisions must be made today or the United States will face widespread power problems similar to the problems encountered in California in 2001. What makes this class of disadvantages particularly troublesome is that the consequences of the decision will not be born by the people who make the choice today and probably not even by their grandchildren. Rather the decision must be made between a cheap (let us say) non-polluting nuclear plant that may harm people in three hundred years if radioactivity leaks from a disposal site or a more expensive polluting fossil fuel plant that will not explode but may raise global temperatures to harmful levels in a few hundred years. Amidst all the fog of technological uncertainty, how much do we owe to future generations a thousand years from now? We cannot sacrifice everything for them or neither their lives nor ours will be very full, but then we certainly must bear in mind their well-being to some extent.

We have thus seen that technology has given us personal choices undreamed of a few hundred years ago. Almost everything is up for selection. I sometimes feel like the famous donkey that was equally distant from two piles of hay. The poor donkey starved to death because he could not decide which pile to eat. But in addition, many other societal choices are being forced on us. We must decide what is life and how much it is worth. We must choose between risking the lives and wellbeing of our children or of our descendents hundreds of years in the future. Nevertheless, it is making choices that makes us human, and unless we bravely and confidently make these choices, what is the purpose of life anyway?