2.6 The Technological Society?

The society of the late industrial and early post-industrial age is in some ways most profoundly influenced by a scientific and technological mindset, and much less so by other ways of thinking. This influence is seen in the academic world, where terms such as "social science" are applied to disciplines whose claims to be scientific in methodology are rather tenuous. It is also seen in the wide-scale application of technique to social, political, and business problems, as discussed in a previous section. For a time, it was even fashionable to attach the term "engineer" to occupations with little or no connection to science or technology. Thus, housewives became "domestic engineers", and janitors "custodial engineers."

The high-tech information society will in the long run be more than simply a gloss over or renaming of existing practices, though even these name changes reflect a genuine shift in the collective point of view of society. People are not just using a new vocabulary, they are not just buying the consumer goods that reflect the latest technological advances--they are planning for and assuming a continuing state of such change. This is done in the purchase of household goods, appliances, and automobiles, the building of houses, offices and apartments, and in the other ordinary decisions of life. That all such goods will soon be obsolete, and thus can be expected to have only a short lifetime, is assumed and planned for. A disposable economy is a necessary by-product of rapid technological change. So is a general familiarization with relatively sophisticated products. Moreover, people tend to trust technology for solutions to such problems as food scarcity, disease, overpopulation, pollution, and energy shortages. As they trust, so they act. When the scientific/technological community has already delivered so much, it is difficult not to assume that it can answer any question, solve any problem and build any kind of machine.

This has also caused many old barriers to crumble. As high technology has become commercialized, businessmen, accountants, and economists have been conscripted to work side-by-side with electrical engineers and computer programmers. Indeed, the computer has generated more crossover among academic and other disciplines than C. P. Snow could have imagined in the early 1960s, for both social scientists and writers have been quick to use this tool to enhance their work. In the first years of the computing discipline, most of its theoreticians and practitioners were drawn from other fields (particularly mathematics), and many a university computing department today is administered by psychologists, philosophers, mathematicians, and economists, rather than by those with doctorates in computing itself. University curricula also recognized this crossover, and have introductory courses in computing, data processing and technology for non-science majors. Such students eagerly embrace the machine for the benefits it can bring, particularly to word processing and data analysis tasks.

However, this does not yet mean that a technological culture is universal or deep-seated, even for students, whom one would expect to adapt most easily to change, for few of them emerge from such courses with much understanding of how those machines work, except in the most vague and general terms. Given that students' general science and mathematics background is often very weak upon entry to the course, such basic concepts as the binary numbering system or simple programming not only cause eyes to glaze over during lectures, but generate a firm resolve to avoid any further courses with technological overtones. This situation may change, but not until the computer becomes as simple to use as a toaster or any other household appliance. The change will be the elimination of such courses, not the requirement of more technical learning. After all, who would need a university-level course in how to use a waffle iron? Indeed, as any high technology matures, there are fewer and fewer people who understand it, even though there may be many more who use it. Such developments ought to be expected.

Thus, the term "high-tech information society" should be understood in the context of technology use, rather than in that of the search for technique. The latter is the function of experts in each field who are seeking to optimize their work; the former is the province of every member of society. Use of machines does not necessarily mean there is change in the way people think. They embrace both technological advances and new techniques for the personal benefits and efficiencies they bring, not because the philosophy of science is fascinating. For the typical person, changes in thinking and living patterns are caused by new techniques, not the reverse. To put it another way, it is the highest level abstractions (finished products) that most people employ; they are not interested in the detailed work that went into them being made ready for common use. There is, therefore, an extent to which technological society is a thin patina over an underlying culture--one that changes much more slowly than it appears on the surface.

At the intellectual decision-making level, Snow's observations about the two cultures still have a certain validity. Academics can still go their way with their specialities without much regard for the changing world around them. Poets and physicists can speak different languages, read different books, and need not talk to each other. They may pretend each other's work is irrelevant, as if physicists had no imagination or poets could live in primitive communes and use nothing of modern technology. While there has been a "scientification" of many academic disciplines, acceptance of such techniques is uneven, and viewed with suspicion by some traditionalists. Thus acceptance of technology is mixed, and there is still division among academics because of the broad acceptance of and trust placed in it. These feelings are reciprocated.

Such suspicions and divisions are potentially dangerous, for they may develop into prejudices that are capable of destabilizing a society. Politicians (and ordinary citizens) cannot make good decisions about technology they distrust or do not understand. Scientists with little or no education in the arts and humanities cannot express themselves in a way that makes their work accessible and believable to the general public. They may also lack the foundation for making moral/ethical decisions, and take the attitude that science and technology are always socially and ethically neutral, when in fact neither is. Kranzberg (Ethics in an Age of Pervasive Technology) puts it this way: "Technology is not ethically neutral because it is not only an instrument of human practice but a form of it also; the ethics of technology concerns human technical practice and its normative problems." Thus, scientists and engineers are called on constantly to make decisions with ethical implications, not only about the way they conduct their work, but about how their work is or will be used. Because of this, they need to be ethically informed themselves, and articulate enough to bring issues to the attention of those outside their own sub culture.

As they communicate with others, they close some of the interdisciplinary gaps, and simultaneously become more familiar with the relationship science and technology have with society as a whole. To the extent that this happens, their techniques can also become the instrument and the object of social and political policies. Eventually, those who do have technological familiarity may demand more power to make decisions. They will need to qualify themselves to be decision makers in order to do this. Likewise, politicians will have to gain greater understanding of technology and its effects, or make way for those who will. The wider public will not even struggle with the theory, but simply use its products as tools. Society will continue to change, for there will be more things that people will be able to do with their tools without thinking about them, and the size of this collection of activities is an important measure of what a civilization is about.

In the longer term, academics may not be as divided as in the past. Their separation into non-overlapping specialities was a response to the need to know enough facts about one field to do useful work in a world suffering from information overload. As this characterization is now irrelevant the barriers between disciplines have already begun to come down to some extent, for the means to manage information effectively and find it on demand has become universally available. This topic will be revisited in the chapter on the information society, as well as in the one on education.

The Third World

There are more important tensions in the world outside academia, because technological benefits continue to be inequitably distributed on a social and geographical basis. The disparity in technology and wealth between the European, North American and white Commonwealth countries on the one hand, and everyone else on the other, may get much worse before it gets any better. To be sure, there are hopeful signs of industrialization, agricultural change, and technical education in the third world. Countries such as China sometimes seem capable of jumping directly from primitive agricultural economies into the information age. However, political and social instability through much of Asia, Africa, and South America conspire to limit growth, and most countries in these regions are still pre-industrial or mid-industrial, with few apparent prospects for improvement. Some African nations have even worse problems, including drought, famine, and an AIDS epidemic that threatens to carry away many of the educated people they have managed to produce. The poor of the underdeveloped nations have little meaningful interaction with the prosperous West and there seems little immediate prospect of changing things. As long as this situation continues--and especially if it worsens (as it seems likely to do)--there still exists the possibility that another war could engulf the whole globe. Such a conflict has the potential not only to destroy centuries of technological advances, but even the human race itself. One of the most important technical problems to solve, therefore, is to find ways to bring the benefits of high technology to all peoples of the world in a non-destructive way.

Technology and Trade-offs

There is a tendency on the part of those employed in the daily pursuit of new technology to assume that progress is always good. However, the use of any new technology has a variety of consequences, and there are times when trade-offs have to be made between increasing efficiency and utility on the one hand, and negative social and human factors on the other. Among many examples are the following:

o Improvements in railroad equipment that are designed to make trains safer and more efficient may cause the price of the service to rise, resulting in more people using the highways. This produces the twin negatives of lower utilization of the now more expensive service, and a higher death rate because highways are much less safe than the railway was initially.

o Large amounts of money are spent making the control rooms of nuclear power plants orderly and efficient. However, if the result is a sterile environment, the resulting operator boredom may actually increase the risk of accidents.

o The introduction of chemicals into meat and other food may make it better tasting and preserve it longer, but at the risk of other health-threatening side effects when the food is consumed.

o A dam built to reduce random flooding and produce large amounts of electricity may be politically advantageous and improve the economy for a time, but may prevent silt deposition in the delta, reducing fertility, and increasing both net erosion and dependence on imported chemical fertilizers. The flooded and ruined valley will silt up (sometimes rapidly), eventually destroying the utility of the dam. In the end, there may be little but damage to show for the expense of billions of dollars.

o Even when technological and economic goals are achieved in the short term, vast megaprojects create correspondingly large capital debts, and these may in the long run ruin the economy and lower the standard of living of a whole nation. A default to the international banks could threaten the economy of the entire world.

o The factories and foundries that bring wealth and prosperity may cause acidic rains to fall (perhaps in another country) resulting in deforestation, soil sterility, fish kills, and respiratory illnesses and increasing the levels of metals such as aluminium in the human system to dangerous levels.

o The manufacture of dangerous chemicals may be conducted in a distant part of the world, on the soil of another nation. This has the twin advantage of reducing risks at home, and creating good jobs in a third world nation. It has the disadvantage of increasing the risk that untrained personnel will make mistakes that result in the release of the chemicals and cause large numbers of deaths.

o Computers introduced into offices allow employees to do more in less time. This can lead to them wasting some of their time, producing more reports but that no one reads, or being laid off.

o A focus on technology may cause managers to forget that the principal assets of a company in the information age are its people not its machines. Continued, this attitude could destroy the enterprise.

o Technology developed for peaceful purposes can also be used for warfare. In particular, it can be used by terrorists. The results might be more negative than positive.

o Governments are constantly faced with demands for increased social spending. If they fund technological developments instead, they may have to trade off certain short term social pain for the hope of long term prosperity.

o Resources are limited. Governments and corporations are always faced with choices between development proposals of uncertain benefit, where selecting one will surely kill the other.

