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Machines Without a Cause

La Civilisation au carrefour

by Radovan Richta
Editions Anthropos, 466 pp., 36 Frs.

Innovations: Scientific, Technological and Social

by Dennis Gabor
Oxford, 113 pp., $4.95

Overskill: The Decline of Technology in Modern Civilization

by Eugene S. Schwartz
Quadrangle, 338 pp., $8.95

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.”1

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.”2

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 of “compulsive innovation” and “growth addiction,” and he urges those who live in the industrial countries to reflect upon ways of making the transition to a “new stage of civilization” which would offer “hope without material growth.” Similarly, Anthony Oettinger, in a highly critical examination of the uses of technology in education, refers to “innovation-drunk schools.” Many scientists now seem ready to engage in collective actions—for example, in the Pugwash Conferences or in the work of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science—in an attempt to find solutions for some of the problems that technological development creates.

Yet these attempts themselves raise new problems. It is very widely (though, be it noted, not universally) recognized that science and technology need to be brought under some more stringent kind of control. But how are they to be controlled, and by whom? The answers given to these questions are very diverse and for the most part unconvincing, even in those studies which undertake a more or less systematic inquiry into the relation between technology and society, as distinct from the mass of journalistic and sensational comment in which the whole subject threatens to become engulfed.

Their unsatisfactory character is due on one side to the absence, in most cases, of any theory of society that would provide a frame for considering science and technology as social phenomena, and on the other side to the lack of any clearly conceived social end, a desirable form of human society, which science and technology, if properly controlled, ought to help us achieve. It is idle to blame urban planners, corporation executives (whether public or private), bureaucrats, or miscellaneous others for their misdeeds, when there exists no political consciousness capable of defining a form of social life to which we should be aspiring.3

Some of these difficulties and deficiencies are exemplified in two major projects of research which have been initiated within the past few years: the Harvard University Program on Technology and Society, directed by Emmanuel Mesthene,4 and the Research Group of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, directed by Radovan Richta.5 Mesthene’s book, which presumably reflects the general orientation of the Harvard program, makes no pretension to set out from any theoretical ideas about social structure and social change. It has the appearance of a commonsensical, descriptive account of the impact of technology, avoiding the extremes of boundless enthusiasm or total condemnation and adopting a middle-of-the-road position from which to assess judiciously the costs and benefits of technological innovation and to reflect upon the social adaptations that will be necessary in order to diminish the former and increase the latter.

But behind these statements of the apparently sensible and obvious there is discernible, nonetheless, a distinct point of view—that of the “end of ideology” school of social scientists. Mesthene assumes a general agreement about social goals embodied in existing institutions, excludes the possibility of political conflict, and ignores (except for one brief and contemptuous dismissal) the movements of dissent that have grown up during the past decade. With these assumptions he is then able to neglect the social background entirely and to treat technology as an abstract determining force, even though he has remarked earlier in the book that technology is not autonomous, not independent of society. The problems thus left aside are really the most vital ones, concerning the extent to which technology (not as an abstract force, but as an assemblage of particular kinds of knowledge and as the activities, based upon this knowledge, of distinctive social groups) is dependent or independent in relation to the interests and ideologies of other groups in society.

Mesthene’s conception of technology comes out very clearly in that part of the book in which he discusses values. The discussion has several curious features. In the first place, only religious values are considered; and this is bound to seem odd at a time when secularization is far advanced and theologians themselves are busy transforming religious into nonreligious expressions. More important, however, is the kind of relationship that is assumed between technology and religion: we are told only about the impact of technology on religion, never about the impact of religion on technology. In Mesthene’s words:

…the new religious synthesis we seek would…forge new symbols expressive of technological reality…a long step will have been taken toward providing a religious belief system adequate to the realities and needs of a technological age.

This is very close to a crude Marxist view, in which the technological basis simply determines the religious super-structure. But if this is the relation to be posited why not proceed to the limit of the Marxist argument and conclude that with the further development of technological society religious values, as the “opium of the people,” are likely to disappear or to be emptied of their meaning while retaining the forms? Why not investigate in a more thorough fashion the secularization of our culture, including the secularization of theology itself, and the consequences of this process? On the other hand, if Mesthene does not mean to suggest that religious values are wholly ideological and determined, if they are conceived as having some independent source, then their relation with technology must also be seen as potentially critical, and not merely the legitimation of the technological order which he appears to advocate.

