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A Special Supplement: Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals

Program on Technology and Society

Fourth Annual Report: 1967-8
Harvard, 96 pp., distributed free

If religion was formerly the opiate of the masses, then surely technology is the opiate of the educated public today, or at least of its favorite authors. No other single subject is so universally invested with high hopes for the improvement of mankind generally and of Americans in particular. The content of these millennial hopes varies somewhat from author to author, though with considerable overlap. A representative but by no means complete list of these promises and their prophets would include: an end to poverty and the inauguration of permanent prosperity (Leon Keyserling), universal equality of opportunity (Zbigniew Brzezinski), a radical increase in individual freedom (Edward Shils), the replacement of work by leisure for most of mankind (Robert Theobald), fresh water for desert dwellers (Lyndon Baines Johnson), permanent but harmless social revolution (Walt Rostow), the final comeuppance of Mao Tse-tung and all his ilk (same prophet), the triumph of wisdom over power (John Kenneth Galbraith), and, lest we forget, the end of ideology (Daniel Bell).

These hopes for mankind’s, or technology’s, future, however, are not unalloyed. Technology’s defenders, being otherwise reasonable men, are also aware that the world population explosion and the nuclear missiles race are also the fruit of the enormous advances made in technology during the past half century or so. But here too a cursory reading of their literature would reveal widespread though qualified optimism that these scourges too will fall before technology’s might. Thus population (and genetic) control and permanent peace are sometimes added to the already imposing roster of technology’s promises. What are we to make of such extravagant optimism?

Several months ago Harvard University’s Program on Technology and Society, “…an inquiry in depth into the effects of technological change on the economy, on public policies, and on the character of society, as well as into the reciprocal effects of social progress on the nature, dimension, and directions of scientific and technological development,” issued its Fourth Annual Report to the accompaniment of full front-page coverage in The New York Times (January 18). Within the brief (fewer than 100) pages of that report and most clearly in the concluding essay by the Program’s Director, Emmanuel G. Mesthene, one can discern some of the important threads of belief which bind together much current writing on the social implications of technology.1 Mesthene’s essay is worth extended analysis because these beliefs are of interest in themselves and, of greater importance, because they form the basis not of a new but of a newly aggressive rightwing ideology in this country, an ideology whose growing importance was accurately measured by the magnitude of the Times‘s news report.

At the very beginning of Mesthene’s essay, which attempts to characterize the relationships between technological and social change, the author is careful to dissociate himself from what he believes are several extreme views of those relationships. For example, technology is neither the relatively “unalloyed blessing” which, he claims, Marx, Comte, and the Air Force hold it to be, nor an unmitigated curse, a view he attributes to “many of our youth.” (This is but the first of several reproofs Mesthene casts in the direction of youth.) Having denounced straw men to the right and left of him he is free to pursue that middle or moderate course favored by virtually all political writers of the day. This middle course consists of an extremely abstract and—politically speaking—sanitary view of technology and technological progress.

For Mesthene, it is characteristic of technology that it:

…creates new possibilities for human choice and action but leaves their disposition uncertain. What its effects will be and what ends it will serve are not inherent in the technology, but depend on what man will do with technology. Technology thus makes possible a future of open-ended options….

This essentially optimistic view of the matter rests on the notion that technology is merely “…the organization of knowledge for practical purposes…” and therefore cannot be purely boon or wholly burden. The matter is somewhat more complex:

New technology creates new opportunities for men and societies and it also generates new problems for them. It has both positive and negative effects, and it usually has the two at the same time and in virtue of each other.

This dual effect he illustrates with an example drawn from the field of medicine. Recent advances there

have created two new opportunities: (1) they have made possible treatment and cures that were never possible before, and (2) they provide a necessary condition for the delivery of adequate medical care to the population at large as a matter of right rather than privilege.

Because of the first, however,

the medical profession has become increasingly differentiated and specialized and is tending to concentrate its best efforts in a few major, urban centers of medical excellence.

Mesthene clearly intends but does not state the corollary to this point, namely that the availability of adequate medical care is declining elsewhere.2 Moreover, because of the second point, there have been

…big increases in demand for medical services, partly because a healthy population has important economic advantages in a highly industrialized society. This increased demand accelerates the process of differentiation and multiplies the levels of paramedical personnel between the physician at the top and the patient at the bottom of the hospital pyramid.

Similarly, Mesthene points out that marvelous improvements in auto and air transportation have aggravated social and other problems in the inner city. Furthermore,

Mass communications technology has also made rapid strides since World War II, with great benefit to education, journalism, commerce and sheer convenience. It has also been accompanied by an aggravation of social unrest, however, and may help to explain the singular rebelliousness of a youth that can find out what the world is like from television before home and school have had the time to instill some ethical sense of what it could or should be like.

