Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why Can't We Just Turn Off The Light Ourselves?

Image: Evgeny Morozov
I went to a talk by Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov) last night who is on a tour promoting his new book To Save Everything, Click Here.  It was an excellent conversation and one key takeaway from it for me was that the blind reliance on technology to solve many of our difficult social problems may be a futile.  Evgeny made the point that technology often emerges to solve a problem before the root cause is understood and that the proposed fix may create unintended consequences in addition to failing to remedy the original problem in the first place.  He even made the point that we may be trying to use technology to solve problems which really aren't problems at all.

Energy issues are attracting our attention these days and with that attention comes creative ideas for new businesses, products, and services.  Almost any new energy product assumes a need for cleaner operation or greater efficiency with a reduced need for finite energy inputs.  I buy into this to a large degree and enjoy seeing new technologies like smart sensors and distributed renewable generation systems pop up on a daily basis.  But as Evgeny discussed, disconnecting human consideration from the end result, no matter how well-intended, opens us up to downside risks.
Enlighted light sensor
The simplification and automation of energy saving in the way that companies like Enlighted are doing is exciting in many ways.  I wonder if we really need technological tools to do things like turning off lights when we don't need them on though.  Automated lighting controls address a situation where lights are left on at a constant luminosity all the time.  Why do we have so many applications where we are obviously wasting energy like this?  Even with automated lighting controls, energy is wasted if the lightening doesn't provide real -time value to building occupants.  

An additional unsettling aspect of the reliance on technology to automate the management of energy might be a decrease in our understanding of how energy systems work.  In past generations, we understood, appreciated and respected energy use more because how we harnessed energy was more simple and more labor oriented than it is today.  We were physically involved with carrying water, splitting firewood or turning soil for farming.  People were hyper-aware of wasted energy because it was their own physical effort.  Technology now separates us from energy production so much so that most people don't comprehend the vast network of people and products that keep our lights on everyday.  Further automation will lead to even less respect for energy resources and arguably cause more energy consumption paradoxically
The speed of technological change is outpacing our capacity to consider the impact these of technologies and discuss with our communities the range of impacts they will have on us in the future.  In many ways, life is so much better today than it was yesterday and we should appreciate this.  We also need to maintain the essence of our humanity, part of which is the innate curiosity that created the technology that we see today.  Blind acceptance of new technology may end up stifling the spirit of innovation which spawned it and make us no better off than we were before.

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