Examples could be multiplied, and many of the discussions later in this book could be mentioned here as well. The point is that one must always question the potential value of a proposed technology--not everything new is necessarily good or positive, just as not everything old is necessarily obsolete. There is no shortage of new things that can be done; the interesting problem is deciding which ones are worth doing.

Technology and the Average Citizen

As noted above, typical citizens even in technically advanced countries participate only as users of technology. They labour at stores, factories, and menial office jobs, or stand in line for welfare or unemployment checks. Although they are eager consumers (when possible) of technological products, they neither engage in nor care about the issues dear to the learned.

The average North American knows something about how to maintain an automobile or small machine, but would greet any conversation about molecular biology or philosophy with equal parts disdain and amusement. The toilers in the humanities and social sciences are not understood at all. There is more sympathy, but not much more understanding for scientists (who are commonly stereotyped as "mad") and both sympathy and some understanding of engineers. Mathematicians are looked at askance, and a computer scientist is regaled with tales of non-functional hardware and software--much as a doctor at a social function would go away knowing about everyone's arthritis.

Of course, the ordinary citizen is the one most affected by changes in technology--for it always creates new jobs and eliminates others. However, the intellectual and material gap between the consumers of high-tech goods, and the creators, sellers, and managers of such products is considerable. What this will mean to decision making and effective power in the society of the future is not yet clear; both centralizing trends and individualizing trends need to be considered in order to make any forecasts. For most people, understanding is not a prerequisite for participation in a machine-oriented society. It should be noted, however, that in the next (information based) society it may become increasingly difficult for ordinary citizens to function at all without a substantial technical background.

A continuing widening of the gap between an elite and the general population in the wealthy Western countries would be just as destabilizing and potentially dangerous as the same process on the international scene between countries. If only those who can use the new information tools can work in the new civilization (and this is increasingly so) what place is there for anyone else? Can the industrialized nations remain stable if this question is not addressed?

Assessing the Situation

Important cautions must be sounded about the uneven distribution of knowledge and technique, but there are some very encouraging signs. Modern society is far from static, and some sub-cultures are moving into territories previously occupied by others. Those in poorer countries, and the lower classes of the richer ones generally know (in theory) how to achieve greater wealth. Thus, education and industrialization are actively pursued by the disadvantaged who seek to move up. There are no secrets about how a nation becomes wealthier, and there are no peoples who would willingly choose to retain the short life span and disease-ridden poverty of the agricultural age, when offered a choice.

The poorest people of the most impoverished nations will sacrifice anything to send a child to school, for they know that the next generation can be better off. They would also gladly trade their poverty for the problems of the industrial nations. The same upward route exists for the children of the working class and poor of the industrialized nations, and they take it whenever they can, particularly to the sciences.

Meanwhile, the scientific community is pulling out of its own intellectual isolation to some extent and beginning to address the ethical questions related to the society its products are creating. Along the way, there is some measure of reconciliation with its religious and philosophical roots, though the differences here can still be severe. Also, the use of computers, particularly those machines having a graphics interface, has increased among artists and writers. This may not yet have removed all the intellectual barriers to the use of technology, but it has reduced some of the emotional ones, and the anti-technology faction has become more muted. It may be the use of this machine more than anything else that gives legitimacy and common currency to the term "high-tech information society."

It is the contention of this book that all the peoples and cultures of the world need each other, that technologies pursued by one have effects on the others that cannot be ignored, and that it will be less and less possible for any individual, profession, discipline, or nation to act in narrow self-interest without regard for the interests of others. Just as there has come to be a human-machine cooperation (synergy) for the solving of problems which neither can do alone, there needs to be an understanding that all peoples of the earth are crew on the same ship. All peoples have common interests (even if they are unwilling to admit this); they have a common origin, and a common destination. These themes will be developed further under a number of headings throughout the remaining chapters; for the present here is another aphorism:

Society is maintained on communication, and it in turn requires acknowledgment and understanding of common ground.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises