Limits on Technology: Natural, Economic & Ethical

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.

Sometimes it seems technology can do anything, but it does have limits. Learn about the natural, economic, and ethical limits of technology. Then see how unlimited your knowledge is by taking a quiz.

What is Technology?

How obsessed with technology are you? Do you spend all day on the computer? Or can you safely say that technology isn't a big part of your life? Well, those of you who said the latter are wrong. If you're reading this lesson from a computer, it's fair to say that you have a relatively modern life. And any modern life is completely reliant on technology, even if you don't realize how.

Technology is everywhere these days
Technology is everywhere these days

The first clue is the meaning of the word technology. Technology is any use of scientific knowledge for practical purpose. So technology doesn't have to be electronic or super modern. If your home was built from nails, or painted any color, or has running water, or is heated or air-conditioned, or even if you grow vegetables, you are using technology. In fact, even if you live completely isolated in an indigenous tribe, your tribe probably uses basic technology. Some of the first examples of technology were tools like hammers and spears, and basic shelters. All of this is technology.

Even the wheel is an example of technology
Even the wheel is an example of technology

Limits on Technology

One look around you in a modern home and you'll see how incredibly reliant we are on technology. It's a safe bet that almost everything you can see around you right now is technology. When we live our lives engrossed in it, it is easy to think that it can do anything. But there are limits to technology. In this lesson were going to talk about some of those limits.

Three main types are natural limits, economic limits, and ethical limits. A limit can also be hard or soft. It could be that a limit really does describe something that is impossible to break (a hard limit), but sometimes limits are soft limits - they're limits based on the way human society runs and thinks, and they might not be limits in other circumstances.

Natural Limits

Natural limits are the hard limits - things that we physically cannot do with technology. Even then, no limit is conclusively a hard limit, because our understanding of the universe is changing all the time. It could turn out that what we think is impossible now is really possible. But it's fair to say that whatever the truth is, there will always be natural limits on what is possible in the universe.

For example, the laws of physics tell us that we cannot travel faster than the speed of light. So no matter what technology we come up with, we believe that no spaceship will ever be able to break that. Another kind of natural limit is a logical limit: something can't be true and untrue at the same time. For example there is no way for technology to allow us to use every inch of land on the earth and also protect every natural ecosystem. Technology can help us protect the environment by finding ways to achieve the same thing with fewer resources, but there's only so much it can do.

The speed of light (c) is the speed limit of the universe
The speed of light (c) is the speed limit of the universe

Economic Limits

Then there are economic limits. It's possible that certain things are within the reach of technology but are so expensive that they are completely impractical. For example, many of the most modern medicines that we have, from gene therapies, to stem cell treatments, to complex drugs, are astronomically expensive to research and produce. It's therefore possible that there are other drugs that would work, but that simply aren't economically feasible.

Of course economic limits can sometimes be temporary - just because something is affordable now, doesn't mean it will be so in the future. And there are certain ideas for avoiding the consequences of climate change, like removing carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, or putting a barrier between us and the sun large enough to reduce the energy we receive from it. However, these are too expensive to be worthwhile. For example, if living space on earth is a problem, we could terraform Mars to turn it into an earth-like environment over a period of a few centuries. However, as of right now, the cost would be completely impractical.

Artist impression of a terraformed Mars
Artist impression of a terraformed Mars

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