Technologies die rather routinely-seen a Conestoga covered wagon lately?-but it’s rare for them to be singled out and righteously put to death. Some technologies, however, are so blatantly obnoxious that the human race would rejoice if they were obliterated. A wise society would honor its young technical innovators for services rendered in annihilating obsolete technologies that are the dangerous hangovers of previous, less advanced generations. Let me offer some candidates.1. Nuclear Weapons
One can make some sound arguments for nuclear power-medical radioisotopes are quite handy, while far-traveling spacecraft can barely function on anything less-but there is no reason for us to go on pretending that we need to fry entire chunks of continents. Not only are nuclear weapons technically clumsy, but they betray a blatant death wish better suited to al-Qaeda than a civilization.
Nowadays, a well-organized state can deftly obliterate any conceivable target with exquisite GPS accuracy. Conventional “daisy cutters” and cluster bombs can be scaled up to any size or potency that the military might need. This leaves nuclear bombs with only one ideal function: terrorism. They are excellent weapons for nongovernmental predators to deploy against centers of government. They are quite useless for governments to deploy against terrorists. So why are governments still manufacturing these expensive, dangerous, easily stolen objects?
If all nuclear weapons vanished tomorrow, the world’s current military situation would not be affected one whit. The U.S.A. would still be military top boss. Yet we’d be much less likely to wake up one morning to find Paris or Washington missing.
2. Coal-Based Power
Coal isn’t so much a “technology” as a whole school of them, all of them bad or worse. Coal was the primeval fuel of the industrial revolution. Coal powered the first steam engines, whose killer app was pumping stagnant water out of coal mines. It powered the railroads, whose killer app was moving coal.
Unfortunately, we’ve been doing this coal trick for some two hundred years now, and coal is getting uglier by the day. If your accountants rival Enron’s, you can claim that coal is a cheap fuel. Add in acid rain, climate damage, and medical costs, and it swiftly becomes dead obvious that coal is a menace. Coal spews more weather-wrecking pollutants into the air per unit of energy than any other fossil fuel. Extracting coal destroys vast tracts of land. Coal mining is one of the world’s most dangerous jobs.
If coal vanished tomorrow, we’d miss it: the U.S. would lose a quarter of its energy supplies. But that shortfall, daunting though it is, cannot compare to the ghastly prospect of blackened skies over China and seas rising out of their beds. The sooner we rid ourselves of this destructive addiction, the less we will have to regret.
3. The Internal-Combustion Engine
I have to confess that, as a former denizen of the 20th century, I’ll miss the loud, soul-stirring THRAAAAGH of a two-stroke motorcycle. And liter for liter, calorie for calorie, gasoline is truly the queen of liquid fuels. Nevertheless, if you stand inside a closed garage with any internal-combustion engine, it will kill you. That is bad. Even the best such engines emit an eye-watering stink.
Internal-combustion engines are big and clumsy. They are hard to tune, and they waste a lot of effort carrying their own weight. They’ve got a great incumbent fueling system built into place, but they need to be replaced by hydrogen and fuel cells, technologies that are simpler, safer, and cleaner. If you need really loud, macho engine noises, why not just record them and play them on your car stereo?
4. Incandescent Light Bulbs
In reality, these sad devices are “heat bulbs.” Supposedly a lighting technology, they produce nine times more raw heat than they do illumination. The light they do give, admittedly, is still prettier than the eerie glow of compact fluorescents and light-emitting diodes. But it’s still a far cry from the glories of natural daylight.
Plus there’s the cost of light bulbs, their fragility, the replacement overhead, the vast waste of energy, glass, and tungsten, the goofy hassle of running air conditioners to do battle with the blazing heat of all these round little glass stoveslet’s face it, these gizmos deserve to vanish.
They will be replaced by a superior technology, something cheap, cool, and precisely engineered, that emits visible wavelengths genuinely suited to a consumer’s human eyeball. Our descendants will stare at those vacuum-shrouded wires as if they were whale-oil lanterns.
5. Land Mines
The planet is already cluttered with well-meaning nongovernmental organizations protesting land mines. Their plaint makes perfect sense when you realize that land mines are ideally suited to blowing up peacemakers once a war is over.
During a war, few soldiers step on land mines, because mines are placed by enemies waiting with rifles. Once the armies demob, though, and armies always do, land mines don’t kill combatants anymore. They kill livestock, the brighter and more exploratory kinds of children, and the men and women who wander around after soldiers, attempting to restore the planet to habitability.
There is something to be said for the practice of automating bombs so that people can get killed without any human intervention. After all, there’s a long technical trend there, and it strongly favors advanced societies with engineers over those among us who merely pick up hoes and axes in fits of tribal rage. But it’s stupid to manufacture and spread lethal devices that don’t know when a war is over.