Chapter 3: Technology: Master or Servant?
According to a medieval legend the Rabbi of Prague once molded a statue of clay and brought it to life by placing the sacred and unspoken name of Almighty God on its forehead. The man-made god increased in size and ability to accomplish great tasks. All was fine at first. But the people began to fear it as it continued to grow. They erased the first letter of the sacred name from its forehead, and it died. Numerous commentators have seized upon this ancient story as a parable of our own times. As the power of technology grows, its earlier promise seems to many to be turning into a threat. Can technology save us, or do we need to be saved from it? Should we rejoice in or be frightened by the acceleration of those forces which created our technological civilization? The rapid expansion of scientific knowledge and practical know-how are putting unprecedented powers in human hands to bless or to curse the earth. Are the optimists right in claiming that technology can provide solutions to major world problems? Or are the pessimists right in protesting that technology itself is a major cause of potential catastrophe?
The principal charge of the pessimists1 is not that some particular technological developments will ruin us. Actually, Jacques Ellul, one of the most influential of them, is an optimist on this point. He maintains that the individual problems caused by technology can be cured by more technology. The population explosion and pollution are offered as examples of troubles that can be remedied in this way. His charge goes much deeper. So does that of the other pessimists. Their claim is that the real enemy is technological reason itself. This complaint has profound implications for the future of the human race. What do the pessimists mean by technological reason? Why is it such a danger?
The pessimists take a long historical view. They see the technological way of reasoning and of solving problems as one of the great forces that have shaped the modern world. And increasingly, these forces have called into question the belief that we are made in the image of God. The faith that we live in a world of moral laws ordained by a sovereign creator has weakened. Atheist philosophies of various types have become increasingly common. A principal one, for example, is positivism. This is the view that only what can be examined by the senses with the help of scientific methods is real. The result is that human beings are reduced to the level of robots. People are just one among the many phenomena that make up the physical world. We, like stones and worms are encased in a network of material forces completely devoid of intrinsic spiritual meanings. People are complicated machines in a neutral world of facts. Moral values are nothing more than human inventions. Moreover, there is no evidence or need for a creator. In short, in a world without God or values, people are reduced to things. Hand in hand with such a philosophy, confidence in technological reason has come to reign supreme in our world. And the pessimists dislike technology precisely for its philosophy -- its materialism.
According to the pessimists, science, industry, and bureaucracy -- as well as technology -- illustrate this threat to humanity.
1. Science: For three centuries science seemed to imply that the world is a giant machine. A machine just does what it does. It has no purposes of its own, no aims, no feelings. It is just matter in motion. Its movements can be charted in exact mathematical laws to which there appear to be no exceptions. Despite this machine-universe view, many still argued for the existence of God. After all, the only machines we know about were created by a designer. Just as a watch requires a watchmaker, so the world machine calls for a divine worldmaker. Again, one might argue that human beings are free, moral agents and not machines. Like the creator, they too stand outside the realm of physical reality with its machinelike laws. So, belief in God and in human freedom and dignity persisted. But science continued to grow in its power to describe the world and its laws. Skepticism grew. The Bible indicates that the world was created a few thousand years ago in a short time by a direct act of God. Geology proved that belief to be false. Miracles seemed impossible. Faith in them appeared to be a product of religious imagination run wild. Atheism came to be seen by more people as the religion of the future. Some enthusiasts claimed that ultimately everything human could be explained completely in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry. Darwin offered evidence that human beings had evolved from lower animal species. Later scientists concluded that life itself sprang from nonliving matter by purely natural processes. The final blows to human dignity seemed to have been delivered. Thus, science raised the basic question of modern philosophy. What is the place of persons and their quest for meaning in a world viewed as a purposeless network of causes and effects?
2. Technology: Both Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford see the clock as the epitome of machine design. It is the prototype of all those mechanical arrangements to which humanity would increasingly be subjected. A long time was required to design a machine that could measure time accurately. The perfection of clockwork in the 14th century was a major triumph of mechanical intelligence. The perfected clock was a superb example of rational design, efficiency, organization, and mathematical order. The first known reference to the universe as a machine was made in 1382.2 In the 17th century the principles of physics and of planetary motion were worked out, and clockwork provided an apt analogy for the whole natural universe. Moreover, the clock was used to determine when to work, when to eat, when to sleep, and when to worship. Living by the clock replaced living by the organic rhythms of the body and of nature. For many of the pessimists, this symbolizes the beginning of a trend which leads gradually to a time when the whole of life will be mechanized in clockwork fashion.
