The Techno-Centrist Emmanuel Mesthene

Abstract

This is the third 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.

Emmanuel Mesthene and Technology as a Neutral Means

In this third set of notes I discuss the views of someone who adopts a more moderate and centrist position on the spectrum of views outlined in the first set. The writer in question is Emmanuel Mesthene; his essay “The Role of Technology in Society” is in fact taken from the fourth annual report of the Harvard Programme on Technology and Social Change. This was a programme set up by a $5 million dollar grant from IBM in 1964 to Harvard. Mesthene was at the time director of this programme, and in this essay he tries to sum up what the programme had learnt about technology and its implications for society.

Now in reading Richard Buckminster Fuller’s essay you might have noticed two things. Firstly, he at no point attempts to say just what he means by technology. This is of course not to say that there is no conception of technology at least implicit in what Fuller says. As we have seen, Fuller tacitly regards our technological capacities as at least best illustrated by our capacities to extract natural processes from nature and place them in environments of human control in which they can be allowed to take place in certain desired ways. Thus, for Fuller technology is at least best exemplified by systems which reproduce natural processes and enable us to control the course taken by these processes.1

Secondly, Fuller makes no attempt to state precisely just how technology shapes society and brings about social change. In fact, he is not at all interested in this kind of question. He is concerned solely to show what possibilities our current level of technology opens up to us in our society; he is not interested in giving any general account, i.e., any theory, of how technology impacts societies in general, whether our own or some other.

Mesthene, unlike Fuller, does attempt to say what he means by technology. And the reason why Mesthene wants to do this is that he, unlike Fuller, does want to indicate just how in general technology shapes society and brings about social change. He is interested in giving a general account of how technology impacts society, whether ours or some other, and he believes that the first and indispensable first step towards such an account must consist in giving a clear definition of what technology is.

But why does Mesthene want to indicate how technology causes social change? He appears to have two reasons. Firstly, he thinks that unless a theory or account of technology indicates the causal mechanism through which technology impacts society, then it can give us no practical guidance in our attempts to come to terms with new technology. Secondly, he thinks that only a general account of how technology impacts society constitutes any genuine understanding of technology and its relation to society. Mesthene finds both these faults in three mutually incompatible views about technology which are widely held in contemporary society.

The first of these three views maintains that technology is an unqualified blessing. Evidently, Mesthene intends here the standpoint of technological enthusiasts like Buckminster-Fuller, although he does not give this latter as an example.2

The second view maintains just the opposite, namely, that technology is an absolute and unqualified curse. Evidently, Mesthene means here the radical standpoint. Interestingly, he does not mention any names. Instead, he just mentions a number of criticisms of technology which he sees as typical of the radical standpoint. He says, for example, that according to its radical critics, technology “robs people of their jobs, their privacy, their participation in democratic government, and even, in the end, their dignity as human beings.” (p.156) Presumably, Mesthene means by this that technology always and inexorably robs people of their jobs, their privacy and so on. For merely to say that it sometimes does, that under certain conditions it causes unemployment and the like, would hardly be a radical criticism; indeed, hardly anyone disagrees with these latter kinds of claim, and certainly not Mesthene. But he characterises the radical view more accurately in the next sentence, where he speaks of how technology “is seen as autonomous and uncontrollable, as fostering materialistic values, as destructive of religion”, democracy and the environment.3 This brings out the crucial point that for the radicals technology is, firstly, an autonomous force obeying only its own intrinsic logic of development; and secondly, that this force is mostly bad in its impact on humans and their society.

Finally, the third unhelpful view of technology claims that technology is not worthy of any special notice or attention. This view maintains that technology itself does really present any particular social or political, much less philosophical problem at all. I don’t quite know whom Mesthene regards as holding such a view. Furthermore, some of the grounds which according to Mesthene are used to argue for this position are definitely dubious. He says, for example, that this view has been supported by such claims as that “technology has done little to accelerate the rate of economic productivity since the 1880’s” and that the time between invention and widespread adoption of a new technology has not markedly decreased (see p.157). But surely it cannot be seriously denied that technological advance has increased economic productivity in many key industries, e.g., steel and banking; in fact, Mesthene himself speaks of how “industrial technology strengthens the economy, as our measures of growth and productivity show.” (p.159) And it is false to maintain that there has been no significant reduction in the interval between a product’s invention and its widespread introduction to the market. One has only to consider the computer industry to see how false this is. Mesthene rightly points out that the people who advocate this kind of thing would have to have a very narrow and crude view of both what effects technology has had in the past and of what effects technology can in general have.

