La Civilisation au carrefour
Innovations: Scientific, Technological and Social
Overskill: The Decline of Technology in Modern Civilization
In the space of a few decades men have attained, in great measure, a goal which was long anticipated and desired. They have become, in Descartes’ phrase, “the masters and possessors of nature.” A scientific and technological revolution, which continues at an accelerating pace, has already largely accomplished the substitution of knowledge for physical labor as the principal force of production, and we live in the conditions which Marx, over a century ago, saw as the final outcome of capitalist production: “The process of production has ceased to be a process of labor…. It is man’s productive powers in general, his understanding of nature and his ability to master it, which now appear as the basis of production and wealth.”
Yet the achievement has taken on, increasingly, a problematic character: on one side, because the revolution in production, contrary to the expectations of Marx and of later socialists, has not been accompanied by a social revolution but has taken place mainly within the framework of capitalist society; and on the other side, because science and technology, after three centuries in which they have been almost universally regarded as the supreme means for solving human problems (above all in the nineteenth-century theories of progress, of which Marxism itself was one version), have now come to be seen by many people as a source of problems which they are perhaps unable to solve. Their continued advance creates as much anxiety, and even fear, as it does satisfaction; and these sentiments have begun to take form in movements of criticism and opposition. The “counter-culture” emerges as the antithesis of a scientific civilization.
It is evident, of course, that there was hostility to science and technology (and their product, industrialism) at a much earlier time, arising in the first place out of aristocratic and religious values; and that the high tide of the confident Western belief in progress through science has been steadily receding since the end of the last century. Nevertheless, the reactions of the present time are on a quite different scale, and they concern more specific dangers. Initially, no doubt, it was the discovery and use of nuclear weapons that produced widespread doubts whether increasing scientific knowledge could be equated with increasing human happiness. The menace of nuclear war has kept these doubts alive, and they have been strengthened by some other unwelcome by-products of technological advance—the population explosion, the pollution of the environment—which are more and more frequently portrayed as alternative forms of an approaching “doomsday.”
The mistrust of science and technology has ceased to be merely the affair of some traditionalist social groups—of an aristocracy or a coterie of literary intellectuals—who might be seen as struggling to defend an established social position and way of life. It is not even any longer a more general conflict between the “two cultures,” for there has grown up an extensive literature of scientific self-criticism. Dennis Gabor, surveying the course and costs of technological development, writes …
Technology & Politics March 9, 1972