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A Special Supplement: Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals

To define technology so abstractly that it obscures these observable characteristics of contemporary technology—as Mesthene and his school have done—makes no sense. It makes even less sense to claim some magical malleability for something as undefined as “institutional innovation.” Technology, in its concrete, empirical meaning, refers fundamentally to systems of rationalized control over large groups of men, events, and machines by small groups of technically skilled men operating through organizational hierarchy. The latent “opportunities” provided by that control and its ability to filter out discordant “negative externalities” are, of course, best illustrated by extreme cases. Hence the most instructive and accurate example should be of a technology able to suppress the humanity of its rank-and-file and to commit genocide as a by-product of its rationality. The Vietnam bombing program fits technology to a “T.”


It would certainly be difficult to attempt to translate in any simple and direct way the social and organizational properties of highly developed technological systems from the battle-fields of Vietnam to the different cultural and institutional setting of the US. Yet before we conclude that any such attempt would be futile or even absurd, we might consider the following story.

In early 1967 I stayed for several days with one of the infantry companies of the US Fourth Division whose parent battalion was then based at Dau Tieng. From the camp at Dau Tieng the well-known Black Lady Mountain, sacred to the Cao Dai religious sect, was easily visible and in fact dominated the surrounding plain and the camp itself. One afternoon when I began to explain the religious significance of the mountain to some GI friends, they interrupted my somewhat academic discourse to tell me a tale beside which even the strange beliefs of the Cao Dai sect appeared prosaic.

According to GI reports which the soldiers had heard and believed, the Viet Cong had long ago hollowed out most of the mountain in order to install a very big cannon there. The size of the cannon was left somewhat vague—“huge, fucking…”—but clearly the GI’s imagined that it was in the battleship class. In any event, this huge cannon had formerly taken a heavy toll of American aircraft and had been made impervious to American counterattacks by the presence of two—“huge, fucking”—sliding steel doors, behind which it retreated whenever the Americans attacked. Had they seen this battleship cannon, and did it ever fire on the camp, which was easily within its range? No, they answered, for a brave flyer, recognizing the effectiveness of the cannon against his fellow pilots, had deliberately crashed his jet into those doors one day, jamming them, and permitting the Americans to move into the area unhindered.

I had never been in the army, and at the time of my trip to Vietnam had not yet learned how fantastic GI stories can be. Thus I found it hard to understand how they could be convinced of so improbable a tale. Only later, after talking to many soldiers and hearing many other wild stories from them as well, did I realize what the explanation for this was. Unlike officers and civilian correspondents who are almost daily given detailed briefings on a unit’s situation capabilities and objectives, GI’s are told virtually nothing of this sort by the Army. They are simply told what to do, where, and how, and it is a rare officer, in my experience anyway, who thinks they should be told any more than this. Officers don’t think soldiers are stupid; they simply assume it, and act accordingly. For the individual soldier’s personal life doesn’t make too much difference; he still has to deal with the facts of personal feelings, his own well-being, and that of his family.

But for the soldier’s group life this makes a great deal of difference. In their group life, soldiers are cut off from sources of information about the situation of the group and are placed in a position where their social behavior is governed largely by the principle of blind obedience. Under such circumstances, reality becomes elusive. Because the soldiers are not permitted to deal with facts in their own ways, facts cease to discipline their opinions. Fantasy and wild tales are the natural outcome. In fact, it is probably a mark of the GI’s intelligence to fantasize, for it means that he has not permitted his intellectual capacity to atrophy. The intelligence of the individual is thus expressed in the irrationality of the group.

It is this process which we may observe when we look to the social effect of modern technological systems in America itself. Here the process is not so simple and clear as in Vietnam, for it involves not simply the relations of today’s soldiers to their officers and to the Army but the historical development of analogous relations between the lower and upper orders of our society. Moreover, these relations are broadly cultural rather than narrowly social in nature. It is to a brief review of this complex subject that I now wish to turn.


Among the conventional explanations for the rise and spread of the democratic ethos in Europe and North America in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the destruction of the gap in political culture between the mass of the population and that of the ruling classes is extremely important. There are several sides to this explanation. For example, it is often argued that the invention of the printing press and the spread of Protestant Christianity encouraged a significant growth in popular literacy. In its earliest phases this literacy was largely expended on reading the Old and New Testament, but it quickly broadened to include other religious works such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and after that to such secular classics as Gulliver’s Travels. The dating of these developments is, in the nature of the case, somewhat imprecise. But certainly by the middle of the eighteenth century, at least in Britain and North America, the literacy of the population was sufficient to support a variety of newspapers and periodicals not only in the larger cities but in the smaller provincial towns as well. The decline of Latin as the first language of politics and religion paralleled this development, of course. Thus, even before the advent of Tom Paine, Babeuf, and other popular tribunes, literacy and the information it carried were widely and securely spread throughout the population and the demystification of both the religious and the political privileges of the ruling classes was well developed. Common townsmen had closed at least one of the cultural gaps between themselves and the aristocracy of the large cities.