All three of these views fail to indicate how technology effects society.4 Mesthene thus describes them, firstly, as practically “unhelpful” and secondly, as “oversimplifications that do not contribute much to understanding.” (p.157) He thinks that in order to avoid these twin weaknesses of failure to give practical guidance and failure to contribute to genuine understanding, one requires an appropriate definition of technology, one which enables one to identify the precise causal mechanism by means of which technology impacts society. He says that overall he and his colleagues have found it useful to understand by technology “tools in a general sense, including machines, but also including linguistic and intellectual tools and contemporary analytic and mathematical techniques.” (p.158) That is, he wants to define technology as “the organization of knowledge for practical purposes.” (p.158) This definition is not exactly clear, but I take it that the important thing about it is that it does not just identify technology with tools, utensils, instruments and machines, but also includes along with these artefacts the factual knowledge, methods, procedures and techniques which are implied in the use of such artefacts.

It seems, then, that what Mesthene means by technology are specific tools or instruments plus the factual knowledge and the various operating skills which are required to use them. Thus, the steam engine qua item of technology is not just the steam engine itself, but this machine plus the fuel, the various subsidiary tools, knowledge and skills needed to run it, e.g., the fireman’s shovel, such knowledge as that if the fire goes out, the engine will stop, the skill to get the engine going, to regulate its boiler pressure and to determine the speed at which it works. Similarly, double entry bookkeeping is a technology, one which consists in a medium into which certain figures are entered, be it a computer file or an account book; various means of entering these figures, be it a computer or a pen; and finally, the kinds of knowledge and skill which a person must have in order to be able to use these instruments to engage in double-entry bookkeeping. Both of these are clearly examples of an organised and interlocking system or structure consisting of certain physical objects, certain knowledge about these objects and the world, and finally certain practical skill in manipulating these objects on the basis of this knowledge to produce certain desired results, i.e., a record of the company’s trading activity or a drive wheel spinning at a certain speed. Note that on this definition, a stone axe is just as much a piece of technology as steam engine or nuclear power plant. For it is a certain physical object around which are organised a certain knowledge of the world, e.g., that if the trunks of trees are cut in a certain way, then the trees will fall in a certain way, and a certain practical skill in wielding the axe to cut the trunks of trees in this way.

As Mesthene sees it, this conception of technology is neither too broad or too narrow to prevent us seeing how technology in general impacts society. In particular, it allows us “to sketch a more adequate hypothesis about the interaction of technology and society than the partial views outlined above.” (p.159) According to Mesthene, it suggests that changes in technology lead to changes in society via the following mechanism: “New technology creates new opportunities for men and societies, and it also generates new problems for them. It has both positive and negative effects, and it usually has the two at the same time and in virtue of each other.” (p.159) In other words, any particular technology is basically just a means to certain ends. To the extent that we desire these ends, it offers us certain positive opportunities to attain these ends, or to do so more efficiently than previously. But often both the introduction and the regular use of a technology will have undesirable effects. So often our very grasping of the positive opportunities offered by a certain technology will be at the same time a causing of certain undesirable effects. Thus, the motor car offers such positive opportunities as greater mobility and speed of movement. But its introduction led directly to a decline in the importance of horse-breeders, blacksmiths, leatherworkers and coach makers. And its continued mass use leaves us with unlivable cities, high road toll and continuing environmental damage.

On the face of it, Mesthene’s account of how technology causes social change is a plausible and indeed commonsense account. It clearly presupposes a conception of technology as neutral: in itself, technology is just a means. As Mesthene himself puts it, “(w)hat its effects will be and what ends it will serve are not inherent in … technology, but depend on what man will do with technology.” (p.170) So in no sense does technology have a tendency either for good or for bad. Mesthene stresses his conviction that the bad or negative effects of technology are external ones, that is, effects which are not intrinsic to the technology in question. He says, “Most of the consequences of technology that are causing concern at the present time - pollution of the environment, potential damage to the ecology of the planet, occupational and social dislocations, threats to the privacy and political significance of the individual, social and psychological malaise - are negative externalities …. They are with us in large measure because it has not been anybody’s explicit business to foresee and anticipate them.” (p.163) So if we did take the time to foresee and anticipate the negative effects of a given technology, we could forestall them. For any technology whatsoever it is in principle possible for us to have our cake and eat it, too.

The question is, however, whether this comfortable conviction in the neutrality of technology, in particular, of modern technology is right. Of course, if you accept Mesthene’s definition of technology, and the commonsense account of how technology impacts society which this definition implies, everything seems alright. But is his conception of technology adequate? Well, in one way it is; it certainly seems to capture a very wide range of things we would call technologies, from the technology of stone axes to the technology of nuclear power. But perhaps this very generality and abstractness obscures as much as it reveals. This alone entitles us to ask whether his account does not neglect crucial features of specifically modern technology, features which make certain of Mesthene’s negative effects less external and more intrinsic than he would have us believe.

Notice one thing: Mesthene’s definition of technology is so abstract as to be useless if your concern is not to ask what effects technology has on society, but rather to ask what way of living modern technological society is. The fact of the matter is that any technology is not just a means of doing this or that, nor does it just have effects on the way we live. It is itself, at least implicitly, a way of living. There are two senses in which this is true. The first sense is applicable to all technologies whatsoever, whether modern or not. The second is a distinctive feature of the kind of technology our society has had at least since the Industrial Revolution. That is, it is a feature of modern technology. Although I am here only really interested in the second sense, we do need to distinguish the first from it.

In order to distinguish the first sense and more general sense in which technology is a way of life, let us consider a stone axe of the kind you might find amongst various tribal peoples. Notice how it implies various other kinds of tool that went into the making of it. It implies stones and rocks with which its head was chipped into shape, stone or bone knives with which its handle was carved, spears which killed the animal whose hide or gut provided the tether securing the head to the handle. Clearly, in implying all these kinds of tools, it implies the various activities and skills of using them, for example, skills in identifying appropriate kinds of stone, skills in using stones to chip other stones, hunting skills, tanning skills and so on. You see that in this stone axe an entire way of life is implicit, the life of a hunter and gatherer, or perhaps an early cultivator of grains and livestock.5

Now clearly, a more sophisticated piece of technology such as a steam engine itself will also imply a whole lot of other artefacts which went into its making, e.g., furnaces in which its boiler was cast, hammers with which its plates were beaten, drills with which the holes in its metal parts were drilled, etc. It thus implies the various activities, skills and knowledge which go hand in hand with such tools and devices. So the steam engine, too, implies a way of life. Of course, because the steam engine is much more complex, this way of life is also more complex. It is explicitly collective, a coordinated working together of various tradespeople to produce a steam engine. It displays a degree of specialisation and of social organisation not present in the form of life implicit in the stone axe. A lot of different people with different trades, with different specialisations, have to be involved in the production of a steam engine; its production must be, at least for us human beings, a group effort.

So much for the first sense in which in every technology a way of living is implicit. There is, however, a further sense in which at least complex technical systems such as the steam engine imply, indeed constitute, a way of life. Imagine our steam engine in an earlier nineteenth century English factory powering, say, several steam looms. Obviously, this whole system will not function if it is not supplied regularly with water and fuel, if it is not greased and maintain regularly. So the operation of this one system requires it to be nested within a coordinated system of fuel supply, regular maintenance, etc. It is no use having the latest steam engine if you are located in some backwoods which is impossible to supply with coal. So you need a good transportation system to get coal to your engine; there must be good roads or railways and some form of social organisation which ensures that coal travels regularly and reliably along these roads or rail to the steam engine. If this further technological system does not exist, it must be created. If it does exist, but does not perform sufficiently well, it must be improved to the point where it satisfies the needs of the steam-driven mill. And when it does exist, it exists as part of an entire social complex of technological systems all with their own needs which other systems fulfil. So the steam-driven mill only exists and functions within such a web of technological systems; if the mill has just been introduced into the community, it will exert pressure on its surroundings to create such a web of supporting technological systems. When first introduced, a complex technological system like the mill technologises its environment, tooling the latter up to service its needs. It integrates itself into the environment by integrating at least part of its environment into itself.