3. Industry: The assembly line carries the clockwork principle into the heart of the work life. Workers are given highly specialized tasks to perform repeatedly throughout the day. The efficiency expert is called in to show how human muscle and mind can achieve the most work with the least effort and in the least time. Other experts are called in to examine every detail of the work process. They look for ways to keep the worker content amid the inevitable boredom and monotony of the assembly line. The Charlie Chaplin movie Modern Times (1934) illustrates the effect of all this in comic fashion. It shows an assembly-line worker after he leaves the factory. He is unable to break out of the mechanical movements that were required of him all day on the job.
4. Bureaucracy: In business, government, education, and other large organizations, we can see something similar happening. A highly specialized division of labor is everywhere in evidence. Large numbers of people are organized like a pyramid in which everybody has a boss just above him or her. Final authority is lodged at the top of the pyramid. Efficiency is the goal. Rational calculation is the means to achieve it. Each person is assigned a routine task. Everyone works in conformity with a set of detailed regulations. The aim is to make the whole enterprise work as smoothly as possible, just like clockwork. Bureaucracies seek to reduce all transactions to some standard routine. This leads to the "red tape" that confronts us everywhere. We are all subject to endless rules, regulations, procedures, licenses, permits, and so on, from which there is little escape. We face it in school, at the office, in the factory, in the hospital, and, most of all, in the government. Hence, persons are fragmented into all the numerous roles they play as workers and citizens.
Viewed in this way, science, technology, industry, and bureaucracy have all contributed to the mechanization of life. The physical world is a machine. People are made into robots. That is the final result of technological reason. So say the pessimists. The novelists, poets, philosophers, and theologians among them have a common complaint: modern society reduces human beings to a cog in the social machine.
But over against this fear has been an equally powerful faith. For the optimists, science and technology are not the architects of a fate worse than death. They are our best hope for overcoming misery and promoting happiness.3 This faith has many ingredients. One is the belief in progress.4 The expectation that life gets better for most people as time passes has been widespread since the 18th century.5 A basic source of the confidence in progress is the Biblical idea that the Kingdom of God will come at the end of time. In its secular version, this hope means that life will progressively get better on earth.6 Another root of the idea of progress is the aphorism of Francis Bacon that "knowledge is power." Learning the secret of things gives us power over them. The philosophers of the Enlightenment taught that reason can provide an understanding of nature and its laws. Growth in knowledge will lead to improvements in material standards of living. These philosophers also believed that people were basically virtuous; they supposed that improved standards of living, and habits rationally modified by knowledge, would lead to gradually rising moral standards in society. These beliefs have shaped us all. But belief in progress has been badly shaken by the catastrophes of the 20th century. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was symbolic of the death of all those rosy hopes that gradually social ills would be overcome and prosperity and justice would reign everywhere. World War I, the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, the slaughter of millions of Jews, World War II, and the threat of atomic annihilation have all made it much more difficult to believe that time will bring nothing but good. Nevertheless, Americans still have great faith that life can be made better. We still have strong hopes that problems can be solved.
The promise of science and technology has been one major support of the belief in progress. For more than a thousand years a steadily rising stream of inventions has been transforming the way we live. Optimists, like Buckminster Fuller7 and Glenn Seaborg,8 claim that the challenges of the future can be met by increasing our scientific and technological abilities. Fuller puts his hope in the genius of engineers like himself. They could make the world a success if politicians and their obsolete ideas were not in the way. Engineers could design a global plan that would integrate the world’s economies and provide material plenty for all. Seaborg holds out the promise that technology, especially that associated with nuclear power, is our best resource. Wisely used, our human powers can provide global prosperity, make war obsolete, and usher in a new day of harmony and worldwide cooperation.
It would be a mistake, however, to focus only on technologies that help us deal with nature. Other kinds of knowledge also bring power. A new breed of futurists has recently appeared. I refer to the theorists, planners, forecasters, and analysts who make a vocation of studying the future. The more enthusiastic among them believe that we can manage society as well as control nature. With the help of computers and new methods of collecting vast amounts of information, we can chart the probable consequences of any policy choice we make today.9 Equally utopian are the proponents of "operant conditioning" (B. F. Skinner) and similar conceptions. They hold out the hope that such techniques can be used to design a whole society that will be happy, productive, peaceful, and secure.10 Most far out of all are those who propose technologies that affect the human organism itself in a direct way: cloning (a process to reproduce genetically identical copies of a person), cryonics (freezing bodies at death for later revival when science has advanced sufficiently), and eugenics (designing genetically a superior organism). The increasing sophistication of problem-solving reason is our best hope for achieving a peaceful, prosperous, happy, secure world. So runs the claim of the Optimists.
