How Technology Impacts Society & the Environment

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What is technology? And how has it changed society over the last couple of centuries? Discover how different our lives would be without technology, but also how the benefits come with harms to our environment.

What Is Technology?

It's hard to imagine life without technology. Cell phones, computers, televisions, washing machines, cars, and the Internet. They're just a part of life. The effects they've had on society are impossible to ignore. But before we get into that, we need to answer the question: what is technology?

Technology is any device or object that is an application of our scientific knowledge about the world that helps us complete a task or solve a problem. It doesn't have to be complicated - a shiny piece of metal becomes technology when you use it as a mirror. But it can also be staggeringly complex. Computers and cell phones are applications of quantum mechanical physics and mathematics that could give you a headache.

So when you realize that even the simplest device can be counted as technology, it's easy to see how truly altering technology has been for us. In this lesson we're going to take a look at how technology has impacted society and the environment.

How Technology Impacts Society

Pointing out technology in our lives is easy. We get up and flip a switch to turn on the lights. The lights are technology and so is the switch. The power plant that generated the electricity that powers the light is also technology. You make coffee using the technology of a coffee maker. You take a shower, and water that came from miles away pours over your body.

But how has all this really impacted society as a whole? What's the bigger picture?

Let's go back to your shower, which represent cleanliness. This is the cleanliness that didn't exist centuries ago, and barely existed one century ago. Add hygiene to medical technology, advanced pharmaceuticals, medical scanners, and machines that can breathe or beat your heart for you, and hopefully you see one major theme in how society has changed: no matter who you are, your health is bound to be hugely better than it would've been a century or two ago. Our expectations about life's longevity and what it means to be healthy are totally different now. Life expectancy across the world has been on the rise continually.

Medical technology has increased life expectancy dramatically
Medical technology has increased life expectancy dramatically

Another way society has changed is in terms of productivity. We take it for granted today, but the very idea that you don't have to grow your own food, you don't have to wash your own clothes by hand, and you can have any product you can imagine delivered to your door - these are conveniences that save us enormous amounts of time. On top of that, we have computers that can do calculations in mere minutes that would've taken a human years to complete. The productivity of the human race has expanded dramatically.

Smartphones are central to the lives of many people in the Western world
Smartphones are central to the lives of many people in the western world

One of the biggest technological advances that happened in human history was the advent of farming technology. When we learned how to farm the land, we began settling in one place and building cities. Farming technology continues to advance to this day, with modern genetics allowing us to produce crops that have traits that we want: from seedless grapes, to pest resistant crops, to crops that are cheaper to grow. These are collectively called genetically modified organisms (or GMOs).

Perhaps one of the most recent technologies that has completely changed society is the Internet. Thanks to the Internet, information is available to anyone with a connection. For those with access, there is no limit to what you can learn and discover. Although libraries have existed for a long time, the Internet is far quicker and more convenient. Access to free information, exchange of ideas, and connection to people all over the world will continue to shape our society and the coming century.

The Internet has changed society forever
The Internet has changed society forever

How Technology Impacts the Environment

While technology overall is cause to be optimistic - life expectancies are longer and people have more choices and more time to make use of those choices - there are also issues. People who spend all day working on a computer are never going to be as physically fit as those who toil in the fields to grow their own food. And perhaps the biggest negative of all is the impact on the environment.

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