In Our Opinion: Technology a double-edged sword

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    President Merrill J. Bateman and BYU’s vice president of information technology, Eric Denna, made an unusual presentation to the university community Tuesday on how technology is and will be affecting campus.

    There was an expected level of technology buzz-words and oblique acronyms to make the layman’s head ache. But there was also a surprising level of concern for the effect this technological onslaught is having on the people involved.

    Technology, as is often noted, always comes at a price. We may pay in money and resources like time and manpower, but we generally also wind up paying with people themselves. Some are left behind as the technocrats have less and less patience with those not attuned to the technology; others are stepped over or worked around as they are not financially or physically able to keep abreast. Still others slam headfirst into the technology and pay huge personal costs, even with their lives sometimes, while the concepts are still being refined and we are willing to take risks to take advantage of the advances.

    This week, 32 years ago, three American astronauts were burned to death in a space capsule as it was being put through some tests still on the ground. Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee paid the ultimate price for the space program continuing to use a too-rich oxygen atmosphere inside the capsules. Several scientists in the program had voiced concern, but it was not until the disaster that the mixture was changed.

    Another nightmare image of technology pushed too fast for its own good started right here in Utah, but ended in a horrifying explosion over Cape Kennedy in 1986. The entire crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, including Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian in space, was killed before the incredulous eyes of millions around the world. Why? Because the O-rings on the Solid Rocket Boosters, manufactured just a few miles north of Salt Lake City, would not hold up in freezing temperatures. Engineers at Morton Thiokol tried to warn of the danger, but from somewhere on the government side came a push to ignore the potential problem and launch anyway.

    People aren’t likely to die at BYU if the emerging technologies are rushed into place, but they certainly can suffer mentally and emotionally if their needs are not addressed. That is why the Tuesday meeting was encouraging. Both President Bateman and Denna voiced serious concern about the way additional technology will be brought to meet the humans who work, study and teach here. Committees originally designed to just address the mechanics of the process are now being complimented with mirror interest committees concerned with the people factors. And those committees are being staffed with people, not just technical wizards. If the university continues to be this concerned and involved, there will be good times ahead.

    On May 6, 1937, Herb Morrison, a radio announcer, watched as the mighty German airship Hindenburg exploded into flames and dozens of passengers and crew members plunged to their deaths. Trying to retain his composure but tell the story at the same time, Morrison struggled, but left us with a rallying cry as we surround our selves with more technology. “Oh, the humanity,” Morrison wept. Let’s hope this great institution keeps its eye on the humanity more than the technology.

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