Mesthene believes there are two distinct problems in technology’s relation to society, a positive one of taking full advantage of the opportunities it offers and the negative one of avoiding unfortunate consequences which flow from the exploitation of those opportunities. Positive opportunities may be missed because the costs of technological development outweigh likely benefits (e.g., Herman Kahn’s “Doomsday Machine”). Mesthene seems convinced, however, that a more important case is that in which

…technology lies fallow because existing social structures are inadequate to exploit the opportunities it offers. This is revealed clearly in the examination of institutional failure in the ghetto carried on by [the Program]. At point after point, …analyses confirm…that existing institutions and traditional approaches are by and large incapable of coming to grips with the new problems of our cities—many of them caused by technological change…—and unable to realize the possibilities for resolving them that are also inherent in technology. Vested economic and political interests serve to obstruct adequate provision of low-cost housing. Community institutions wither for want of interest and participation by residents. City agencies are unable to marshall the skills and take the systematic approach needed to deal with new and intensified problems of education, crime control, and public welfare. Business corporations, finally, which are organized around the expectation of private profit, are insufficiently motivated to bring new technology and management know-how to bear on urban projects where the benefits will be largely social.

His diagnosis of these problems is generous in the extreme:

All these factors combine to dilute what may be otherwise a genuine desire to apply our best knowledge and adequate resources to the resolution of urban tensions and the eradication of poverty in the nation.

Moreover, because government and the media “…are not yet equipped for the massive task of public education that is needed…” if we are to exploit technology more fully, many technological opportunities are lost because of the lack of public support. This too is a problem primarily of “institutional innovation.”

Mesthene believes that institutional innovation is no less important in combatting the negative effects of technology. Individuals or individual firms which decide to develop new technologies normally do not take “adequate account” of their likely social benefits or costs. His critique is anti-capitalist in spirit, but lacks bite, for he goes on to add that

…[most of the negative] consequences of technology that are causing concern at the present time—pollution of the environment, potential damage to the ecology of the planet, occupational and social dislocations, threats to the privacy and political significance of the individual, social and psychological malaise—are negative externalities of this kind. They are with us in large measure because it has not been anybody’s explicit business to foresee and anticipate them. [Italics added.]

Mesthene’s abstract analysis and its equally abstract diagnosis in favor of “institutional innovation” places him in a curious and, for us, instructive position. If existing social structures are inadequate to exploit technology’s full potential, or if, on the other hand, so-called “negative externalities” assail us because it is nobody’s business to foresee and anticipate them, doesn’t this say that we should apply technology to this problem too? That is, we ought to apply and organize the appropriate organizational knowledge for the practical purpose of solving the problems of institutional inadequacy and “negative externalities.”3 Hence, in principle, Mesthene is in the position of arguing that the cure for technology’s problems, whether positive or negative, is still more technology. This is the first theme of the technological school of writers and its ultimate First Principle.

Technology, in their view, is a self-correcting system. Temporary oversight or “negative externalities” will and should be corrected by technological means. Attempts to restrict the free play of technological innovation are, in the nature of the case, self-defeating. Technological innovation exhibits a distinct tendency to work for the general welfare in the long run. Laissez innover!

I have so far deliberately refrained from going into any greater detail than does Mesthene on the empirical character of contemporary technology (see below section II) for it is important to bring out the force of the principle of laissez innover in its full generality. Many writers on technology appear to deny in their definition of the subject—organized knowledge for practical purposes—that contemporary technology exhibits distinct trends which can be identified or projected. Others, like Mesthene, appear to accept these trends, but then blunt the conclusion by attributing to technology so much flexibility and “scientific” purity that it becomes an abstraction infinitely malleable in behalf of good, pacific, just, and egalitarian purposes. Thus the analogy to the laissez-faire principle of another time is quite justified. Just as the market or the free play of competition provided in theory the optimum long-run solution for virtually every aspect of virtually every social and economic problem, so too does the free play of technology, according to its writers. Only if technology or innovation (or some other synonym) is allowed the freest possible reign, they believe, will the maximum social good be realized.

  1. 1

    The report has not to my knowledge been circulated through normal publishing channels. A first printing of 5,000 copies was sent directly to leaders in business, government, and the universities, as well as to interested individuals and a second printing has been planned. I am grateful to Dr. Mesthene, with whom I studied as an undergraduate, for sending me a copy upon my request.

  2. 2

    This is almost certainly true of persons living in rural areas or in smaller towns and cities. However, a New York based New Left project, the Health-Policy Advisory Center, has argued with considerable documentation, that roughly half of New York City’s population is now medically indigent and perhaps 80 per cent of the population is indigent with respect to major medical care.

  3. 3

    Practicing what it preaches, the Program sponsors a Research Project on Technology, Business, and the City which has begun for urban areas “…an exploration into what organizational innovations might produce the social and economic development programs that might take maximum advantage of the opportunities offered by modern technology while exploiting the advantages and reducing the weaknesses of both traditional business institutions and traditional government organizations” (italics added). The Project has proposed “…(1) a state- or area-wide Urban Development Corporation in which business and government join to channel funds and provide technical assistance to (2) a number of Local Development Corporations, under community control, which can combine social service with sound business management” (italics added).

    Mesthene comments that the Urban Development Corporation “…could act as a surrogate for the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, able to reward the success of the Local Development Corporation through command of a pool of unrestricted funds.” Community control is to be strengthened and business weaknesses reduced by linking the two together and providing the latter with a “pool of unrestricted funds.” It’s all very participatory, though a trifle weak on democracy.

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