In today’s society, then, fear and faith confront each other. Who is closer to the truth, the pessimists or the optimists? The rest of this chapter will sort out these contradictory claims. A balanced view will include the valid elements of both sides. Much of what the pessimists and the optimists say is based on their choice of a standard example of what technology really is and does. The symbol used by the pessimists is the clock. A clock breaks up the flow of natural time as measured by the organic rhythms of the body and of nature. It quantifies time and divides it into precise moments of identical duration. Clockwork is a marvel of rational order and efficiency. When it is used to regulate human life, people eat, sleep, work, rest, rise, retire, go, come, worship, and even make love when it is "time to." Readings on a dial tell us when to do what. Hence, a control is set up which subjects the organic urges and free choices of the natural self to a pattern imposed from without by a machine. Technological pessimists see this simple mechanical invention as the forerunner of all the machines and organizations that make up urban, industrialized, bureaucratic society. Human beings are increasingly subject to extensions of the clockwork principle in the name of order, efficiency, and problem solving.
A New York Times article gives us a good example of what the pessimists have in mind.11 Leonard Levin reports that there are no light switches in the new World Trade Center in New York City. If someone wants to work late in this huge building on Tuesday night, the Port Authority must be notified by Monday noon. The lights are turned on and off by computers. Levin comments that we mortals are expected to conform to schedule in giving birth to an idea. Otherwise, we may finish by candlelight. Should we blame technology for this? Are not people -- the designers -- responsible for omitting light switches and turning the job over to computers? Yes, of course. But the pessimists argue that we are so under the spell of efficiency that we go on creating more of these clockwork systems that force us to comply with their demands. Somehow the logic dictated by technological reason is thought to be best. So we plunge ahead in such a daze that we fail to see where all this is taking us.
This leads us to the next point. As long as technological reason is limited in its scope, no great problems arise. But technologies begin to link up with one another. They spread geographically. They increase in number and kind. More and more they touch each other in ways that require their integration in a more comprehensive harmony. In short, a system begins to be created that grows and grows. A little clockwork system here, another one there, and still a third yonder expand and mesh with each other. Larger and larger social organizations emerge. Order and efficiency require their unification into more and more inclusive systems. Finally, the network becomes so interwoven that the total system of technologies and social organizations begins to take on a force and a direction of its own. As the system expands, the room left for human spontaneity, freedom, and choice contracts. To operate all these systems and to invent still new ones to solve problems created by the old ones requires a growing core of experts. No one can question their actions because no one understands the connections of the systems these experts are working on; they alone possess the knowledge that keeps the machines, the organizations, and the people working together. And because increasing numbers of decisions are being made by machines, people begin to feel incapable of making decisions on their own. Hence, when the clockwork principle is extended until it includes absolutely everything, people will have ceased to be human. In the vision of Roderick Seidenberg, technological reason will continue to organize every aspect of life until the one best way to do everything has been found. The distant future, then, holds out the grim prospect that human societies will finally come to resemble the life of bees, termites, and ants. A perfectly ordered society will exist from generation to generation without change. Everything has been reduced to routine. There is no room to improve anything.12
A homely example from my rural Georgia childhood provides a parable of the way pessimists like Ellul, Seidenberg, and Mumford see the modern world. One winter day when I was eleven or twelve years old, I came home from school to find the house cold and empty. My parents were not at home. I built a fire in the fireplace. The wood was dry and soon tall flames leaped up the chimney. It was an old house, and I had been warned against a big fire. In my panic I began to pile on more wood to cover up the cracks through which the flames rose. My solution worked -- temporarily. But then an even larger fire developed. I put on still more wood. Each time I smothered the flames for a moment. Finally, I caught on to what was happening. Soon the flames died down, and all was well. The technological pessimists claim that modern humanity is as foolish as I was. As technological reason creates more and more networks of machines and organizations dedicated to rational efficiency, problems are more or less solved -- temporarily. But dedication to the technological principle requires more technology to solve problems caused by previous solutions. Meanwhile, the flames grow higher and higher. So far, modern humanity has not caught on and continues to add more technology. Ellul thinks that we are fanatically committed to the use of technological reason to solve our problems. Hence we will probably continue to create networks of control in the name of efficiency and order until we burn our house down. Few have so far seen that the only solution is the rejection of the totalitarianism of technological reason itself.
The optimists employ a symbol which leads to a different vision of the future. For this school of thought, it is the hammer, not the clock, that tells us what technology is and can do for us. Technology is a tool that extends human powers. It solves a problem. The hammer extends the power of the hand. The microscope and the telescope give added refinement to sight. The car, the airplane, and the rocket ship provide a range of mobility that the legs cannot match. The telephone and the radio enlarge the power of the voice to communicate. Technological reason can also solve all sorts of other problems. We can learn how to increase production of food and manufactured goods. We can conquer disease. We can put imagination to work on social problems. We can reduce conflict among people. In short, beginning with the notion that "knowledge is power, we can find ways to meet needs, satisfy wants, and promote happiness. The extension of the hammer principle leads to a future in which knowledge has increased to the point that better ways to do almost everything can be found. The optimists foresee that with the new technology people will make advances in managing their affairs as astonishing as they have made in transforming the physical world. With these tools, they assert, we can begin to shape the world and the conditions of life to fit the heart’s desire.
