I was recently talking with some friends from Colorado when the topic of legalized marijuana came up. Since Illinois, where I live, is considering similar measures, we were talking about the benefits and consequences of Colorado’s shift.
We’ve all heard about “medical marijuana.” The biggest benefit to commend marijuana is that. In the name of health benefits and pain relief, marijuana advocates have made the case that it should be legalized for a certain, albeit narrow, portion of the population. It will improve their lives and relieve their pain, in some cases severe pain. And no one can really disagree with that. Nor do we need to. However, opponents of legalized marijuana, even if it’s for other reasons, end up looking like heartless brutes who have no compassion for chronic sufferers.
Add to this a second benefit: money. Apparently, by legalizing marijuana and taxing those sales, Colorado’s government has raked in the cash. This cash, they say, can be invested back into schools and roads and more. Who doesn’t want to improve their kids’ education? The benefits. How will Illinois ever resist? I submit, it will not.
Of course, then there’s the consequences. Most people will agree that legalizing pot will probably have some downsides to. However, what those consequences are and how severe is yet to be determined. In most people’s minds, it’s only a matter of time.
As my friends and I talked about this, I realized that marijuana and technology actually have quite a bit in common. In terms of money, the similarity is obvious. Just like the state of Colorado, companies and individuals stand to make a lot of money from the use and development of new technologies. That’s why Silicon Valley has the deepest pockets in the world. Technology can make them rich, and they’ll willingly pursue new opportunities to expand it. But technology is also like marijuana when it comes to health benefits.
Often times, new and extreme technologies are Trojaned in using the guise of healthcare. Take brain-computer interfaces, as an example. This is bleeding-edge technology, but also potentially world-changing.
How are tech companies justifying the development of BCIs? By using it for medical uses. They’re seeking to help paralyzed people function again. These people have had traumatic spinal cord injuries and BCIs offer them the opportunity to regain some level of mobility and independence. Just like marijuana in Colorado, technologies are promoting themselves as godsends for healthcare.
The next step, in all this, would be to point out that, just like marijuana, technology also has long-term, unforeseen consequences. But here, you’ll run into resistance. People will begin coming to technology’s defense.
Few people are willing to consider that technology could have potential downsides. They simply can’t imagine that a technology that helps paralyzed people could actually cause problems down the road. Besides, if the BCI will help people in need, the reasoning goes, then it’s worth the cost. For anyone willing to question this, marijuana’s “heartless brutes” become technology’s “Luddites.” In both cases, the public chooses the immediate and tangible benefits, while ignoring, or never considering, what the long-term and less visible consequences might be.
Sticking our heads in the sand when it comes to technology, though, isn’t a new approach. Take the keyboard, for example. Its predecessor, the typewriter, was first invented and promoted as a technology for deaf-mutes. Rasmus Malling-Hansen, a Danish minister and inventor in the mid-1800s, created the earliest working models typewriters. The invention “was meant to compensate for physiological deficiencies” (rosa B) . Of course, despite it’s noble intentions, the typewriter and keyboard rapidly expanded into the lives of people who had no such handicap at all.
The same dynamic is certainly true for marijuana, and may someday also be true for brain-computer interfaces. What kind of world will we live in when everyone uses them? The question is as crazy as the idea once was of every person having a computer. But today, not only do we have personal computers, but mobile devices that are always connected to the Internet. In the past decade, the world change has shifted before our eyes in astounding ways.
The point is that, like marijuana, technology certainly offers benefits. But we cannot let the benefits cause us to overlook or ignore the consequences. And like marijuana, technology’s negative consequences will not be as immediate or visible, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
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