uture holds for life on earth, barring some immense natural catastrophe, will be determined largely by the human species. The same intelligence that got us where we are—improving many aspects of human existence and introducing new risks into the world—is also our main resource for survival.
Technological and Social Systems Interact Strongly
Individual inventiveness is essential to technological innovation. Nonetheless, social and economic forces strongly influence what technologies will be undertaken, paid attention to, invested in, and used. Such decisions occur directly as a matter of government policy and indirectly as a consequence of the circumstances and values of a society at any particular time. In the United States, decisions about which technological options will prevail are influenced by many factors, such as consumer acceptance, patent laws, the availability of risk capital, the federal budget process, local and national regulations, media attention, economic competition, tax incentives, and scientific discoveries. The balance of such incentives and regulations usually bears differently on different technological systems, encouraging some and discouraging others.
Technology has strongly influenced the course of history and the nature of human society, and it continues to do so. The great revolutions in agricultural technology, for example, have probably had more influence on how people live than political revolutions; changes in sanitation and preventive medicine have contributed to the population explosion (and to its control); bows and arrows, gunpowder, and nuclear explosives have in their turn changed how war is waged; and the microprocessor is changing how people write, compute, bank, operate businesses, conduct research, and communicate with one another. Technology is largely responsible for such large-scale changes as the increased urbanization of society and the dramatically growing economic interdependence of communities worldwide.
Historically, some social theorists have believed that technological change (such as industrialization and mass production) causes social change, whereas others have believed that social change (such as political or religious changes) leads to technological change. However, it is clear that because of the web of connections between technological and other social systems, many influences act in both directions.
The Social System Imposes Some Restrictions on Openness in Technology
For the most part, the professional values of engineering are very similar to those of science, including the advantages seen in the open sharing of knowledge. Because of the economic value of technology, however, there are often constraints on the openness of science and engineering that are relevant to technological innovation. A large investment of time and money and considerable commercial risk are often required to develop a new technology and bring it to market. That investment might well be jeopardized if competitors had access to the new technology without making a similar investment, and hence companies are often reluctant to share…