Both the pessimists and the optimists take some selected trends and principles and exaggerate them. Moreover, they do not take into account enough opposing trends and principles. Using as a basis only one symbol, they make a possible outcome into a probable destiny. But in fact both symbols -- hammer and clock -- point to the nature and consequences of technology. Human powers are extended. Problems can be solved. Means can be found to attain ends. But technological reason functions in one particular way. It is inevitably drawn toward solutions which maximize efficiency, i.e., which allow the greatest amount of production, or service, with the smallest expense of energy and time. Machines and social systems that function like clockwork tend to be the ideal of technological reason. As technological reason is applied to more areas of human life, trade-offs inevitably have to be made. New freedoms are gained at the expense of losing some old ones. To take a simple example, people gain the freedom to travel a two-lane road only by giving up one of the lanes -- they must always drive on the right side. This is a rational solution. It enables everybody to get a significant gain at an insignificant cost. Likewise, other extensions of human powers have a price. The hammer, the wheel, the heavy plow, the microscope, and so on, all offer potential benefits which outweigh the costs.
At the early stages it would appear possible, in principle, to use technological reason advantageously with acceptable risks or loss. Optimists claim that a favorable trade-off ratio can be maintained at every stage of advancement if we are prudent. We have, they say, no alternative if we wish to feed, clothe, and house the world’s growing population. Pessimists maintain that, after a certain point, the necessities of integrating the whole network of machine and social systems will box in and choke off human freedom. What is clear is that as society becomes more highly organized, the trade-offs get more complicated. The stakes in the game get higher. The perils rise with the opportunities.
It is necessary to challenge the tendency of the pessimists to set up a sharp dualism between the mechanical and the organic (Mumford) or technique and the spiritual (Ellul). Mumford expresses a kind of horror at the sight of an astronaut in a space suit. He sees in it the prototype of a kind of robot existence. Eventually, he says, if the principles of technological reason are taken to their conclusion, life will be "made to conform, as in a space capsule, to the minimal functional requirements of an equally minimal environment -- all under remote control."13 Ellul insists that respect for human responsibility, dignity, and freedom forbids ever acting upon people with technical means. He would agree with the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s film, A Clockwork Orange. The very title suggests the conflict between the mechanical and the organic, between a machine and the life principle. In this movie, set in some unspecified future, the central character is a young man given to rape, violence, and all sorts of destructive behavior. He also loves Beethoven’s music. The authorities capture him and subject him to a process of behavior modification. Chemistry and psychology combine to remake him. When he is released from prison, he grows violently ill at the thought of doing what society forbids. However, he also loses his appreciation for Beethoven. To make a violent man docile by technological means is to destroy his humanity. There is surely a point here that must be heeded. Nevertheless, those who view technology as a way of enhancing the organic and spiritual capacities of people make an equally compelling case. The hammer does extend the power of the hand. Examples might be multiplied indefinitely, but the point is obvious. Techniques may aid organic functioning. Electronic pacemakers can help a human heart beat normally. Surgical techniques can restore a diseased body to health. Social technologies can contribute to the healthy functioning of a complex modern society. We need better ways of managing the economy, administering welfare, providing health care, and so on. Technologies can be seen as a part of the evolutionary process. They enhance our native powers and extend the range of human adaptability. People have gone beyond their skins in the relationship to the world. "The real evolutionary unit now is not man’s mere body; it is ‘all mankind’s brains together with all the extra bodily materials that come under the manipulation of their hands.’. . . An airplane is part of a larger kinesthetic and functional self." 14 This evolutionary, organic enhancement theory of technology is all the more cogent in a day when electronic and cybernetic machines are coming into prominence. The sharp dualism between tile natural, the vital, the organic, and the spiritual, on the one hand, and the artificial, the rational, the mechanistic, and the material, on the other, needs to be challenged. We need a more comprehensive view, which takes into account the positive connections between these realms as well as the negative.
The relationship between technology and values is more complex than either the pessimists or the optimists usually allow. Techniques can limit, constrain, mechanize, standardize, and robotize people. Ellul and Mumford see something profoundly threatening and subtle in our growing reliance upon technological reason. But Fuller and Seaborg also see the enhancement of life possible in new technologies: they can feed, clothe, house, cure diseases, remove tile burden of poverty, and open new ventures for tile human spirit. And all of these people see something that is really there. None of the grand theories that single out particular themes and expand them into the whole truth is adequate. A patient, hardheaded, critical approach is needed, sensitive to the complexities of the social setting in which technology and values interact.
