Why can't we use technology to solve social problems?

Not long after the Apollo landing, a prevalent cliche for a few years was "If we can put humans on the moon, why can't we....[insert prominent social problem such as starvation, epidemic, radical inequalities, etc.]? In 1980, in his book "Critical Path," Buckminster Fuller wrote:

"We are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our forefathers. We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all to feed everybody, clothe everybody, and give every human on Earth a chance. We know now what we could never have known before-that we now have the option for all humanity to "make it" successfully on this planet in this lifetime."

In the contemporary zeitgeist, Fuller's claims seem naively utopian. The past century saw too much misery resulting from the attempts to build utopias. But without the belief that human civilization can improve, how could we have arrived at the point where we can formulate questions like these and exchange them around the world at the speed of light?

There are several obvious choices for answers to the question of why this question isn't asked any more:

1. We might have been able to put humans on the moon in 1969, but not today. Good point. And the reason for this circumstance — lack of political will, and the community of know-how it took NASA a decade to assemble, not lack of technical capabilities — is instructive.

2. Technology actually has solved enormous social problems — antibiotics, hygienic plumbing, immunization, the green revolution. I agree with this, and see it as evidence that it is possible to relieve twice as much, a thousand times as much human misery as previous inventions.

3. Human use of technologies have created even greater social problems — antibiotics are misused and supergerms evolved; nuclear wastes and weapons are threats, not enhancements; the green revolution swelled the slums of the world as agricultural productivity rose and global agribiz emerged.

4. There is no market for solving social problems, and it isn't the business of government to get into the technology or any other kind of business. This is the fallacy of the excluded middle. Some technologies such as the digital computer and the Internet were jump-started by governments, evolved through grassroots enthusiasms, and later become industries and "new economies."

5. Throwing technology at problems can be helpful, but the fundamental problems are political and economic and rooted in human nature. This answer should not be ignored. A tool is not the task, and often the invisible, social, non-physical aspects of a technological regime make all the difference.

There's some truth to each of these answers, yet they all fall short because all assume that we know how to think about technology. Just because we know how to make things doesn't guarantee that we know what those things will do to us. Or what kind of things we ought to make.

What if we don't know how to think about the tools we are so skilled at creating? What if we could learn?

Perhaps knowing how to think about technology is a skill we will have to teach ourselves the way we taught ourselves previous new ways of thinking such as mathematics, logic, and science.

A few centuries ago, a few people began questioning the assumption that people knew how to think about the physical world. Neither philosophy nor religion seemed to be able to stave off famine and epidemic. The enlightenment was about a new method for thinking.

Part of that new method was the way of asking and testing questions known as science, which provided the knowledge needed to create new medicines, new tools, new weapons, new economic systems.

We learned how to think very well about the physical world, and how to unleash the power in that knowledge. But perhaps we have yet to learn how to think about what to do with our tools.

HOWARD RHEINGOLD is author of The Virtual Community, Virtual Reality, Tools for Thought. Founder of Electric Minds, named by Time magazine one of the ten best web sites of 1996. Editor of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog.