Technological Fundamentalism

The implied objective of "progress" is—not exactly perhaps, the brain in the bottle, but at any rate some frightful subhuman depth of softness and helplessness.

—George Orwell

Scene 1: Entry to a classroom building. With a deafening noise he revved up the two-cycle engine on a blower preparing to clean the leaves, paper, and cigarette butts that had accumulated in the entry-way. He made considerable progress herding the debris away from the building and down the sidewalk until cigarette butts lodged in the seams in the concrete. Turning, he blasted the miscreant trash at right angles, but this only blew the debris onto the grass, posing still greater difficulties. Moving cigarette butts and bits of paper in an orderly fashion through grass is a challenge, even for a machine capable of generating gale-force winds. Then the apparatus stalled out—"down time," it's called. In that moment of sweet silence, I walked over and inquired whether he thought a broom or rake might do as well. "What'd you say?" he responded. "Can't hear anything, my ears are still ringing!" I repeated the question. "S'pose so," he said, "but they think I'm more productive with this piece of *&[email protected]"

Perhaps he is more productive. I do not know how experts calculate efficiency in complex cases like this. If, however, the goal is to disrupt public serenity, burn scarce fossil fuels, create a large amount of blue smoke, damage lung tissue, purchase expensive and failure-prone equipment, frazzle nerves, interrupt conversations, and improve the market for hearing aids, rakes and brooms cannot compete. When the technology and the task at hand are poorly matched, however, there is no real efficiency. In such cases the result, in Amory Lovins's telling phrase, is rather like "cutting butter with a chain saw."

Scene 2: Committee meeting. I once served on what is called with some extravagance the Educational Plans and Policies Committee. It is a committee to which one is elected, or sentenced, depending on your view. In one meeting we were casually asked to pronounce our blessing on a plan to link the entire campus so that everyone would be able to communicate with everyone else via computer, 24 hours a day, without leaving dormitory rooms or offices. This, we were told, was what our competitor colleges were doing. We were assured that this was the future. Information, we were informed, is doubling every six months. Electronic networking was judged to be an adequate response to that condition of information overload. Curious, I inquired what was known about the effects of computers on what we and our students think about or how well we can think about it. In other words, are there some things worth thinking about for which computers are ill suited? Can computers teach us to be properly skeptical of computers? Would people so wired and networked still want to talk to each other face to face? Would they remember how? Would they be sane? Or civil? Would they still know a tree from a bird? And after all the hype, what is the relation between information, knowledge, and wisdom? My fellow committee members, thoughtful persons all, stirred impatiently. After an awkward pause, one said, "We've been through this before and don't need to rehash the subject." I asked, "When?" Another awkward pause. No one could recall when that momentous conversation had occurred. "Well, it's all in the literature," said another. I asked for citations. None were forthcoming. What I had read on the subject by Joseph Weizenbaum

(1976), Theodore Roszak (1986), Neil Postman (1992), and C. A. Bowers (1993, 2000) would suggest to the curriculum committees of the world good reasons for caution. But these books had not been discussed by the committee, and no others were suggested.

Scene 3: Washington, D.C. A high public official is describing plans for the creation of a national information superhighway. The speech is full of high-tech words and "mega" this and that. Sober-looking public officials, corporate executives, and technicians glance at each other and nod approvingly. Members of the press dutifully scribble notes. TV cameras record the event. The questions that follow are mostly of the "gee whiz" kind. From the answers given, one might infer that the rationale for a superhighway is: (1) it will make the American economy more "competitive" because lack of information is what ails us; and (2) it's inevitable and can't be stopped anyway.

I am neither for nor against leaf blowers, computers, networks, or the information age, for that matter. My target is fundamentalism, which is not something that happens just to religious zealots. It can happen to well-educated people who fail to ask hard questions about why we do what we do, how we do it, or how these things affect our long-term prospects. We, leaf blowers and computer jockeys alike, have tended to become technological fundamentalists, unwilling, perhaps unable, to question our basic assumptions about how our tools relate to our larger purposes and prospects.

Scene 1 is an obvious case of technological overkill in which means and ends are not well matched. The deeper problem, noted by all critics of technology, from Mary Shelley and Herman Melville on, is that industrial societies are long on means but short on ends. Unable to separate can do from should do, we suffer a kind of technological immune deficiency syndrome that renders us vulnerable to whatever can be done and too weak to question what it is that we should do.

In scene 2, the committee did not know how computers affect what we pay attention to and how this, in turn, affects our long-term ecological prospects. Not knowing these things and being unwilling to admit them as honest, even important, questions, we did not know whether all of this technology could be used for good or not. Assuming that it could be used to good effect, we did not know how to do so. Seduced by convenience, dazzled by cleverness, armed with no adequate philosophy of technology, and not wanting to appear to our peers as premodern, we were at the mercy of those selling "progress" to us without a whisper about where it will ultimately take us.

In scene 3, much of the same is true on a larger scale as we approach the entry ramp of the information superhighway. Smart and well-meaning people believe this to be the cat's meow. But by what standard should we judge this enterprise? Will it, on balance, help us preserve biotic potential? Will it help to make us a more sane, civil, and sustainable culture? In this regard it is enlightening to know that a substantial part of the traffic now appearing on the superhighway so far built has to do with the distribution of pornography. Furthermore, the phrase "information superhighway" invites comparison to the interstate highways built in the United States between 1956 and the present. Any fair accounting of the real costs of that national commitment would include the contributions of the interstate system to the following problems:

• damage to urban neighborhoods and communities

• highway deaths

• loss of biological diversity

• damage to fragile landscapes

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