Thus, a complex technological system requires for its very existence that human existence itself be to some degree or other integrated into it. If it is to work, human existence must, at least to some extent, become organised and systematised around it. Up until the introduction of the steam-driven weaving mill into the community, people presumably existed as farmers, artisans, cottage weavers and the like. Now this kind of society has no need for strictly fixed working days, a clear and legally fixed distinction between working days and holiday, highly organised work rosters, meal breaks, factory discipline and complex hierarchies controlling large scale processes of production. But as soon as the mill is there, large numbers of people must learn to keep strict time, to arrive for work at a certain time and only go home after so many hours; in short, they must learn the culture of a regular working day. In general, the rules and customs of social life must become more elaborate and thus must be made more explicit; where previously much was left to the unwritten law of local custom, it must now be spelled out in the legal system. So you see that the factory radically restructures the entire of the community; eventually, the community is, to one degree or another, part of it. Lest you think that this is all just a fiction, I would remind you that I have really described no more than the rise of industrial society. We find it hard today to appreciate just how dramatic and revolutionary a social change this was. It is hard for us to imagine how hard industrial production was at first, simply because workers could not keep regular hours; they would simply go home when they felt like it, and didn’t think all that much of punctuality. It took several generations before the idea of a fixed working day had become the matter of course that it is for us today.

Now clearly, just as the steam-driven weaving mill only exists within a web of further technological systems whose only point is to service it and its kind, so, too, these service systems have their own needs for regular and reliable supplies. They, too, have an organising impact on their environments, and thus you see that through the introduction of one technological system, a process is set in motion through which people, animals, tools, machines and even natural objects like rivers are progressively integrated into a complex system of interlocking technological systems. Of course every time some radically new technology is introduced, a massive reorganisation and a restructuring takes place within this complex system. Moreover, the more complex individual technological systems themselves are, the more diverse and various are their needs for supporting technological systems. Since new technologies tend to be more complex than the ones they are replacing, their introduction tends to make the whole web of systems larger and more complex.

Let us pause here to introduce an important distinction in the ways in which webs of technological systems can be complex. Any technological system or web of systems is complex in the sense that it is composed of many individual systems or subsystems which all interact with one another in certain ways. Imagine a network composed of many nodes, whereby the nodes represent the individual units or subsystems and the links between each of the nodes represents the paths along which inputs to and outputs from the individual systems or subsystems flow. Now the component systems or subsystems within such a network can be coupled with one another in one of two basic ways. Either they are loosely coupled with one another. Or they are tightly coupled. If the components are loosely coupled, then any changes in the performance of one of the components will not have a great impact on the rest. Perhaps these other components have a great degree of tolerance to changes in the performance of the one component. Then again, perhaps they are able to adjust quickly to the change in the performance of this component, for example, by quickly dropping their dependence on the system or subsystem whose performance has changed and taking up relations to other systems - as when, say, the steam-driven mill responds to a strike at the coalmine which normally supplies it by switching to another coalmine, or by modifying its steam-engine to burn oil, etc. All in all, a whole technological system or web of such systems is loosely coupled just in case it requires a very great change in the performance of a very great number of its components before it collapses in a heap.

But the components of a technological system or web of systems need not be loosely coupled. They can be tightly coupled. In this case, even very small changes in the performance of one component will dramatically affect the performance of the other systems to which it is linked by its input and output paths. If now these other components are themselves tightly coupled with further components, if indeed the whole system or web of system is composed mostly of tightly coupled components, then even a slight change in the performance of one component will not only dramatically affect its neighbouring components. The small change in it will in fact reverberate and amplify throughout the whole system or web of systems. So in this case, the case where the whole system or web of systems is tightly coupled, even a slight change in one component will have a dramatic impact on the performance of the whole. Indeed, the whole may collapse entirely. In such a system, even the slightest unforeseen fluctuation or unreliability in the slightest of components may dramatically affect the ability of the system or web of systems to function.

