Concluding Remarks: Technological Development as a Form of Practical Wisdom

Abstract

This is the last of a set of twelve course notes written in 1993 and revised across 1994 and 1995 for Technology and Human Existence, a half-semester first year option on the philosophy of technology.

Developing Technology with a View to Living Well

In my previous set of notes, on Schumacher, I pointed out how underlying his concept of intermediate technology is the idea of appropriate technology, that is, technology which is developed with an eye to whether its widespread use in its intended context of implementation will intolerably impair the lives of those touched by it. I suggested that such appropriateness to the real context of intended implementation is an independent constraint, indeed the most important condition, on the development of new technology. I also pointed out that this is not how engineers and designers as a matter of fact design and develop new technologies today; typically they see their task as translating the good idea of realising a certain useful goal X by doing Y into an efficient, cost-effective and safe technique. To do this is not to consider whether the widespread use of this technique in such and such a specific social and political context would or would not impair the overall quality of people’s lives.

In this set of notes I want to discuss what it means to speak of developing technology with an eye to whether its general use in the intended context of implementation does and does not intolerably impair the lives of those who would be affected by such general use. At the end of the previous set of notes I briefly anticipated this discussion by indicating that the demand for appropriate technology could be spelled out in the following two requirements: Firstly, the development of appropriate technology, i.e., the appropriate development of technology, cannot be one further private task for engineers and designers themselves, but must rather be a public matter for those potentially affected by it. Secondly, it cannot be merely a public matter but also a collective and participatory activity as well. For in order to develop technology appropriately, it is not enough for each member of the public to express their particular view. These views must confront and measures themselves against one another in a general discussion of what the notion of the good life and good society mean in the current circumstances and whether in the light of this the proposed technology is acceptable.

These two requirements need some elaboration and, in particular, clarification. In order to do this, we must first clarify and justify something presupposed in the second requirement, namely, that developing technology appropriately involves notions of the good life and the good society. Why is this so? To say that technology must be appropriate is to say that its general use in its intended context of implementation must not constitute an intolerable or unjustifiable impairment of the lives of those affected by it. It is not to say that it may not constitute any impairment at all. Evidently, there can be no guarantee that Schumacher’s intermediate technique for manufacturing egg cartons will not hurt anyone at all; presumably, there will be a number of basket weavers who do not find alternative employment and thus become worse off as a result of the implementation of Schumacher’s ideas. The question is whether such an impairment is a tolerable or justifiable one. And whether it is justifiable or not depends on what is meant to be realised by implementing this technology. If, as Schumacher in fact believes, implementing this technology is a genuine and unavoidable step towards making Nigerian society a more just, freer and more equitable society, then the pain caused by implementing it would seem to be tolerable or justified—which is, of course, not to absolve society from attempting to soften this pain by providing, say, welfare benefits or retraining. But if this is so, then clearly the notion of tolerable and intolerable impairment which is built into the concept of appropriate technology itself implies a concrete conception of what society and its members ought to be. In requiring appropriateness to an intended context of implementation, we are indeed demanding that quite concrete normative notions of the good life and the good society enter into the overall design and development process itself. We are in fact demanding that this design and development process allow itself to be shaped by such normative notions.

Given this connection of the notion of appropriate technology with notions of the good life and good society, there is a quite easy way of justifying the first requirement, namely, that the development of appropriate technology must be a public matter, rather than just one more private task for engineers and designers. The justification for this is straightforwardly ethical: no person or persons may arrogate to themselves the right to determine what is and is not good for people in general or for society as a whole. So if in the development of technology issues like this must be determined at all, they must clearly be determined by those who will be potentially affected by the new technology, namely, by the public.

But justifying the second requirement is rather more subtle. It evidently requires a lot more than the first one. After all, if a referendum were held on a proposal to develop a certain kind of technology, one in which each person was individually asked whether they thought implementing this technology would be a good idea or not, then the proposal would clearly have been made a public matter. So the first requirement would have been met. But clearly the second would not have been. A referendum of the kind imagined would not be a genuinely collective or participatory activity in which there was collective discussion of what notions of the good life and good society meant in the given context and whether in the light of this the proposed development should go ahead. The claim is, however, that any purely individual attempt to determine what notions of the good life and good society mean here and now and whether in the light of this a proposed development should go ahead must, if it is not to be a relatively untutored stab in the dark, the mere writing of a cross on the ballot sheet, must transcend its private character; it must transform itself into a joint effort to clarify, criticise and reach consensus upon contending conceptions of what the good life and good society are and whether in the light of this the proposed development should be approved.1 In short, any attempt to determine what the good life and good society is, or whether such and such a specific activity conduces to them, is ultimately a collective activity; it only reaches its goal via the involvement and participation of others. It requires one to have expressed one’s own ideas and experiences of good and bad to others, to have listened to them and indeed to have been with them in their experiences of joy and suffering. You need to have been in the company and lives of others if you are to determine with any degree of rationality and sophistication the specific content of notions such as these.

