Limits on Technology: Natural, Economic & Ethical - Video & Lesson Transcript | Study.com (2022)

Instructor: David WoodShow bio

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Technology has opened many doors for people in the modern era, but it also carries limitations. Learn more about limits on technology, including natural limits, economic limits, and ethical limits, and understand the nature of each. Updated: 11/30/2021

What Is Technology?

How obsessed with technology are you? Do you spend all day on the computer or on your phone? Or, can you safely say that technology isn't a big part of your life? Well, those of you who said the latter are wrong. If you're reading this lesson from a computer, it's fair to say that you have a relatively modern life. And, any modern life is completely reliant on technology—even if you don't realize how.

The first clue is the meaning of the word technology. Put simply, technology is any use of scientific knowledge for practical purpose. So technology doesn't have to be electronic or super modern. If your home was built from nails, or painted any color, or has running water, or is heated or air-conditioned, or even if you grow vegetables, you are using technology. In fact, even if you live completely isolated in an indigenous tribe, your tribe probably uses basic technology. Some of the first examples of technology were tools, like hammers and spears, and basic shelters. All of this is technology.

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  • 0:03 What Is Technology?
  • 1:04 Limits on Technology
  • 1:48 Natural Limits
  • 2:47 Economic Limits
  • 3:49 Ethical Limits
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary

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Limits on Technology

One look around you in a modern home and you'll see how incredibly reliant we are on technology. It's a safe bet that almost everything you can see around you right now is technology. When we live our lives engrossed in it, it's easy to think that it can do anything. But there are limits to technology. In this lesson we're going to talk about some of those limits.

Three main types are natural limits, economic limits, and ethical limits. A limit can also be hard or soft. It could be that a limit really does describe something that is impossible to break (a hard limit), but sometimes limits are soft limits—they're limits based on the way human society runs and thinks, and they might not be limits in other circumstances.

Natural Limits

Natural limits are the hard limits—things that we physically can't do with technology. Even then, no limit is conclusively a hard limit because our understanding of the universe is changing all the time. It could turn out that what we think is impossible now is really possible. But it's fair to say that whatever the truth is, there will always be natural limits on what is possible in the universe.

For example, the laws of physics tell us that we cannot travel faster than the speed of light. So no matter what technology we come up with, we believe that no spaceship will ever be able to break that. Another kind of natural limit is a logical limit: something can't be true and untrue at the same time. For example there's no way for technology to allow us to use every inch of land on Earth and also protect every natural ecosystem. Technology can help us protect the environment by finding ways to achieve the same thing with fewer resources, but there's only so much it can do.

Economic Limits

Then there are economic limits. It's possible that certain things are within the reach of technology but are so expensive that they're completely impractical. For example, many of the most modern medicines that we have, from gene therapies to stem cell treatments to complex drugs, are astronomically expensive to research and produce. It's therefore possible that there are other drugs that would work, but that simply aren't economically feasible.

Of course economic limits can sometimes be temporary—just because something is affordable now, doesn't mean it will be so in the future. And, there are certain ideas for avoiding the consequences of climate change, like removing carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, or putting a barrier between us and the sun large enough to reduce the energy we receive from it. However, these are too expensive to be worthwhile. For example, if living space on Earth is a problem, we could terraform Mars to turn it into an earth-like environment over a period of a few centuries. However, as of right now, the cost would be completely impractical.

Ethical Limits

Last of all there are ethical limits to technology, or limits created by notions of what is right and wrong in a given community. Humans have made great advances in fields like genetic engineering (including gene therapy), cloning, artificial intelligence, surveillance, cybernetics, and biological warfare. People question the ethics of these technologies for many reasons. Things like gene therapy and cybernetics promised to improve human abilities, but what happens to those who can't afford the technologies? And, are we trying to play God? We're getting to the point where it's possible to completely remove human privacy. But, are we going too far in violating people's rights? And concerns about using technology for warfare are obvious. All of these issues will have to be dealt with over the coming centuries, whether through laws, public outcry, or self-regulation.

Lesson Summary

All right, let's take a moment to review what we've learned. As we learned, technology is basically any use of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. Technology has been a part of human society from the first moment we built a tool, and today we're surrounded by it. Technology can be super simple or electronic and complex. But, technology has its limits.

The three main types of limits on technology are natural, economic, and ethical. As we learned, natural limits are ones where the laws of the universe physically prevent us from doing something. This is a hard limit; it's one we can't get around unless understanding of the universe changes. An example would be the fact that the laws of physics say we cannot reach the speed of light. In addition, economic limits are about things that are possible but so expensive that they just aren't practical. This includes things like terraforming Mars or putting giant barriers between us and the sun to cool down the Earth.

And lastly, ethical limits are where we can do something, but we don't believe that it's morally right. There are ethical concerns around genetic engineering, cloning, artificial intelligence, surveillance, cybernetics, and biological warfare. People question whether it's right to change people's genetics, to play God, to remove privacy, and to improve the technology of warfare. All of these issues are ones that need to be considered and discussed in the coming years.

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