CT551--Week 2--Lecture notes

The Role of Technology in Society

Leo Marx's essay on "Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?" brings us back to something in Volti's Ch. 1.

What is the point of technological change? Is it an end in itself? Perhaps, for a very persistent feature of human history/anthropology is innovation, perhaps even to the point that we might define what it is that makes a human being distinctively human as the tendency or drive to change things, to invent. (Most other defining features--e.g., communication--are shared with other species.) Click here for a related essay.

If we must insist that there is a purpose to innovation, what is it? Profit? Social justice? Individual freedom? Saving time and labor? All have been suggested, but it is reasonable to think of all these possibilities as side-benefits, pay-offs, only rarely there as genuine intent. If the inventor invents simply because he or she is human, all other reasons become post hoc rationalizations. That does not mean those reasons are irrelevant, however; indeed, "There's gotta be a better way to do this" may in fact kick off the inventor's thinking, as may the wish for profit. The larger reasons--social justice, for instance--seem unlikely to play much part in the inventor's thinking. They may, however, have a lot to do with a society's reactions to technological change and may affect whether society encourages or discourages such change with such things as patent systems.

As Marx notes, science and technology early on gained a reputation for leading to comprehensive social, political, moral, intellectual, and material improvement, fitting right into an era of American and French revolutions.

Benjamin Franklin saw innovation as a matter of service to humanity. Others saw it in terms of money and power (over both nature and people). Either way, usefulness was important--only useful innovations serve humanity or can be sold to yield profit, which in turn yields power over people; and "usefulness" means meeting human needs, which generally seem to be satisfied by exerting power over nature. To be fair, we should recognize that "perceived" usefulness is what sells--and creates the advertising industry.

Humanist critics of the "mechanical philosophy" wanted goals or higher ends, seeing the pursuit of science and technology for their own sake alone as idolatry. What goals? See above, and smile at Thomas Jefferson's invention of the "NIMBY" concept.

Marx points to "the vision of advancing knowledge empowering humankind to establish a less hierarchical, more just and peaceful society" and says we lost sight of that in favor of the view that technological innovation was all the progress that mattered. In his last line, he displays a tendency to define "true" progress as "social" progress. But he also, as I said above, recognizes that technological innovation has often led to social, political, moral, and intellectual, as well as material, improvement. Such improvement may be more side-effect than intent, but it is no less real. And it does mean that scientific and technological progress have been accompanied by social progress.

Do we need goals? Or is it enough that we get there?


Mesthene's essay on "The Role of Technology" makes the important point that every new technology offers BOTH new opportunities and new problems, simultaneously and inseparably. Some people focus on the opportunities, some on the problems, and some say "Big deal! Been there, worked it out the last time, will again, no problem!"

Mesthene also says that by creating new opportunities and new problems, technology induces change in two ways. We might add a third way, for technology also induces change by creating a certain frame of mind, an openness to change, a willingness to look for novel solutions to old problems, even a willingness to see problems to which we used to be blind.

In all three ways, technology thus enlarges our choices. This is an interesting thought, for it strikes an immediate chord in an American mind--we value choice, don't we? Choice goes with concepts of freedom and human rights; perhaps it should surprise no one that science and technology have been biggest in precisely those nations that value such things. Yes, some very technological nations (Nazi Germany and the old USSR) have not valued freedom and human rights, but they lost their strong positions to others that did.

Mesthene's definition of technology is as tools in the general sense, the organization of knowledge for practical purposes. This is much like Volti's definition. Bear it in mind when you read McDermott (next).

This definition is quite inclusive and helps present technology as pervasive both now and in the past. Why are we more concerned today than in the past about the effects of technology? Many of our technologies are more powerful and have more lasting (even irreversible) effects on human health and the environment. We feel such effects should be prevented or stopped, and we have therefore made as a society a deliberate decision to understand and control technology. This is in large part what this course is about.

Mesthene notes that technology can change our values. It makes old goals (e.g., infant survival) more easily attainable, and it brings previously unattainable goals within reach (think of organ transplants). There is a tendency to say that if we CAN do something, we SHOULD do it.

Should we? Bear in mind that anything that increases choices also seems to increase the complexity and pace of life and demands changes in our social institutions (although the appearance of new choices does not make the old choices unavailable; they may remain important to many people, as Edgerton said). And many people do not deal well with change--which suggests that the reason why technological and social progress are out of step (if they are) is not that technology advances so rapidly, but that people resist social change more than they do technological change.


McDermott's essay, "Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals," was written as an attempt to rebut Mesthene. Bear in mind that it was written at the time of the Vietnam War, and like much academic writing of the era, it shares in a pervasive distrust of government and military, and then in technology because so much of it was linked to the military. Indeed, McDermott chose to define technology in terms of control, hierarchy, and expense, using as his prime example a particularly foolish military activity (program bombing). He definitely seems to be one of those Mesthene said focused on the problems.