Why do I want to insist on this quite strong claim about the nature of determining conceptions of the good, i.e., one’s ultimate ‘values’?2 I want to insist on this because I think it reveals the sense in which there is a kind of objectivity to questions concerning the good and valuable. Quite clearly, I am assuming that there is something objective about such questions. After all, it only makes sense to come together and discuss things, to argue, to relate one’s own experiences and to listen to others arguing and describing their experiences, if there really is something people can agree upon as a result of this whole process. If the idea of such collective discussion makes any sense at all, then there must be some single view which is right and presumably a whole lot that are wrong. And it must be possible to demonstrate this in some sufficiently rational way; it must be possible to modify views and opinions in rational, reasonable ways. So in just what sense might there something objective, some “matter of fact”, about such debates and the questions they seek to answer?

Although relativism is very popular these days, it is surely not nonsensical to say to someone who watches five hours of television each evening, “You should read a book rather than watch television.” One can think of many reasons why the general claim implicit in this, namely, that one should read books rather than watch television, is true: one “lives better” when one reads; television stupefies and turns one into a square-eyed video vegetable, etc. Of course, it is always logically possible to challenge such verbal justifications as these and this possibility is what leads many to think that there is nothing “objective” about such questions. But really the matter is no different with straightforward empirical claims, which most tend to regard as “objective”, or at least more “objective” than mushy moral questions. If I say that it is raining, and you ask me why, then I can say that I say someone come in who was dripping wet. You can then ask how I knew that the person had got caught in the rain, rather than, say, drenched by a kid playing with a garden hose or falling into a swimming pool. I can of course attempt to satisfy you with more verbal justifications, to which you can always, at least in principle, raise further objections. But in response to your query I could also just take you over to the window and say, “See for yourself!” And in the face of the naked fact all verbal casuistry and nit-picking melts away. Crucially, however, there is just this possibility in the case of discussions about which is better, books or telly. It is always possible to adduce examples of people who, because they read rather than watch telly, “live better”. One can always point out people whose lives quite literally show the truth of the claim that a life of reading is better than a life of watching television and videos. Ultimately, I can always show you the difference between someone who is well-read and someone who only reads the television programme. And this is just as powerful, just as rational, as my showing you that it is indeed raining, just as I said it was.

These considerations do, I believe, at least make plausible the idea that there is indeed something objective about questions of value and the good life. But they also indicate something more. Notice how in my example there is, along with the concrete confrontation, the concrete experience, of such and such an activity as commendable or worthy, also the intrinsically social act of leading another to the experience of this worth. This suggests the essentially social character of one’s understanding of what it is to live well: to understand this concept, one must, as with all concepts, have the ability to identify instances of it in experience. But the ability to have this experience is something to which one is led by others; they have shown me, given me examples, of what it is to live well. They have instructed me in seeing the worth and lack thereof of certain activities, they have initiated in me a process of developing and fine-tuning a capacity for moral and evaluative judgement. That there must indeed be such a social process of inculcating through examples the power of moral and ethical discrimination is perhaps shown by the related case of artistic judgement. In order to be able to appreciate works of art, e.g., paintings, one has to be shown by others who are already skilled in aesthetic judgement. The ability to appreciate such works does not come naturally, but must be honed. And one result of such honing is that the novice art lover comes to see the same things as his or her teacher. In short, this process is a training away from original, subjective likes and dislikes towards a certain objectivity of judgement. A sign that this process has been successful is where the art lover can agree with another that such and such a painting is a great work of art, and yet not like the painting personally.

A related example both of how there is a kind of objectivity where many people think there is only rampant subjectivity and of how the ability to be objective is a socially acquired skill is provided perhaps by of all things wine-tasting; in this game, one must train one’s palette in order to pick up subtleties which the average wine-drinker simply misses. At the same time, this is not ‘just subjective’: I have been told by wine-loving friends that skilled wine-tasters will actually agree across a wide sample of wines about such things as grape sort, bouquet, texture and even locality. In fact, the whole point of schooling one’s palette through experience and dialogue with others is precisely to overcome the initial mere subjective impressions one has as a novice—to the point where, as with art, one can agree that a certain wine is good, but then say that personally one does not like it.