One consequence or accompaniment of this preoccupation with religious values is a virtually complete indifference to social and political values, even though such values are manifestly more relevant to social change.6 For example, the student movement, which was certainly an important source of new social values during the 1960s, gets only an oblique reference in a brief comment on “rebellious youth.” Mesthene sees this rebellion as the outcome of inadequate socialization. The young generation, he explains, become aware through the mass media of departures from the ideals and norms of society before they can have instilled into them the values which the ideals and norms reflect. It does not seem to occur to him that it may be the established values themselves, all too accurately expressed in social norms, that are being rejected, or that there may be reasonable grounds for rejecting them. There is apparent here an obstinate refusal to take political dissent seriously, to conceive that there can be alternative political values from which realistic political conflict may, and should, arise.

Mesthene’s general perspective, which assumes that all fundamental political issues have already been settled in American society, proves very restricting when he does raise, in the last few pages of his book, some questions about the impact of technology on politics. He conceives this as involving only a relatively smooth adaptation of existing institutions to the needs of advanced technology, not as offering the opportunity and challenge for a leap forward into a new kind of society. At most he allows that technology has brought about an “enhanced importance of the public sector of society.”

But this says very little. Everyone understands that big science and technology (together with military needs) have brought about government intervention in the economy (and also in the more general regulation of social life) on a scale that would have been inconceivable in the era of liberal capitalism. Apart from the fact that such intervention by the state is not an unalloyed blessing—is, indeed, from one aspect another problem posed by technology—it should be noted that Mesthene tells us nothing about the content of this intervention or growth of the public sector, which can certainly take place, with very different ends in view, in a Nazi or Stalinist type of society as well as in a more or less democratic system.

In fairness, it should be said that real political problems do occasionally break in upon these rather abstract reflections. Thus, in discussing the “needed restructuring of our political institutions” Mesthene mentions the “strength of privilege and vested interest that will stand in the way.” But the comment is too vague to indicate whether he envisages a genuine conflict of political interests and values, and if so, of which interests, around which major issues. In the same few pages Mesthene considers briefly the opposition that has become apparent between the extension, through technology, of the area of expert decision making and some traditional ideas of democracy. But his suggestions for dealing with this problem do not go beyond advocating some refurbishing of institutions and procedures, in order to make them “more adequate to the realities of modern technological society,” and thus to preserve as much as possible of the kind of democracy we already have.

  1. 1

    Karl Marx, in the preparatory manuscripts for Capital, which were first published in 1939-41 under the title Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Oekonomie (Rohentwurf). A selection from the manuscripts is now available in English in Marx’s Grundrisse, edited by David McClellan (Macmillan, 1971).

  2. 2

    Schwartz quotes from a paper on population growth by Heinz von Foerster, entitled “Doomsday: Friday, 13 November, A.D. 2026,” the observation that “our great-great grand-children will not starve to death. They will be squeezed to death.” Or, on the other hand, they may choke to death.

  3. 3

    This issue, to which I shall return, is the main theme of Jürgen Habermas, Toward a Rational Society (Beacon Press, 1970). He refers there to “today’s problem of transposing technical knowledge into practical consciousness,” that is, into a public consciousness which uses ethical and political concepts to formulate social ideals and programs.

  4. 4

    The Harvard program began in 1964, and its activities to date are reviewed in the Sixth Annual Report, 1969-70. Of the studies published I will mention here only those by Mesthene, Oettinger, and Westin.

  5. 5

    The Czechoslovak project began in 1965. The first studies were published in 1966, and after being discussed widely with both scientists and political leaders they were presented in a revised version in 1968. The French translation of Richta’s book appeared in 1969.

  6. 6

    The Harvard program as a whole ignores quite conspicuously the field of politics. Among the forty-two projects initiated so far (according to the annual report for 1969-70) there is not one that deals directly with political movements and ideologies. Moreover, in the Research Review which is published as part of the program only a single issue (for Summer, 1969) contains anything on the connection between technology and politics, and then it is a very brief discussion in the familiar context of assumptions about “stable democracy” in the US.

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