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.

The attitude toward technology that is expressed here, and in the Harvard program as a whole, is that of “responding” to its “impact.” There is no hint at all that technology, in its varied manifestations, can provide the material for creative political thinking (both critical and positive) which would be concerned above all with ways of getting more democracy, more equality, more widespread human enjoyment. This narrowness of view is particularly evident in discussions of technology in the sphere of information. For the most part the problem is seen as one of reconciling expert administration with our present limited degree of democratic participation, in the context of a widening gap (of knowledge) between the “experts” and the “public.”

But this conception itself arises in part from the concentration of attention upon the flow of information among experts and specialists, as is the case, for instance, with many of the contributions to Alan F. Westin’s Information Technology in a Democracy (published as part of the Harvard program), which deal mainly with the value to administrators and managers of new methods of acquiring, presenting, and analyzing information that will increase the efficiency of “organizational decision-making.” One consequence of this approach is the neglect of the possibilities for increasing the volume of public knowledge and discussion concerning the state of society.

Social scientists, in many cases, contribute to this neglect by thinking of their work exclusively in terms of training new generations of “experts,” and not at all as a means of public enlightenment. Yet 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 than is the case at present. Much of the work on “social indicators”7 is suitable for presentation, in a critical and controversial manner, in regular assessments of the “state of the nation” on television programs and elsewhere. Any progress along these lines will no doubt depend largely upon the development of political ideas and a political movement that really aim to extend democracy in all spheres of life. But there is some value, at least, in showing how technology might contribute to a transformation of social life instead of portraying it as an iron cage within which we can only seek to make our cramped existence as tolerable as possible.

Some of these larger opportunities are in fact sketched in Radovan Richta’s study, which appears at first sight to diverge widely from the approach adopted in the Harvard project. In the first place, it begins from a comprehensive theory of society—Marxism—which can provide a framework for the systematic exploration of the relations between technology and the social structure. Secondly, it sees the scientific and technological revolution as part of a specific form of society, namely, that which has developed on the basis of a socialist economy.

Finally, it deals with questions of technology from the perspective of a social ideal, a future type of society far superior to our present condition, which is yet realistically described inasmuch as the continuance of conflict, uncertainty, and change is acknowledged. The idea of a completely harmonious society, according to Richta, was one of the myths of the industrial age. The future civilization will be characterized by “more and more vigorous conflicts” arising out of the work experiences and styles of different social groups, and out of the opposition between generations; there will emerge “an ever-renewed, increasingly profound, polarization of progressive and conservative attitudes,” and a more intense clash of ideas. 8

Nevertheless, in spite of these obvious differences, there are also striking resemblances between the two projects. To begin with Richta adopts an interpretation of Marxism in which the determining influence of technology is very strongly emphasized, deriving this principally from those sections of the Grundrisse in which Marx outlined the development of industrial capitalist society up to the stage of automated production, characterized by the pre-eminence of science as the major productive force. Following, and to some extent amplifying, Marx’s ideas Richta distinguishes several phases in the development of modern economic systems, beginning with the introduction of simple machinery, then the use of steam power facilitating a concentration of machinery, and workers, followed by the use of electric power and a further concentration. These phases culminate in the system of mass production, based upon a large industrial labor force.

The succeeding phase, that of the scientific and technological revolution, carries some of these processes further, introducing new forms of power and a larger stock of more complex machinery, but at the same time it reverses the line of development in one important respect: by making possible automated production it halts the increase, and then tends to bring about a decline, in the size of the industrial labor force, and creates a new structure of occupations.

Richta sums up this qualitative change (pp. 21-23) by contrasting the “industrial” or “extensive” type of economic growth (involving the construction of new factories, improvement of machinery, growth in the numbers of industrial workers) with the “post-industrial” or “intensive” type (involving the discovery and use of qualitatively superior productive forces, by a transfer of resources to scientific research and development). He concludes by arguing that this new kind of economy requires and is bringing about a new form of society. The scientific and technological revolution can proceed most easily and can deliver its benefits most fully in a socialist or communist society.

Richta, then, sees technology as the determining force in social development9 and, like Mesthene, virtually ignores political movements. But the thesis he presents has some contradictory features. While claiming that socialism is the social form that corresponds with a system of production based upon advanced science and technology Richta acknowledges that the scientific and technological revolution has actually taken place most fully in the capitalist societies, whereas the socialist countries are still for the most part engaged in the preceding type of “extensive” economic development.

Indeed, one of the main themes of his book is the need, in Czechoslovakia, with its relatively developed industry, to bring about a change in economic policies in order to move from “extensive” to “intensive” growth. But, in that case, what has become of the determining influence of technology? In the capitalist societies the “post-industrial” stage has been reached without provoking any fundamental change in the social system. Conversely, in Czechoslovakia a socialist form of society has been created in the absence of an appropriate technological basis.

These historical problems, which obviously call for a political analysis, are not the only ones to emerge from Richta’s book. There is also the question of how future changes are to be accomplished. Richta gives the impression that technological change will necessarily engender the good society which he describes in such an appealing way. But if the scientific and technological revolution has left the social system of Western capitalism largely intact, and has created in addition the monstrous problems against which the prophets of doom inveigh, why should we suppose that it will transform society in Czechoslovakia? In fact, it is all too evident that the optimistic and enthusiastic outlook conveyed by Richta’s book had its source in the new political ideas and movements that came to life in Czechoslovakia between 1965 and 1968; and that the kind of social development envisaged at that time was arrested by another political act, namely, the military occupation of August, 1968.

As for the possibility of social change in the capitalist countries, Richta refers to it only in passing, and his theory of the development of productive forces merely raises again some well-known problems. For if the scientific and technological revolution has taken place, and the erosion of the industrial working class is already well advanced, then there no longer exists, in an adequate form, that social force which, according to Marx’s theory, would revolutionize capitalist society. And what is to take its place? The weakness of radical political thought consists in not being able to answer this question.