A good example of a fairly loosely coupled technological system is your ordinary dam. Dams by and large tend to have fairly resilient components and organisations of components. A prime example of a very tightly coupled technological system is of course a nuclear power station. As we know from the experience of Three Mile Island, even the slightest fault or unpredicted change in performance of components can ricochet through the system, causing it to run out of control. But another illustration of a complex and, at least at various points within it, tightly coupled technological system, or rather, web of systems is provided by McDermott’s extreme example of the bombing programme started by the Americans during the Vietnam War. McDermott’s paper misinterprets Mesthene in a number of crucial points, for example, in the claim that Mesthene advocates laissez innover and this causes his polemics to fall a little flat. But the point he is trying to make by means of this example is precisely that technological systems have the effect of organising their environment into supporting technological systems. Clearly, he is right in saying that the American computer-driven bombing programme would fall in a heap if the environment around it were not as highly organised, as lean and mean, as it is. It cannot rely “on sporadic intelligence data, erratic maintenance systems, or a fluctuating and unpredictable supply of heavy bombs, rockets, jet fuel, and napalm tanks. Thus it is precisely because the bombing program requires an intensive use of capital, technique, and management that the same properties are normally transferred to the intelligence, maintenance, supply, coordination and training systems which support it. Accordingly, each of these supporting systems is subject to sharp pressures to improve and rationalize the performance of its machines and men, the reliability of its techniques, and the efficiency and sensitivity of the management controls under which it operates. Within integrated technical systems, higher levels of technology drive out lower, and the normal tendency is to integrate systems.” (McDermott article, p.188)

Now in Mesthene you will nowhere find any clear description of this undoubted feature of modern technological systems. This is not to say that he is not aware of it.6 Perhaps his most telling acknowledgment of this feature occurs on p.177, where he speaks of how the way in which new technological systems organise their environments into a more complex and all-embracing web of systems “tend(s) to make social processes increasingly circuitous and indirect”, with the result that “the effects of actions are widespread and difficult to keep track of, so that experts and sophisticated techniques are increasingly needed to detect and analyze social events and to formulate policies adequate to the complexity of social issues.” (p.177) That is, in modern technological society it is difficult for a large number of individuals to achieve some kind of overview of what is going on in the web of technological systems which constitute their society. This makes it necessary to relegate questions once matters of political debate to technicians and experts who decide them almost independently of democratic political processes. As Mesthene is aware, this fundamentally contradicts the democratic ideal of direct participation in the political process (see p.177).

Yet previously he had said that such negative effects of technology as threats to the political significance of the individual were merely external, i.e., not intrinsic to technology. Now given Mesthene’s very abstract definition of technology, there is no contradiction here. For this definition is so broad that it covers stone axes and windmills just as much as it covers nuclear power stations and high tech banking systems. When technology is defined so broadly, it doesn’t necessarily or intrinsically threaten anything. But when you take seriously the fact that modern technology exists essentially as a more or less complex web of interlocking technological systems, you see that modern technology is intrinsically a threat to the political significance of the individual. And the more modern it becomes, that is to say, the more complex, sophisticated and all-embracing it becomes, the more of a threat it presents. With this you can see how correct McDermott is when he accuses Mesthene of defining technology so abstractly that it obscures observable characteristics of contemporary technology (see p.189).

So you find in Mesthene a quite curious situation. On the one hand, he insists upon the malleability and neutrality of technology: it has negative as well as positive effects, but if we just think and plan a little more carefully, we can have the positive effects without the negative ones. Yet on the other he mentions negative effects of modern technology which he knows to be so intrinsic to it that we must simply accept and adapt to them. Thus, having pointed out that modern technological society runs counter to the important democratic ideal of participation, he says we must elaborate a new democratic ethos and new democratic processes for which this is no longer so important, or perhaps not even an ideal at all! (see p.177) When you think about it, this is pretty incredible. We are told that if we find it increasingly difficult to realise this ideal in modern technological society, then we should either drop it altogether or reduce its status. But surely to do this is to drop the very idea of democracy itself!