Society is a complex system of relationships in which a multitude off actors influence one another. The causal arrows run in many directions. There are feedback loops which cause ripples of change in complicated ways. Technology produces many of the changes in society, but the effect of those changes depends on many things other than technology itself. As Lynn White says, a new invention opens a door. It does not compel us to enter.15 Some inventions may lie dormant for a long time before being put to use.
In our own time the disproportionate allocation of funds for the arms race and to send astronauts to the moon was not the result of some inevitable development of technological advance. We could have spent the same amounts for mass housing or urban transportation, if we had so chosen. Technology expresses our values. Furthermore, the impact of technological change depends on how we respond to it. If automation puts people out of work, a number of possibilities arise. The logic of economic power and profits can work to the advantage of corporation owners and to the detriment of employees. The government can intervene to provide income and retraining for displaced workers. The total social context inhibits, promotes, transforms, and otherwise mediates the threats and promises of technological change.
Values affect technology, and technology affects values. In western Europe in the Middle Ages, for example, technology was directly spurred by a belief, namely that there are some kinds of work too degrading for creatures made in the image of God to do.16 The result of this view was a great increase in the invention of laborsaving devices. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, China had the full capability to explore the world, but chose to stay home. Spain and Portugal decided on a policy of expansion and colonization. Which comes first, the values held by people that lead to inventions or inventions that lead to a change of values? Did the availability of contraceptives lead to change of attitudes toward sexual relations among the unmarried? Or did a change in attitude give impetus to their availability? It is a hen and egg question.17
Beyond this, some specific points can be advanced 18
1. There is confusion in the claims about what technology can or cannot do. Jerome Wiesner and H. F. York claim that there is no "technical solution" to the dilemma of increasing military power and decreasing national security. They mean that no conceivable increase in weapons superiority can guarantee protection against destruction in a nuclear age. The solution, if there is to be one, must be political. Nations will have to forgo any resort to atomic weapons as a means of combat. In this case, no prospective technology offers a solution either in principle or in fact.19 Garrett Hardin claims that population and pollution are also in the class of "no technical solution problems." He means that technological advances cannot in themselves provide enough food, reduce the number of births sufficiently, or prevent ecological disaster. There must be a prior change of values that can then be enforced politically.20 Advanced technologies may offer hope for survival in principle but can do so in fact only if certain changes in morality and political behavior take place as well. Buckminster Fuller confidently asserts that engineering science can create the means to provide material plenty and a safe environment for all. His assumption is that only ignorance, inertia, and obsolete ideas stand in the way. In principle, then, technology can solve our basic material problems. But it can do so in fact only if competent planners are granted free reign to solve them. Claims about what technology can and cannot do can easily mislead us unless we are clear about the precise meaning intended.
It is widely accepted, for example, that world population growth has been speeded up by progress in medical practices. New life-saving measures have greatly expanded "death control," but there has been no corresponding increase in "birth control." Technological means are available to halt the excessive population rise. But these contraceptive measures are not being used, and the reasons are political, economic, religious, and cultural. They have little relationship to what technology as such can or cannot do. People desire health and long life. Hence, they readily accept modern medical techniques and are willing to pay dearly for them. But people also love children and produce them for many reasons other than sexual pleasure. Thus, they may be reluctant to use contraceptive methods even when they are available. They may find contraception too expensive. Or their religion may teach them that birth control is wrong. Or the ignorance of the population may work against successful use of contraceptives even when people desire to stop having children. Or governments, for a variety of political reasons, may prohibit or discourage birth control. In principle, then, technological reason may be able to provide cures for many of our ills, while in fact, these solutions may not be enacted due to the failure or inability or unwillingness of society to accept the remedy.
Moreover, the problem-solving capacity of technology may not be able to save us from some catastrophes. For example, changes in the climate caused by waste heat released into the atmosphere could lead to global disaster. Weapons exist now that can literally wipe out all life, human and other. These may be unlikely occurrences. Nevertheless, it is quite possible for some technologies to be the source of incurable ills.
2. There is an obvious ambiguity in the uses to which technology can be put. Hence, there is truth -- a limited truth -- to the claim that technology in itself is neither good nor bad. Certainly a knife can be used to peel apples or to commit murder. Nuclear energy may be used to make bombs or to generate electricity. Viewed in this way, technology needs only to be properly managed in order to maximize its benefits and minimize its dangers. This is the conventional view of the relationship of technology to human values.
But the task of mobilizing our problem-solving powers in ways that promote the good and avoid the evil is horrifyingly complex. Part of the problem is ignorance. Harvey Brooks, an expert in this field, suggests that we are like an untrained person suddenly put into the cockpit of a jet. Before us are complicated sets of dials and levers. The problem is that we don’t know how to use them to guide the aircraft safely to our desired destination. At the moment, then, our desire to solve problems exceeds our ability to do so. Many of the current cries for the "taming of technology" are as naive as were the early pleas for planning in the national economy.21
But ignorance maybe among the less important of our problems. More fundamental are problems which human beings have always faced when trying to shape their future -- only now these problems bode incalculable harm because of the growth in population, and the growth in power of technology. Not only ignorance, but greed, anxiety, and the will to power and glory complicate people’s desire to be in control of things. We can illustrate this by a quick look at problems that arise both in public and private areas.