So I want to suggest two interrelated things. Firstly, I want to suggest that there is indeed objectivity in debates concerning the good life and in particular, what is appropriate in a given context. And secondly I want to say that this objectivity is much like the objectivity of debates in art and even wine-tasting: in a very essential way, one comes to be able to make objective judgements through the schooling one receives through others, by comparing one’s own judgements will others and attempting to reach some agreement on them, and by being open to the experiences of others, which may lead one to re-assess one’s original judgements. Furthermore, the actual exercise of one’s acquired skill in judging styles of life, art or wine remains inextricably social: because it is only acquired socially, namely, as a skill in seeing what others see, agreement with the judgement of others remains a test, although never a guarantee, of the truth of one’s individual judgements. If this is right, then seeking the opinion of others on a matter becomes a fundamental method of testing the truth of your judgements, in art, wine-tasting and morals. And it is fundamentally this feature which means that any attempt to determine whether in the given context such and such an activity conduces to the good life and the good society must emerge from the private sphere and seek confrontation and comparison with the attempts of others.

Clearly, if determining whether a certain technology will or will not intolerably impair people’s lives is ultimately as rich, as participatory and as social as this, then the very idea of developing technology appropriately is quite a radical one. In order to realise it, the very institutions in which technology is developed would have to be structured to allow greater public access and accountability than is presently the case. Engineers, designers and technologists would have to come out of their various laboratories and appear on the public stage in a quite unprecedented way. At the same time, the general public would have to acquire skills in working out the gist of scientific and technological arguments, theories and proposals. Note that this is not to demand any skills in dealing with the details of such scientific and technological accomplishments. In general, in order to be able to play an effective part in discussions on the social and political implications of science and technology, one must indeed be informed about, but not necessarily expert in working with, the latest scientific theories and discoveries. As a matter of fact, expertise can, although of course it need not, obstruct the ability to see things in their broader, more philosophical implications, so a certain kind of tutored ignorance may in fact be essential to the effective discussion of science and technology in the public arena. All in all, the development of appropriate technology would require institutions and practices of discussion in which scientists and technologists are required to communicate effectively with lay persons and these latter are required to inform themselves of the latest scientific developments. And these institutions and practices would have to rest firmly upon a general and generalist practice of cultivating art, history, religion and philosophy. For these things are what sustain the possibility of genuine common experience of the beautiful, the good and the true. And their cultivation is what gives one a genuine and deep ability to identify the various presuppositions and assumptions underlying the way one confronts specific problems of the present; they provide both the sensitivities, the information and the conceptual skills required by a truly critical reflection upon the present state of things. With this we see that the notion of appropriate technology implies the responsibility of all to ensure that they possess a certain breadth of education, culture and experience. And of course in doing this, it sheets home the iniquity of social arrangements which deny people the opportunity to fulfil this responsibility.

But given the radical character of what it would mean to develop technology appropriately, the next question is whether in our present situation it is at all possible for us to move towards the kind of society where technology is developed appropriately, that is to say, with regard to its appropriateness. Over the last few weeks I have repeatedly pointed out how individual technological systems come within a web of systems which support and are supported by them. I have also pointed out how the more complex and powerful individual systems become, the more complex and far-flung this web itself becomes. As we know, today the web reaches right around the world. And as such it connects up a whole variety of peoples and cultures. So the group of people who can these days be affected by the development and introduction of new technologies is now very large, and this obvious means that the number of people who would have a right to be involved in the appropriate development of technology is also very large.

Clearly, this presents great problems for the idea of appropriateness as a general constraint on technological development as such. The vast numbers of people who are connected up by the world market and the web of technological systems which both makes this world market possible and is in turn made possible by it is surely so large that it seems impossible to speak of some kind of democratic control of, and involvement in, the very process of developing new technologies. Note that the problem is here the sheer size of things, and not the fact that the vast numbers now connected to one another by the world economy come from different cultures and often have quite different experiences. As far as the possibility of appropriate technology is concerned I do not regard this difference in culture and experience as a real problem at all, but rather as an advantage. It would be a problem if people’s conceptions of the good life were so radically different that no comparison could be made between them. But the idea that there are all these radically different ideas and values out there is almost certainly a massive exaggeration. In any case, if this difference were a problem, the world market would be doing its best to solve it. For its fundamental tendency is to level out and eliminate all significant differences between peoples, reducing them to differences in the rituals they perform on once holy days such as Christmas; and differences in the sounds they make when they order their Big Macs. No, the real problem is not the differences between people; these are indeed a positive asset because they are the source of richness and depth in debates about where we are heading. Rather, the real problem is simply the sheer numbers of people caught up in the web.