It is interesting to consider another example he might have used: computers. In the late sixties, that meant mostly mainframes, decks of cards for input, hierarchies of white-coated technicians, limited access, and a sense of mystery, with almost a religious air to it all. Minicomputers existed but were still the size of refrigerators. But just a few years later--when did the first PCs hit the market?--the story changed drastically. Today--are PCs instruments of control by some elite hierarchy? Or are they instruments of individual empowerment and freedom? Does the history of the development of PCs support McDermott or Mesthene? Has "laissez innover" turned out to be a "right-wing" or conservative idea (McDermott's notion), or a "left-wing" or liberal idea? (We can understand "right-wing" as meaning favoring the elite, the power structure, the forces of authority; "left-wing" favors putting power in the hands of the individual ["Power to the People!" is an old leftist slogan].)

Today a great deal of software is produced by large corporations, but an awful lot of the hardware and software that made the PC a success was produced by individuals and small businesses. (In the 1970s, even Bill Gates was small potatoes.) Individuals also made the Internet the marvel it quickly became, and currently a major war is being fought to bring the Internet under the control of major media companies (in the name of copyright) and Homeland Security (in the name of security). Whether Big Business and Government, or the individual computer user, will win the war is by no means settled.


The first readings in the Taking Sides book get at the relationship between science (or technology) and society in another way. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the Bush Administration displayed a tendency to approve only of science that matches its goals (which are also the goals of certain sectors of society). In February 2004, and again in March, the UCS released a report that assembled numerous charges that the Bush Administration had repeatedly and on an unprecedented scale used political "litmus tests" to choose members of scientific advisory panels, suppressed and distorted scientific findings, and otherwise tried to stack the scientific deck in favor of its policies, with important consequences for human health, public safety, and community well-being. In April 2004, the President's science advisor, John H. Marburger, III, argued that the Bush Administration strongly supports science and applies the highest scientific standards in decision-making, but he also stressed that science is but one input into the policy process. He did not say that other factors can override scientific input, but that seemed an inescapable implication of his words.

In April 2008, the UCS released a new report on political interference specifically at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Testifying before Congress, Francesca T. Grifo, Director of the UCS's Scientific Integrity Program, summarized that report, arguing that the Bush Administration had established a pattern of interfering in federal scientific reports and science-based decision making, notably with the EPA's setting of an air quality standard for ground-level ozone. Susan E. Dudley, Administrator of the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, argued that regulations and guidance documents such as scientific reports must be consistent with the President's priorities, among other things. What should play the major role in shaping public policy? Science? Morality? Political ideology? When these things don't agree, which should come first? Examples can be drawn from many areas. The place of sex education in the public schools is an obvious choice. It has the virtue that it is a topic that comes before school boards all over the country, the Bush Administration had a very particular stance (teach abstinence, and don't even mention condoms), and research is very clear that other stances (teach condoms!) are more effective.

Should disagreement be stifled? Under Bush, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a policy requiring the World Health Organization to submit requests for the services of HHS-employed scientific experts to HHS, which would then choose the experts, on the apparent grounds that such experts are supposed "to serve as representatives of the U.S. government at all times and advocate U.S. government policies." Should scientists support all government policies? What if the scientific evidence does not support the policy? What if the scientist differs in political or religious affiliation from the Administration in power? Does it make a difference whether the scientist is employed by the government?


Questions for Discussion

1. Let's define "technological change" as something more than "invention." The latter is what a single inventor does. The former is the sum total of all the inventors out there, inventing away like mad, and our society has chosen to encourage it with government research funding, a patent system, and other measures. Why? What is the point of technological change (not just mere invention)? To put the question another way, why should society encourage technological change?
  1. a booming economy?
  2. jobs?
  3. power?
  4. social justice?
  5. improved standard of living?
  6. other?


2. As a scientist, I can easily justify "science for its own sake," for science is the search for understanding, and to many scientists it does not matter whether that understanding turns out to be useful. But what about "technology for its own sake"? Can such a thing exist?

3. Mesthene says that by creating new opportunities and new problems, technology induces change in two ways. I suggested that technology also induces change by creating a certain frame of mind, an openness to change, a willingness to look for novel solutions to old problems, even a willingness to see problems to which we used to be blind. Let us develop an example by asking a simple question: Is there a human right to be able to communicate across long distances? We take the ability for granted and tend to think that people who don't have broadband, or Internet access, or telephones are in a genuine sense deprived. But the ability did not exist for anyone before the invention of the telegraph in the early 1800s. Our question is thus a product of technology. In this context, what are the "novel solutions to old problems" and "willingness to see problems to which we used to be blind"?

4. Mesthene tells us that technology can change our values. In what ways? For good or ill?

5. What are the benefits and drawbacks of choosing scientific advisors according to their political or religious beliefs?