6.1 Technology and Risk

Man does not seem to be any more intelligent today than he was at the start of recorded history thousands of years ago. Today we obviously understand our world better, and we have have much better stuff than our ancestors did, but the percentage of people in the world capable of writing great literature, creating great pieces of art, and thinking great thoughts seems to be about the same. Our tremendous technological advances have come from building on the work done by those who came before us. One difference between our ancestors and us is our understanding of the dangers inherent in life. 

Not long ago, many of the activities of daily living were quite risky. One of my Great Grandfathers was a school teacher, school principal, and a successful attorney. In L.T Herman’s time even successful men had to carry their own firewood to heat their houses. On one occasion he got a splinter in his arm that became infected. There were no antibiotics and he nearly lost his arm. Life was dangerous back then and it remains so today. Our technology and health care is much, much better, but life remains risky. My Great Grandfather knew that, but many people today seem to think our technological advancements mean that we have little personal responsibility for our own safety.  

Recently I read an article about airbags in which the author expressed his horror at the fact that the manufacturers’ knew that some automobile air bags would fail. The author also seemed shocked that the auto companies set-up funds to pay for legal judgements if someone were injured or died as a result of those failures. This reporter was, in effect, accusing these companies of callously knowing about a problem and letting people die anyway. What he was missing is that life remains risky. Lots of bad things can happen when a car collides with something at speed–even with all of the latest safety gear. The auto companies must plan for the risks involved in putting what is basically a bomb in dash of every car on the road. The companies do not want to kill their customers–after all, dead people make very poor customers, but they have to plan for the possible failures. This is especially problematic because customer demand and technological brilliance did not drive the inclusion of air bags in every car sold. Instead, the government dictated that passive restraint devices had to be installed in all cars, and the best passive device invented to date is the airbag. No one asked the consumer if they wanted to pay for airbags, or explained the risks involved in having or not having airbags. Personally, I think I would feel quite safe in a car without airbags that had excellent seats, properly designed crush zones, headrests, padded areas around my head, and manual 4-point harnesses. I do not know if I would feel more safe in an airbag equipped car, but I would rather have the opportunity to decide for myself how much to spend and how much risk I am willing to accept. 

We certainly know a lot more than the people of my Great Grandfather’s day, but we would do well to remember that our safety is ultimately our own personal responsibility. We are all at 100% risk of dying some day. Instead of thinking that somehow the world should be risk free, we should be rejoicing in all of the technological marvels that make our lives better than at any time in history. 

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