The Social Downside to the Conveniences of Technology

The Social Downside to the Conveniences of Technology

Much of life is, and has been, invisible for most of history. We’ve always understood that people know each other, but there has been no universal ledger showing who-knows-who, for how long, and so on. We’ve always known that people go to restaurants and bars, but we haven’t had a scrolling record of where each person has been and when. This is part of the magic, and the terror, of the digital era. Information and mobile technologies have allowed us to capture and measure so many of the ethereal elements of life.


There is something comforting about concretizing the invisible. It helps us gain a sense of control over the world that has, for all of human life, been an utterly mysterious and intimidating force. Today, with Facebook, the average college student has a better understanding of her social network than the top upper-crust socialites of past eras. This is astounding and empowering.

But, one of the great laws of life is that there are no free lunches - every benefit comes with a definite cost. As I’ve written about in the past, I believe that the purpose of technology is to reduce uncertainty. The advent of farming allowed us to more reliably feed our families and our tribes - it reduced the uncertainty of eating. However, as UCLA Professor Jared Diamond notes, “...recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.”

Automotive technologies improved our ability to successfully complete mid to long length trips. Though, they also encouraged the rise of suburbs and have contributed to environmental change. Similarly, digital and mobile technologies are coming with their own costs. We can clearly see some of them. Others, we will learn about over time. However, I think that the main cost of the mobile era has been an overall erosion of our ability to cope with uncertainty and a lack of control in our social and communal lives.

Instead of walking down to the store to see if it’s open, we check business hours on Yelp. This decreases the amount of foot traffic, and thus random communal interaction, occurring in our day to day lives.

Instead of talking to strangers at the bar while we’re waiting for our friends, we spend our time in text conversations - letting our friends know where we’re sitting, what we’re up to, and so on.

Instead of stopping by a friend’s house to see if they’re home, and able to get together, we call them up (or shoot them a Facebook Message). Though, in this process, we miss out on talking, and connecting with, their neighbors.

In short, mobile communication technologies allow us to live life as a series of straight lines. We go straight from our house to our friend. We go straight from work to the restaurant- which has our food pre-made and ready to pick up. This may all be in the spirit of efficiency. But, in the name of productivity and greater self reliance, we may lose one of our most fundamental attributes - our communal spirit.

Image credit: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock

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Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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