Similarly, it is often argued that with the expansion and improvement of road and postal systems, the spread of new tools and techniques, the growth in the number and variety of merchants, the consequent invigoration of town life, and other numerous and familiar related developments, the social experiences of large numbers of people became richer, more varied, and similar in fact to those of the ruling classes. This last, the growth in similarity of the social experiences of the upper and lower classes, is especially important. Social skills and experiences which underlay the monopoly of the upper classes over the processes of law and government were spreading to important segments of the lower orders of society. For carrying on trade, managing a commercial—not a subsistance—farm, participating in a vestry or workingmen’s guild, or working in an up-to-date manufactory or business, unlike the relatively narrow existence of the medieval serf or artisan, were experiences which contributed to what I would call the social rationality of the lower orders.

Activities which demand frequent intercourse with strangers, accurate calculation of near means and distant ends, and a willingness to devise collective ways of resolving novel and unexpected problems demand and reward a more discriminating attention to the realities and deficiencies of social life, and provide thereby a rich variety of social experiences analogous to those of the governing classes. As a result not only were the processes of law and government, formerly treated with semi-religious veneration, becoming demystified but, equally important, a population was being fitted out with sufficient skills and interests to contest their control. Still another gap between the political cultures of the upper and lower ends of the social spectrum was being closed.

The same period also witnesses a growth in the organized means of popular expression. In Britain, these would include the laboring people’s organizations whose development is so ably described in Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. In America, the increase in the organized power of the populace was expressed not only in the growing conflict between the colonies and the Crown but more sharply and fundamentally in the continuous antagonism between the coastal areas and the backwoods, expressed, for example, in Shay’s rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786. Clearly these organizational developments were related to the two foregoing as both cause and effect. For the English workingmen’s movement and the claims to local self-government in America spurred, and were spurred by, the growth in individual literacy and in social rationality among the lower classes. They were in fact its organizational expression.

These same developments were also reflected in the spread of egalitarian and republican doctrines such as those of Richard Price and Thomas Paine, which pointed up the arbitrary character of what had heretofore been considered the rights of the higher orders of society, and thus provided the popular ideological base which helped to define and legitimate lower-class demands.5

This description by no means does justice to the richness and variety of the historical process underlying the rise and spread of what has come to be called the democratic ethos. But it does, I hope, isolate some of the important structural elements and, moreover, it enables us to illuminate some important ways in which the new technology, celebrated by Mesthene and his associates for its potential contributions to democracy, contributes instead to the erosion of that same democratic ethos. For if, in an earlier time, the gap between the political cultures of the higher and lower orders of society was being widely attacked and closed, this no longer appears to be the case. On the contrary, I am persuaded that the direction has been reversed and that we now observe evidence of a growing separation between ruling and lowerclass culture in America, a separation which is particularly enhanced by the rapid growth of technology and the spreading influence of its laissez innover ideologues.

Certainly, there has been a decline in popular literacy, that is to say, in those aspects of literacy which bear on an understanding of the political and social character of the new technology. Not one person in a hundred is even aware of, much less understands, the nature of technologically highly advanced systems such as are used in the Vietnam bombing program. People’s ignorance in these things is revealed in their language. No clearer illustration of this ignorance is needed than the growing and already enormous difference between the speech of organizational and technical specialists and that of the man in the street, including many of the educated ones. To the extent that technical forms of speech within which the major business of American society is carried on are not understood or are poorly understood, there is a decline in one of the essentials of democracy.

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    Mesthene is blind on this point. He writes, for example, that “This is probably the first age in history in which such high proportions of people have felt like individuals; no eighteenth century English factory worker, so far as we know, had the sense of individual worth that underlies the demands on society of the average resident of the black urban ghetto today.” Contrast the following account from Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (Vintage Books, 1967), one of several hundred of the same character.

    During a wave of repression against various workingmen’s organizations in May, 1794, Prime Minister William Pitt himself, in the presence of the Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary and, we may presume, a full battery of police spies and other officials, interrogated a number of Jacobite working men. Thompson relates that at one point Pitt “…summoned for interrogation a fourteen-year-old lad, Henry Eaton, who had been living with [the family of one of the accused]. But the boy stood his ground and [as a contemporary account relates] “‘entered into a political harangue, in which he used very harsh language against Mr. Pitt; upbraiding him with having taxed the people to an enormous extent….”’ (p. 19).

    As Thompson richly documents, the boy was not speaking out of personal cheek. He was part of a movement of Englishmen of the lower orders whose culture had long been developing broad conceptions of working-class rights and dignity in opposition to the repressive culture of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. The sources of that culture were very diverse and included religious elements as well as political ones. Thompson shows, for example, that the religious traditions of some lower-class Britons included the view that worldly success was a mark of the Devil, and poverty often a sign of virtue. Thus no very great effort was required to see through the social, no less than the religious, legitimacy of the upper classes. Only a slight shift of understanding was required to change sin into social vice and the Devil himself into the capitalist system, while the poor’s sense of their own moral worth became a fundamental support of their belief in the rightness and worth of the working class movement.

    One wonders just what Mesthene’s conception of the history of the rise of the democratic ethos consists in. I suspect that he, like many other intellectuals, assumes without thinking that its impulse derives more from blind developments in technology and from ideological inputs from elite intellectuals, than from any processes which exemplify merit and intelligence in the lower classes. How flattering to intellectuals to assume that their benevolence is more important in these matters than the labors, struggles, and experiences of vital popular cultures.

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