Nor does Mesthene restrict his recommendations to accept and adapt just to the political. He tells that modern technology increasingly undermines religion. So the main task for religion now is “that of deliberate religious innovation and symbol reformulation to take specific account of religious needs in a technological age.” (p.171) Mesthene points out that in general modern technology tends to undermine traditional values and that this has led some to believe that technology is by nature destructive of values (p.166). But having said this, he does not attempt to show that modern technology is not intrinsically destructive of traditional values, for example, by suggesting how to introduce and use it while preserving traditional values. Instead, he claims that to think that technology is destructive of values is to presuppose that values are valid for all times and all epochs, and therefore ought never to lose their acceptance. However true this might be, it does not show that technology is not inherently destructive of values; as far as refuting this claim is concerned, it is actually irrelevant. In fact, Mesthene can really only make this claim because he himself believes that modern technology will always challenge traditional values and that in any such challenge we have no choice but to adapt our values to technology, and not vice versa. Once again, it looks as though Mesthene is conceding that modern technology is inherently destructive of values. And once again, only the very abstractness of his definition of technology saves him from contradiction. For his definition applies to all kinds of technology, not just modern ones. It thus applies to all those traditional technologies which were quite compatible with traditional value systems. So from a purely formal point of view Mesthene can consistently say that technology as such is not inherently destructive. But here, too, consistency is bought at the price of obscuring fundamental characteristics of contemporary technology.

The fundamental weakness, then, in Mesthene’s essay is its persistent attempt to use a concept of technology which is simply too broad, too abstract and unspecific, to capture the essence of modern technology. It is adequate enough as a conception of technology in general; furthermore, the account of how technology causes social change is, as far as it goes, fair enough. But the sins of Mesthene’s account lie in its omissions. It is true enough that technology creates both opportunities and problems for us, that it has both positive and negative effects. This, indeed, is almost a platitude. What is not true is the suggestion that even in the case of modern technology none of these negative effects are intrinsic ones, i.e., results of certain inherent tendencies and features of (modern) technology. For modern technology is a web of technological systems which, through its intrinsic complexity and comprehensiveness, resists democratic control. The chains of cause and effect are so long and complex, and so large in number, that control of the web requires its own specialist institutions staffed by appropriately trained experts; control and management become themselves specialist occupations. Modern technology thus has an intrinsic tendency to withdraw control and management of it from the public arena of politics and relocate it in the relative privacy of government departments and committees, statutory authorities, reserve banks and larger corporations.

If I had more time, I would now move on to examine some of the claims Mesthene makes in attempting to show that in modern society technological and social complexity have not had the negative effects many critics have said they have had. In particular, I would examine Mesthene’s claim that today the individual can aspire to more than ever before, that “the scope of individual choice and action today are greater than in previous times, all the way from consumer behavior to political or religious allegiance.” (p.172) But we will get a chance to look at claims like this when we come to examine Herbert Marcuse’s essay, so I will defer this examination until then. In the next set of notes, I will look at the views of the radical critic of technology, Jacques Ellul.

Notes

  1. As I pointed out last time, this conception of technology does not really cover all things we would call technology or technologies. It does not cover the windmill or the axe, for example; if you think about it, you will realise that it really only covers certain kinds of technology which rest rather firmly upon modern scientific knowledge. For it is really only such knowledge which allows us to identify and understand natural processes to the point where we can build environments of control into which we can insert them. Clearly, we need to understand processes like combustion, boiling, pressure, evaporation and the like rather well before we can build a steam engine. So knowledge of the laws governing the behaviour of natural processes is practically indispensable for building this kind of technological device. Note that this conception also encompasses electronic devices like radios and computers. A radio is an environment which converts certain kinds of electromagnetic radiation occurring in its immediate vicinity into electricity, which in turn is directed through various bits of circuitry to a loudspeaker which in turn produces in response to these impulses certain kinds of sound wave. Of course, although electromagnetic radiation does occur naturally, only artificially produced and shaped radiation causes the radio to produce more than crackling. So really, the radio is just one part of a much more complex and extended technological system which includes the radio station, the radio masts and possibly even the whole system of power generation which powers both the radio station and the radio itself.

