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Technology & Politics

In response to:

Machines Without a Cause from the November 4, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

Tom Bottomore’s article on technology (NYR, November 4) deserves a footnote on the difficulties and possibilities of subjecting technology to political control. As Bottomore suggests, high priority has to be placed on working out comprehensive political views that will encompass modern technology. His only proposal, however, other than encouraging discussion within radical parties, is that social scientists should stop “thinking of their work exclusively in terms of training new generations of ‘experts,”’ and should instead work for “public enlightenment.” We agree.

The question is, though, how to do this. Bottomore’s most explicit proposal is that:

…it is evident that information on social conditions could be much more widely diffused and more thoroughly subjected to analysis in the press and on television…. Much of the work on “social indicators” is suitable for presentation, in a critical and controversial manner….

But he gives no indication of the mechanism through which such a change will come about. In newspapers and on the air we do not expect choices much different from that of “the man condemned to death who was granted ‘freedom of choice’ between being hanged and being shot.” For example, TV and press debates on economics and technology focus at best on items such as:

…Whether the irrationality of monopoly is better than the anarchy of competition; whether the cumulation of means of destruction is better than unemployment; whether inequality of income and wealth leading to saving and investment on the part of the rich is better than fair shares and greatly reduced saving and investment. [Paul A. Baran, The Political Economy of Growth, Modern Reader Paperback, 1968, p. xii.]

The fact that alternatives are not discussed, that causes for conditions are not elucidated, that root problems are avoided is part and parcel of the acceptance by the media of existing comprehensive political views. Social indicators will be acceptable to the media precisely because they do not demand analysis of root causes, precisely because they can be superficially interpreted with ideologies the media accept. Features about the poverty of the ghetto are filled with vivid social indicators, for example, but they are widely interpreted as demonstration of the personal incapacities of the ghetto dwellers, not of their colonial status.

Beyond this, Bottomore seems distrustful of more advanced methods of modeling social phenomena, lest they distract from or dominate the development of political theory. The problem with this is that too many would-be political theorists will be only too glad to dispense with new social science technique altogether. A main argument will be one used by Bottomore (though not necessarily to the same purpose): it is difficult to know whether all the important variables have been included in the model. True, but there are alternatives to impatient rejection of inadequate models. First, social science models need not include all the important variables in order to make contributions to political thought, so long as they are introduced in an atmosphere where numerous political factors are thought about.

Before, say, 1965, the atmosphere in the social sciences was characterized by middle-class isolation. Since about 1965, though, it has been more common for social science students to cross class lines and engage in radical political activity. For these social scientists, a large spectrum of the advance in social science methods stimulates a radical policy dialectic, carried on with much more powerful tools than were available a decade earlier. For example, radical economists are able to introduce, both theoretically and with sophisticated statistics, the notion that productivity increases are a function of higher wages, rather than the (normally assumed) other way around. Here political theory and technical competence are complementary. On a more cynical level, city planner’s working for neighborhood groups have long known that competence with highway engineers’ techniques, for example, is necessary for successful political engagement, for the implications of the almost mechanical transportation models are easy to change when working with neighborhood objectives.

A second reason for working with social science models is that their inventors are beginning to show a good deal of interest in political indicators of a rather wide variety: for neighborhoods, ethnic groups, cities, counties, states, and countries, there are measures of such things as propensity to adopt innovative policies, extent of solidarity and political mobilization, level of organizational capacity, and even technological capacity itself. These are phenomena which are at the heart of most political programs and which get to the roots of many problems of social change. In the future models accounting for such phenomena will be indispensable to the development of sound political theory.

Finally, the tendency of social science to fix on partial (e.g., technologically determined) models of change is a strictly middle-class, liberal tendency, and maybe it is passing. Newer social scientists seem to be transcending class boundaries, and they will be more likely to ask pertinent questions. Although we’re worried, we’re not convinced that liberals will always dominate the social sciences.

Pierre Clavel

William W. Goldsmith

Dept. of Policy Planning & Regional Analysis

Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

Tom Bottomore replies:

Pierre Clavel and William Goldsmith raise some important issues, on which I should like to comment briefly. A change in the outlook of social scientists—from the pre-occupation with training “experts” who can provide neutral technical solutions of social problems to a commitment to “public enlightenment” in order to encourage widespread reflection upon alternative policies—must depend largely upon the development of radical political ideas and movements. That is why I emphasized the need to promote a more vigorous political discussion of technology, and why, like Clavel and Goldsmith, I welcome the growth of a more critical social science, which is the product, to a large extent, of the social movements of the 1960s.

At the same time, it helps the work of criticism to outline in a more precise way new aims for social scientists themselves. Their data are already used in various ways by the media; I proposed a different use, through the presentation of regular reports on the “state of the nation,” in which, for example, the vast inequalities of wealth and income, housing, education, etc., within and between nations, would be set out systematically and would provide the material for a continuing critical discussion. It would be naïve to suppose that the controllers of the mass media will take up such an idea with immoderate enthusiasm, but some of the journals of social science which are directed to the general public, such as Trans-action and New Society, might be expected to respond more favorably. Social criticism, it seems to me, will be advanced by attempts to sketch new possibilities of this kind, in opposition to the prevalent view which sees the problem of information in a democracy as a nonpolitical, technological question, and thus helps to sustain the fiction of consensus.

On the matter of social models I do not think there is any fundamental disagreement. My main criticism (and Clavel and Goldsmith make much the same point) was directed against the idea that even the most advanced models could indicate specific solutions of social problems while disregarding the conflict of political interests and values. What such models may accomplish, I think, if they are developed in an imaginative way, is to formulate more clearly the range of political choices open to men at the present time. They should extend the political horizon, not narrow it down as the technocrats seek to do.

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