Technology is the application of scientific knowledge to the making of tools to solve specific problems. Technological advances such as automobiles, airplanes, radio, television, cellular phones, computers, modems, and fax machines have brought major advances and changes to the world. Indeed, 20th century technology has completely and irreversibly changed the way people meet, interact, learn, work, play, travel, worship, and do business.
Technological information increases exponentially: The entire database of scientific knowledge doubles every several years. This “technological explosion” is due in part to an “Information explosion,” as well as to advances in storage, retrieval, and communication of data. In other words, a cycle occurs: Improvements in technology lead to increases in knowledge and information and, thus, to uncovering the means to create better technology. Consequently, sociologists are concerned with how technological societies will be forced to adapt to the social changes that improvements in technology will continue to bring.
In the 1990s, people witnessed an explosion of computer technology both in America and around the globe, which has in turn led to a change in how and where people work. Telecommuters are employees of agencies or business firms who work full‐time or part‐time at home instead of in the office. They connect to their offices via electronic networking: phone, computer, e‐mail, and fax. Telecommuting allows employees to work under supervisors in another state or country. This form of employment especially helps disabled individuals who are unable to leave home or travel to an office, as well as working parents of young children.
The Internet: The world’s largest computer network has revolutionized electronic networking. The number of people using the Internet continues to double annually, with at least 50 percent of all Americans “online” in 2000.
The Internet originally developed from a system built by the U.S. Defense Department to permit governmental work in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Although originally only those with governmental or university positions could access the Internet, now virtually any home can purchase World Wide Web service. Net‐surfers can telecommute, read articles, check stock prices, conduct research, comparison price, shop from home, meet others in chat rooms or on bulletin boards, take college courses, and even earn an accredited degree.
The Internet has certainly provided exciting new possibilities for electronic communication, yet critics argue that a dark side exists to this informational tool. One area of special concern, especially for families with young children, is the ability to access and download pornographic materials. Internet users can download pornographic photos, trade sexual messages on a bulletin board, have overtly sexual conversations with a distant “playmate,” play erotic games, or purchase tickets for a singles cruise. In recent years, sexual predators have also used the Internet to identify potential victims. Other areas of concern include potential social isolation, random and reckless dissemination of nonverifiable or inaccurate information, plagiarism, and family estrangement.
Recent decades have produced dramatic though controversial scientific advances in biotechnology (the application of technology to the practice of medicine). Advances in such areas as reproductive technologies, surrogate parenthood, sex preselection, and genetic engineering have raised difficult political, ethical, and moral questions.
Reproductive technologies and sex preselection
Not every couple wanting to conceive can do so. If they fail to conceive after one year or more of trying, the couple is considered infertile. At any one time, up to 20 percent of couples in the United States may be infertile.
In many cases, doctors can successfully treat infertility:
Fertility drugs (ovulation‐stimulating hormones) can help when the woman’s inability to ovulate causes the infertility.
Artificial insemination, which involves collecting and introducing sperm into the vagina using a syringe, proves particularly useful when the man possesses a below‐normal sperm count.
In vitro fertilization, or the “test‐tube baby” method, involves fertilizing an egg outside the woman’s body and implanting it into the uterus. This procedure is useful when the woman has blocked fallopian tubes.
Gamete intrafallopian transfer (“GIFT”) involves taking eggs from the woman’s ovaries, mixing them with the man’s sperm, and then inserting them into the fallopian tube. In this procedure, fertilization takes place inside the woman’s body rather than outside. To date, couples in the United States have produced over 20,000 babies using alternatives such as these.
Some couples or individuals decide that adopting a child represents the best way of dealing with infertility. Others elect to utilize the services of a surrogate mother—a woman who contracts with a couple to carry their fetus to full term, deliver it, and adopt it to the couple. A physician may artificially inseminate the surrogate with the man’s sperm or implant an in vitro fertilized egg into her uterus. Either way, the procedure remains controversial, given the many potential ethical, legal, and moral issues it raises. For example, questions of legal, moral, and biological parenthood can give rise to long and complicated custody proceedings.
Similar to surrogate motherhood, and also controversial, is carrier implantation. The procedure involves implanting a fertilized egg into a relative’s uterus. Because a relative carries the fetus to term, the woman or couple avoids the expense and hassle of hiring a surrogate mother. Physicians have now successfully implanted embryos into women in their 50s, following hormone therapy to reverse the effects of menopause.
Sex preselection techniques designed to help a couple choose the gender of their unborn child have also proven controversial. Because sperm bearing the Y chromosome produce males, couples wanting a male baby attempt to increase the chances of a Y‐bearing sperm fusing with the X‐ovum. A number of sperm‐separating techniques supposedly accomplish this. For example, doctors can impregnate the mother‐to‐be via artificial insemination of primarily Y‐bearing sperm, which they have separated in a test tube. Success rates of sperm‐separating techniques are questionable, with reported figures approaching 85 percent. Critics note that society cannot know the effects of gender imbalances created through sex preselection. Will people prefer more girls than boys? What happens to the future of marriage and family?
Perhaps even more presumptuous (or alarming, according to some critics) than reproductive technologies and sex preselection is altering human behavior through genetic engineering. Cloning, or the creation of exact replicas from a single genetic ancestor, represents the most extreme form of genetic engineering. Geneticists have cloned animals for years, but may soon focus their efforts on human beings.
One of the latest advances in genetic engineering is gene therapy, in which genetic engineers, in limited cases, can disable genes carrying undesirable traits and replace them with genes carrying desirable traits. While these sorts of developments pose many possibilities for altering various organisms and eradicating certain diseases and disabilities, gene therapy remains experimental.