Billions upon billions of public dollars have gone into the production of nuclear weapons. We have been afraid not to plunge ahead out of fear of the Russians and the Chinese. But we have been equally fearful that we and our enemies would destroy each other with the very instruments that were designed to protect us. Hence, the arms race takes on a kind of demonic quality. It confronts us as a powerful threat over which we as ordinary citizens have little or no control. A whole generation has grown up under the threat of "the Bomb." The Bomb is the symbol of the terror latent in technology when technology serves human madness (such as the Cold War).The danger of nuclear annihilation has been felt during the last quarter of a century as a kind of Fate. Fate is the very opposite of control. Meanwhile, crying needs around the world go unmet while we waste precious resources in the pursuit of more effective ways to kill people. The arms race represents a complex interweaving of human anxiety and nationalistic idolatry. We have begun to take only the smallest steps toward bringing the idiocy of nuclear escalation to a halt. Those who talk glibly about our ability to take charge of history, should ponder well the technological terror of the arms race.
The space program raises a different set of questions regarding the good use of technology. The billions spent in the effort to put an American on the moon presumably were spent for reasons of national prestige and glory. The effort admittedly was a grand human adventure. However, in light of the pressing needs on earth the question of whether the massive expenditures to explore outer space are morally and socially justifiable is certainly debatable. We keep hearing of the beneficial "spin-offs" the program has generated. Humanity will be benefited by medical discoveries made in the space effort, we are told. Yet we still wonder if more human welfare could not have been achieved by a different deployment of time, technology, and talent.
The major producers of technological innovations, besides government, are private corporations, whose motives are profit and growth. Our laissez-faire policies in this area have tended to produce a chaotic sprawl. The result is a multiplication of technologies that serve corporate profits well, private wants haphazardly, and social needs scarcely at all. Build-in factors in the private enterprise system create an imbalance. It is biased in favor of "economic activities heavy in technological content’ (for example, new science-based consumer products . . . [and opposed to] activities requiring sophisticated social organization (for example, stimulating the economy of the urban ghetto)."22 As long as our greatest needs were for food, clothing, and other such essentials, the system worked with marginal efficiency. General living standards have risen steadily, but there have always been, and still are great inequities of wealth and income. However, now that more of our needs are public and social (problems of pollution, population, mass transportation, etc.), we need better ways to deal successfully with them. Hence, the use of technology for good purposes runs into three tough problems at once: (1) balancing private wants and social needs; (2) harmonizing the plans made by individual experts with the decisions of the public as a whole; and (3) devising long-range policies in a political system which responds best to immediately felt needs, fears, and wants and which has a generally ill-informed electorate.
3. Technological advances have paradoxical results. This further complicates the social decisions that have to be made. C. F. von Weizsäcker speaks of "ambivalence." Ambivalence occurs when we achieve something other than what was intended even though we do get what was sought.23 Subduing nature and subjecting it to our wills has led to destruction of the environment. Saving lives through technological progress has helped ignite a population bomb that now threatens many more than were saved. Nuclear weapons, unleashed to shorten a war, now threaten us all with annihilation, and, even when unused, waste billions of dollars in resources. (It is rather desperate comfort to realize that the arms stalemate may in fact be the only reason there is peace -- unsteady peace -- between Russia and the United States. This is much as if two rich and competing robbers both got terminal cancer and thanked the stars because at least now they couldn’t be robbed by each other.) Technology, then, solves some problems, but frequently it creates others that may be even more difficult to solve.
Further, a given change sends out ripples that ultimately affect areas of life far removed from the original situation. Lewis Mumford points out that the invention of the steam engine in the nineteenth century brought enormous benefits. It produced more power, an increase in consumer goods, better transportation, and so on. But other consequences were deplorable. The steam engine led to oppression for miners and other workers, the spread of vast urban slums, and a ruthless stranglehold by capitalistic investors on the wage earner.24 In the twentieth century, the effects of the automobile have been similarly far-reaching and ambivalent. Transportation has been revolutionized. A new status symbol has emerged. Dating and courtship have been changed. The automobile has even set the pattern of urban development and housing. Today one out of every eight people employed in the United States works at a job directly related to the automobile (supply, maintenance, sales, manufacture, and so on). Some results of the automobile are obviously pernicious, such as highway deaths; but it remains to be seen whether the automobile’s destruction of fossil fuels and its creation of pollutants turn out to be even worse problems.