So the diagnosis must be that the way technology is already organised and implemented is itself inappropriate for the appropriate development of technology. But I am not going to say that the situation is hopeless. For a start, this would contradict one thing I have insisted on in these notes, namely, that our ability to anticipate the future is very restricted. It is instructive to look at the predictions, both optimistic and pessimistic, made several decades ago about the present. These are all generally so wrong that they appear almost bizarre to us today. 1984 has been and gone, and yet it would be utterly spurious to say that we really are under Big Brother’s control in the radical sense intended by Orwell. Nor have we reached Huxley’s Brave New World. Yet nor have things worked out as optimists have predicted, for example, those certain American and Russian scientists mentioned by Ellul who in 1960 predicted that

(b)y the year 2000, voyages to the moon will be commonplace; so will inhabited artificial satellites. All food will be completely synthetic. The world’s population will have increased four-fold but will have been stabilized. Sea water and ordinary rocks will yield all the necessary metals. Disease, as well as famine, will have been eliminated; and there will be universal hygiene inspection and control. The problems of energy production will have been completely resolved.3

One must agree with Ellul when he says that “(t)he visions of these gentlemen put science fiction in the shade.”4 The fate of these prediction testifies to the openness and unpredictability of the future, a fact of which, I think, we should be heartily glad.

Furthermore, the various attempts to come to terms with the problems of the environment seem to be headed in the right direction. For indeed the attempt to develop environmentally friendly technology is in fact an attempt to develop the kind of technology which would be agreed upon in any process of technological development genuinely constrained by considerations of appropriateness. In other words, the need to find some kind of solution to the problems of the environment is, to one degree or another, forcing us to adopt the kind of technology which, if the right kinds of participatory processes were in place, people would in any case collectively deem to be appropriate. That this is so is of course shown by the fact that in developing or using environmentally friendly technology, people find that they not only suffer losses, they also make quite significant, if not at first obvious gains. An environmental problem arises and people start to realise that sheer necessity and fairness demand that they make sacrifices. They realise, for example, that they can no longer drive their cars into the city, as convenient and indeed as necessary as it sometimes is. For the lead levels are rising, children in the inner city are being affected and the rate of asthma is increasing in the outer suburbs. But, having finally chosen to take the train into work, even though this costs them more time, they discover the not so obvious virtues: the possibility of reading a book on the way in, of talking to someone who regularly catches the same train and so on. It is experiences like these which help to define, and indeed to redefine, what people see as conducive to the good life. The point of creating institutions which enable the appropriate development of technology would indeed be to give a forum to precisely these kinds of experience, in order to render them politically and socially effective. Experiences like these are a crucial part of the collective discussion of what kind of society and technology would we like to have; they are as it were the empirical observations of moral facts which confirm general moral conceptions and claims.

Thus, what I am saying is that the demand for a more sane and more sustainable approach to the environment itself contains within it the demand for the kind of institutions and culture which makes appropriate technology, i.e., the appropriate development and implementation of technology, possible. So the kind of ethically and socially guided science and technology—what Schumacher aptly calls technology with a human face—envisaged here will be realised, if at all, only as part of this broader movement. The overlaps between what is necessary for the realisation of a more human, a more ethically guided and shaped technology and what is necessary for a successful solution to our massive environmental problems are clearly evident. Both need and encourage the virtues of smallness, decentralisation, loose interwovenness of systems and public participation. In order to enable appropriate development of technology, we need appropriate technology, i.e., technology which is small-scale enough to allow a relatively loose degree of interconnection between different communities, economies and countries, technology which is at the same time efficient enough to enable a sophisticated and participatory, if not necessarily superabundant, style of life for people. But this is of course the kind of technology which many in the environment movement see as necessary if we are to cope with our environmental problems. In fact, many in the environmental are seeking to develop just this kind of technology.

Whether there will be such a thing as appropriate technology and effective control by humanity over its technology thus ultimately depends on whether and in what way we can come to terms with the question of the environment. The fate of the former is thus bound up with the fate of the latter.

Notes

  1. Of course, when I say that it must be a joint effort to reach some kind of consensus, I do not mean to suggest that each and every such public discussion must actually end in consensus, for genuine consensus is, after all, an ideal which is hardly ever reached. But the fact that it is hardly ever reached does not deprive it of its status as something for which people must genuinely strive within the time limits they find themselves under. In fact, the concept of genuine consensus has the status of what the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant called a “regulative idea”—something which is never realised in fact, but nonetheless regulates a certain activity in such a way that this activity can make progress. Eventually, in any real discussion time will catch up with people and a decision must be made; discussion must end and a vote must be taken. But if in the meantime people have strived for the regulative idea of genuine consensus, their discussions will have been more fruitful, some people will have changed their minds, obviously incorrect positions and arguments will have been identified and people will be more informed and less off hand when they ultimately decide.

  2. I dislike the word “values.” To speak of one’s values is to speak of one’s conceptions of the good as things one carries around in one’s pocket.

  3. Ellul, p.133 in Teich.

  4. Ellul, p.133 in Teich.