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,…

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