Only a few examples can be given to illustrate the complex interweaving of consequences generated by new technologies.25 World War II was the first war in which there were more deaths from battle than from disease. The difference was made by widespread use of DDT, invented early in the war. Probably half a billion people are alive now who would be dead except for the use of DDT to eradicate malaria, typhus, and other epidemic scourges in the poorer countries. But today we are terrified by the unforeseen ecological consequences of DDT; it permeates the food chain of plants, insects, animals, and people. Even worse, DDT has greatly contributed to the population explosion, with the result that millions face a future of hunger. If they survive to adulthood, they will confront almost certain unemployment and at best a marginal existence. Widespread starvation has been temporarily delayed by the "Green Revolution" -- the introduction of miracle grains that multiply yields several times over. Yet these new grains may be vulnerable to unsuspected diseases that could wipe out whole crops. This could bring disaster to millions who were alive in the first place because of the new varieties. Moreover, the new seeds can be used best by prosperous farmers who have the irrigation and fertilizer needed. The result is another boost for the rich, another blow for the poor. We can see that the effects of technologies spiral upward to create enlarging networks of potential consequences for good or ill.
Medical advances present a whole host of dilemmas. How far shall we go in pursuing measures that keep the hopelessly ill alive? The maintenance of one seriously ill old person may deny resources to many who are less acutely ill but too poor to afford treatment. One can imagine a situation in which we might devote the whole GNP to life-saving procedures. This may happen if we take the logic of keeping people alive to its ultimate conclusion. But how do you decide where the stopping point should be in the light of possible trade-offs? Our technological capacity to save or to prolong life has outrun our economic abilities. Choices are inevitable. With new advances in genetics and medical techniques it is possible to determine many chromosomal defects in embryo. This introduces the possibility of aborting the fetus when great suffering for the individual and great sorrow and cost for the family can be anticipated. Better and better predictions can be made as birth approaches. The optimum time of decision might be in late pregnancy or even after the birth of the child. When and how do you draw the line between abortion and infanticide?
Other baffling problems arise in relation to health and environmental hazards. In the testimony that helped to defeat government support of the supersonic transport plane (SST) in the Senate was a sophisticated item of scientific knowledge. Some experts predicted that the depletion of ozone in the stratosphere due to the exhausts from the SST would produce about 10,000 additional cases of skin cancer in the world. This consequence would follow from the increase in ultraviolet radiation allowed to penetrate through the upper atmosphere. This prediction rested on a complicated theoretical model. Had it not existed, hundreds of supersonic transports might have flown for years before the public noticed the increase in skin cancer. And even then, so many variables are thought to contribute to cancer that the planes might be entirely overlooked as a partial cause.
The effects of air pollution and of the discharge of small amounts of toxic chemicals into the environment are difficult to assess. But increasing knowledge will make it possible to make such measurements more accurately. People are developing lung cancer today because they were exposed to asbestos particles in and around shipyards during World War II.26 Technology creates environmental dangers, and knowing about these dangers confronts us with problems; we must make choices that did not exist before. And as we do increasingly more powerful things to the environment, the difficulties of resolving these value conflicts will be multiplied. The issue becomes more subtle when it is recognized that the addition of toxic substances to human surroundings does more harm to some groups than to others. The very young, the very old, pregnant women, and those with cardiovascular disease are hurt most. How do we measure this damage done to a few against a social good that may be achieved for many?
Further, decisions made today may create problems or obligations for generations to come. Consider, for example, the storage of radioactive wastes from atomic generating plants. These highly dangerous materials must be kept away from the biosphere for periods of thousands of years with a high degree of reliability. They must be constantly monitored. The storage area must be so impenetrably sealed that no one can ever blunder in. But considering just the political and social cataclysms of this century, can we presume to guarantee such storage sites for even a few years, to say nothing of millennia? Can we obligate posterity to such a danger? Yet producers of electricity claim that there is no way to provide the energy needs of the future without building more atomic reactors that generate dangerous wastes.
Another problem we face from the interweaving of technological advance and human values has been called the "infinitely dangerous, negligible probability accident." Numerous safeguards surround the operation of nuclear . The safety record so far is very good. However, the fact that no serious accident has yet occurred is offset by the massiveness of the catastrophe that would result if the reactors safeguards failed. Hundreds of thousands of people would be killed. Huge areas would be uninhabitable for a long period. How do you weigh values when a danger approaches infinity but the probability of its occurrence approaches zero? In these last examples both progress and safety depend on a highly trained, disciplined elite dealing with issues that have enormous import for the whole society. The most striking instance is the small group of military men who control nuclear weapons. Think especially of the crews of the American and Russian submarines of the Polaris type. Again, there are numerous safeguards, all designed and carried out in secret. Yet our very survival is in their hands. We confront a paradox of the highest order. The routine functions of these people are boring, lonely, and casual. Yet their emergency responsibilities are awesome, requiring unerring judgment and a high level of group trust.