  2. Instead, he indicates a number of earlier, nineteenth century thinkers: Henri Saint-Simon, a French industrialist and politician who lived in the first part of the nineteenth century; Auguste Comte, a French philosopher; and Karl Marx, the founder of Marxism and Communism. It is, incidentally, quite important to note both that Marx was quite pro-technology and that Soviet Communists were mostly very rabid technological enthusiasts.

  3. He then says that the radical position is “akin to historical back-to-nature” attitudes and is propounded mainly by artists, literary commentators, popular social critics, and existentialist philosophers.” And we must not forget “our youth”, who also find this view congenial. As you might expect, comments like these are pretty standard rhetorical ploys, particularly for those in the centre of my scale, who tend to regard themselves as the only cool and objective heads in town. Note the characteristic yet false insinuation that the radicals are at least akin to “back-to-nature” freaks, who would have us return to the caves. Note, too, the slight suggestion that the radical view is held mostly by people who really do not understand either science or technology, e.g., “artists, literary commentators, popular social critics, and existentialist philosophers.” (p.156)

  4. But why does Mesthene believe that there is no understanding of technology without an account of how it causes social change? He believes this because he believes that genuine understanding of anything consists in knowing what causal properties it has, what causal laws it is subject to and sometimes also what other things caused it to exist; to understand or know a thing is thus to know a thing’s cause, its causal properties and the causal laws it falls under. Now to have such knowledge is to have scientific knowledge of it. For ever since the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, scientific knowledge has been seen as precise and systematic knowledge of the causes of things. So Mesthene believes that there is no understanding of technology without an account of how it causes social change because he believes that any genuine understanding of technology must be scientific. He regards the three views on technology just outlined as not genuinely scientific, and thus for this reason of limited cognitive worth.

    Indeed, Mesthene believes that at least the first two of these three views can be positively refuted by scientific and empirical methods. Thus, in the section entitled “Some Countervailing Considerations”, Mesthene cites work by a colleague Oettinger which shows the first view to be wrong. Oettinger investigated the introduction of certain kinds of educational technology into American schools in the 1960’s. It was hoped that this technology would significantly improve the education system by enabling individualised instruction for every child, systematic planning and uniform standards across 25,000 separate school districts, compensation for bad teachers, better administration, and so on. But these high technological hopes were disappointed; to paraphrase Mesthene, human fallibility and political reality kept utopia at bay (see p.158).

    Similarly, proponents of the second view typically claim that “… technological and social complexity must inevitably lead to reducing the individual to “mass” or “organization” man …” (p.172). Thus, one such radical, Herbert Marcuse, has accused technology, at least as it operates in modern industrial society, of flattening out individuality, of turning people into “one-dimensional” consumers of products. But, thinks Mesthene, this is demonstrably false; precisely modern technology and economic activity has made it possible for the individual to be more individual than ever before. Mesthene cites one of his colleagues in the Harvard Programme, Edward Shils, who claims that “the scope of individual choice and action today are greater than in previous times, all the way from consumer behavior to political or religious allegiance.” (p.172) In general, Mesthene believes that a study by another of his colleagues, one Manfred Stanley, has shown that the predictions of doom and disaster through technology typically made by radicals are premature - see p.158.

  5. Of course, when I say that this axe implies certain ways of life, I do not mean that it necessarily implies them. That is, I do not mean that in any conceivable world whatsoever a stone axe would imply the existence of certain other tools, skills and knowledge. After all, a world is conceivable in which stone axe heads could occur naturally, say, as a result of volcanic activity. In such a world, the people living there would not have to produce axes-heads, they could just go out and find them. But our world is and has never been like this, at least not since human beings have been on it. So given the way our world is, with its particular physical laws and characteristics, a stone axe implies these other tools, skills and knowledge. For without these other things it would not exist in our world.

  6. See, e.g., p.173, where he says, “A society that undertakes to foster technology on a large scale … commits itself to social complexity….” See also p.174, where he says, “… the development and application of technology seems to require large-scale, and hence increasingly complex, social concentrations, whether these be large cities, large corporations, big universities, or big government.”