It is easy enough to see why writers like Mesthene and Richta should attribute such an overwhelming influence to science and technology; and should neglect, or fail to take seriously, the signs that there may be other forces in modern society that make for change or stand in the way of change. The impact of scientists and technologists is highly visible; they form powerful interest groups and they are able to recruit widespread support from other groups because their activities are essential to the goals of economic growth and military strength. At the same time, a scientific and technological outlook has been widely diffused and might be said to predominate in the culture of industrial societies, with the result that although the direction of technological development can be regarded as being determined in a broad sense by political authorities (through the financing of research, etc.), these authorities themselves may make decisions in a technological frame of mind, supported by all manner of “expert” advice.

One important element in this situation has been the increasingly scientific and technological character of the social sciences. Ever since the war the notions of “policy sciences” and “social engineering” have steadily gained ground, and in spite of much recent criticism, the main line of development in research is still (and in some countries increasingly) toward quantitative, policy oriented studies which are intended to provide technical solutions of social problems.

A good recent example is to be found in “Forrester’s Law.”10 Jay W. Forrester argues, using the particular example of depressed urban areas, that many reform programs actually worsen the situation they are designed to remedy, because they do not take into account a sufficiently large number of features in the situation. In the case of urban decay Forrester suggests that there is too much low income housing in the depressed areas rather than too little. The provision of such housing attracts low income people to the inner city until their numbers exceed available income opportunities and the level of living declines, with the consequence that there is then a further deterioration in housing and other services.

The remedy proposed, for this and other problems, is the construction of computer models of social systems, which would make it possible to take into account a much wider range of factors, to grasp their interconnections, and to foresee more accurately the consequences of intervening in one or other aspect of the situation. Forrester himself situates the problem of urban decay within an ambitious model of the interactions, on a world scale, between population, industrialization, depletion of natural resources, agriculture, and pollution.

I am far from wishing to condemn this approach out of hand. It is certainly preferable to base social policy upon an adequate, rather than an inadequate, representation of a social situation. But the use of computer models has limitations which should restrain our enthusiasm. First, it is by no means easy to determine that all the relevant variables have been included, or to decide upon their relative importance, as demographers have discovered in their attempts to construct models of changes in fertility.

Secondly, and much more important in my view, every program of social reform, even in a limited area—housing, poverty, discrimination—is embedded in the value judgments of a social group which is seeking to preserve or to change a particular form of social life. The interests of slum dwellers conflict with those of slum landlords, the interests of the poor with those of the rich, and such conflicting interests are expressed, more or less clearly and vigorously at different times, in political doctrines and political action. Technical solutions are necessarily incomplete; they presuppose a policy, derive their meaning from being set within some valuation of what constitutes a good society, and are more or less successful, achieve this or that result, according to the outcome of political struggles.

The appeal of science and technology is enhanced by the relative weakness of political thought, faced with the diversity and complexity of present-day problems, the apparent insolubility of some of these problems, and a prevailing uncertainty about the bases and validity of political judgments. It is very much easier for the critic to concentrate his attention upon a particular evil consequence of technological advance (and to see the remedy in yet more technology) than to work out a comprehensive political view. What scheme of social thought is actually capable of grasping the whole array of problems—nuclear and biological warfare, the population explosion, widespread pollution of the environment, exhaustion of natural resources, the totalitarian threat of data banks, the dangers inherent in genetic engineering—and offering, even in principle, a general solution?

The task appears even more unmanageable when we consider how many difficulties even a single one of these problems presents. It has often been remarked that environmental pollution cannot be tackled by any one country alone, for its air and water may be polluted by others. The problem is international. It is the same with population growth. One country, or a few countries together, cannot influence greatly the rate of increase of world population.

But if we then think about a world population policy immense difficulties become apparent. First, as sober demographers tell us, population management is a very inexact science; we simply do not know enough about the influences upon fertility to be able to plan the size of population. Even if we could do so there would be other problems to face: population size is closely bound up with considerations of national interest and national power, and it would scarcely be easier to reach agreement on the limitation of population than on the limitation of armaments. Moreover, the attempt to arrive at international agreements and regulations in this and other spheres would create new problems, for the creation and consolidation of an international authority would tend to produce a system of government still more remote from the individual, and a still more impersonal bureaucracy.

Confronted by these vast problems political thought appears still weaker because of doubts about its own validity. Science and technology seem to provide certain knowledge; to a large extent they have become identified with human reason itself. By contrast, the valuations and judgments that constitute political thought appear insecure and tentative: they can easily be dismissed as mere “ideology” and even as an attack upon reason, especially when they take the form of criticism of established society.

This character comes out very plainly in some of the critical studies of technology. Dennis Gabor, for instance, appeals in vague terms for a transition to a “new stage of civilization,” while Eugene Schwartz expounds a mystical worship of nature. Among radicals the invocation of “socialism” or “revolution” all too often takes the place of a serious attempt to work out a political doctrine.11

In spite of all this we can see the beginnings of a change, presaged by the events of 1968. Political dissent has increased and new political interests have been articulated. Hardly anyone believes any longer that economic growth and technological innovation are self-evident goals, or that the assertion of them must put an end to all reasonable controversy. Thus the way is open for public discussion of the options that are available to men, given the stage of development of science and technology, in deciding the future form of their social life. What is most important is that this discussion should go beyond the speculations of futurologists and the work of individual critics and should be taken up within radical parties, many of which had themselves succumbed earlier to a purely technological outlook. It is not too much to hope, perhaps, that we have already taken the first steps into an age of intense political debate and activity.

This Issue

November 4, 1971