Enough has been said to remind us of the usefulness of the advice given by Alfred North Whitehead: Seek simplicity and distrust it. Harvey Brooks suggests that living with technology is like climbing a mountain which narrows to a knife-edge as the top is reached.27 Each step takes us higher, but the precipices on either side become steeper. The valley floor below recedes in the distance. The dangers of a misstep increase with each advance. We cannot stop or retreat. We are committed to the peak. The threats we face rise in direct proportion to the promises, and both are climbing at an exponential rate.
The next chapter will develop the concept of visionary reason as the saving counterpart to technological reason. Technological reason serves us best when it becomes the servant of creative thinking and is directed toward life-fulfilling goals. Unless technological reason is dominated by a vision that comes from beyond itself, it will lead us toward robotic efficiency, void of human ecstasy.
1. Among the many examples that might be chosen, see Roderick Seidenberg, Posthistoric Man (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1950); Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964); Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967) and The Pentagon of Power (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1970); Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1969 [Anchor paperback, 1969]); Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968; Bantam Books [paper], 1968). Cf. Manfred Stanley, "The Technicist Projection," Harvard University Program on Technology and Society (Fifth Annual Report, 1968-69), pp. 14-17. A theological example of technological pessimism is found in Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), part 2. A symposium dealing with Ellul is The Technological Order, ed. Carl Stover (Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1963).
2. See Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), p. 125.
3. See William Kuhns, The Post-Industrial Prophets (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1971), for a discussion of some of these thinkers. See especially pp. 11-115.
4. Crane Brinton, The Shaping of the Modern Mind (New York: New American Library [Mentor Book, paper], 1953), p. 113.
5. See Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949).
6. See Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth- Century Philosophers (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press 1932).
7. R. Buckminster Fuller, Utopia or Oblivion (New York: Bantam Books [paper], 1969; Overlook Press, 1972).
8. See three articles in The Futurist by Seaborg: "Some Long-Range Implications of Nuclear Energy" (February 1968), pp. 12-13; "The New Optimism" (December 1969), pp. 157-160; and "The Birthpangs of a New World" (December 1970), pp. 205-208. see also Man and Atom: Building a New World through Nuclear Technology by Seaborg and William Corliss (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1971).
9. See, for example, an article by Olaf Helmer of the Institute of the Future, Middletown, Conn., "New Attitudes Toward the Future," The Futurist (February 1967), p. 8. The Futurist, published by the World Future Society, is filled with confident claims of this kind, as well as more pessimistic points of view. See also Helmer et al., Social Technology (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1966).
10. See B. F. Skinner’s utopian novel, Walden Two (New York: The Macmillan Co. [paper], 1969).
11. New York Times (September 27, 1974), p. 41.
12. Seidenberg, Posthistoric Man. See also his The Anatomy
13. Mumford, The Pentagon of Power, plates 14-15, between pp. 180-181.
14. W. La Barre, quoted by John McHale, The Future of the Future (New York: George Braziller, 1969; Ballantine Books, Inc. [paper], 1971), p. 92. 15. Medieval Technology and Social Change, p. 28.
16. See Lynn White, Jr., "What Accelerated Technological Progress in the Western Middle Ages?" in Creation: The Impact of an Idea, ed. Daniel O’Connor and Francis Oakley (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons [paper], 1969), pp. 84-104. See also White, Machina Ex Deo (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1968).
17. Kenneth Boulding, "The Interplay of Technology and Values: The Emerging Superculture" in Values and the Future, ed. Kurt Baier and Nicholas Rescher (New York: The Free Press, 1969), p. 345.
18. See Emmanuel Mesthene, Technological Change (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970). Mesthene’s book contains a useful discussion of many of the issues in the rest of this chapter.
19. Jerome B. Wiesner and Herbert F. York, "National Security and the Nuclear-Test Ban," Scientific American, 211 (October 1964), pp. 27 ff.
20. Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science (December 13, 1968), pp. 1243-48.
21. Harvey Brooks, Can Science Be Planned? Harvard University Program on Technology and Society (Reprint No.3, 1967).
22. The claim is that of John Kenneth Galbraith, in Mesthene, Technological Change, p. 72.
23. Professor Weizsäcker made this point in a lecture at Kirkridge, Pennsylvania, September 1971.
24. Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World [paper], 1963). Cf. Kuhns, The Post-Industrial Prophets, pp. 45-48.
25. In the section that follows, I am greatly indebted to a paper by Harvey Brooks, "Technology and Values," Zygon (March 1973), pp. 17-35.
26. "The Week in Review," New York Times (October 1, 1972), section 4, p. 9.
27. Brooks, "Technology and Values," pp. 34-35.