Introduction to The Careless Technology, eds. M. Taghi Farvar and John P. Milton, 1973.
The technologist in antiquity tended to be held in low esteem. Like the Titans, he must steal the fire from the Gods, and thereby earn the wrath of Zeus. Among extant primitive societies he fares scarcely better: the blacksmiths, for instance, are often members of a special caste, nearly always of low social status.
Since, as is generally recognized by anthropologists, the acquisition of social prestige is man’s prime motivation, one is not surprised to find that technology plays but a small part in the behaviour pattern of such societies.
But why should it play a more important one? This question may appear stupid to us who are taught from infancy to regard human artefacts, especially those of the industrial age, with far greater wonder and admiration than those of nature.
However, it is not so stupid if one considers that it is possibly the most widely admired of these artefacts whose unforeseen environmental consequences (as was revealed during the course of the remarkable symposium whose proceedings are published in this volume) have proved most severe.
The miraculous agro-chemicals that, we are told, will enable us to feed an ever-expanding world population, and that are supposed to be leading to the eradication of infectious disease, the mighty dams built to provide the ever-increasing power requirements of our rapidly growing cities, the cities themselves, that are drawing ever more people from the rural misery in which they are held, so far, to have vegetated, into the orbit of our great urban civilization: all, it appears, may be mixed blessings at the very best.
Is there, it might be asked, a way of avoiding these unpleasant consequences? Must all technology be “careless”? Is it not possible to enjoy the material fruits of progress while avoiding its social and ecological costs?
We hear a lot today of alternative or “soft” technology, which is of a subtler variety and design, to minimize such costs. Why can we not systematically substitute this for the current variety?
I think that it is becoming increasingly clear that technology by its very nature must cause problems. It consists in substituting a man-devised organization of matter, the “technosphere”, which is relatively crude and geared to the satisfaction of short-term anthropocentric ends, for the “biosphere”, remarkable for its subtlety and geared to the maintenance of long-term stability, i.e. survival.
Such a substitution is tolerable so long as it is on a relatively small scale, but must become intolerable when generalized.
Unfortunately our society is committed to effecting this substitution globally and as rapidly as the resources required for so gigantic an enterprise can be wrenched from the natural world.
To suggest that technology is not, in itself, a suitable goal is thus to raise the question as to whether our society is in fact viable. One might ask how our society ever set out to achieve so perilous a goal? How, however, does a society set out on any goal?
A society, though we are apt to forget it, is a natural system as much as is a biological organism or an ecosystem, and the behaviour of a natural system, as Craik was the first to point out, is only explicable in terms of the model it has built of its relationship with its environment.1 When we talk of a society’s worldview, or Weltanschauung, we are referring to just this model.
The different religio-cultures evolved by man reflect the different worldviews of their adepts and give rise to correspondingly different behaviour patterns.
Those of primitive societies, before their disruption through contact with us, are associated with behaviour patterns that put a premium on stability. The main preoccupation of their members was to observe, as rigorously as possible, the traditions handed down from generation to generation, any deviation from which was severely sanctioned by public opinion, the council of elders, and, according to their beliefs, the ancestral spirits.
When such religio-cultures break down, there ensues a period of chaos, from which there tends to emerge new religio-cultures, usually as a result of revolutionary religio-political movements of a type often referred to as messianic or millenarist.
These tend to have a number of features in common. To begin with they provide an explanation for the current chaos which is usually attributed to the agency of some undesirable sector of society—the colonialist overlords for instance. Secondly, they postulate an ideal society, often some golden age in the society’s distant semi-mythical past (nativism), or else a purely hypothetical situation for which there is no real precedent—a paradise in which are satisfied all the aspirations of man living in a state of social and material deprivation. Thirdly, they establish a means of achieving this desired result, often by aggression towards those held responsible for the present situation, and by imposing a specific set of cultural constraints that will determine a new social behaviour pattern.
Norman Cohn2 has shown that this pattern holds good for societies other than primitive ones, and that it is only in these terms that the genesis of Christianity, Islam, Marxism and even Nazism can be understood.
Each of these religio-cultures offered their adepts compensation for the imperfections of their present life by promising them an ideal future one. Such a promise was of particular significance to those living in the psychologically intolerable social chaos that accompanies the breakdown of a mainstream cultural pattern.
Thus, according to the early Christian worldview, for instance, this life is but a preparation for the next. If people fulfil their duties towards God in the manner laid down by the Church, then they will be rewarded with a blissful non-material existence in the next world. The duties, as originally understood, were of a mainly ritualistic nature, so much so that the Christians were accused by such critics as Gibbon and Lecky3 of substituting duties towards God for duties towards their fellow men. This “otherworldliness”, it was argued, could only lead to the disintegration of society.
Otherworldliness became even more pronounced in the religio-culture of many of the mediaeval heresies, such as those of the Bogomiles and Cathars, who tended to regard the world as basically evil, even so evil that it could only have been created by the devil.4 All worldly activities, including, in some cases, reproducing oneself, could only help the devil in his evil designs. In such conditions, the only behaviour that could conceivably meet with God’s approval was to divorce oneself entirely from the concerns of this world and preoccupy oneself exclusively with those of the next.
Clearly, no psychological terrain could be less propitious for the emergence of a technological society. Not so, however, that furnished by later non-conformist heresies. The Puritans reacted against the other-worldliness of the religious establishment. They sought to reintroduce duties towards men, not as a substitute for duties towards God but rather as the only true means of serving him.
To achieve the Christian Paradise, they assumed it was no longer sufficient to fulfil empty rituals; they had to submit to a rigid set of behavioural constraints which banished frivolities and put a premium on hard work.
Work was thereby equated with virtue and the materially successful with the righteous.
It is the well-known thesis of Weber5 that it was only among men who had developed so singular a worldview that the industrial revolution could conceivably have occurred and that technology could have been sanctified as a tool for achieving one’s peace with God.
Possibly, the process had a positive-feedback component in that the new industrial classes had a strong psychological stake in a philosophy that provided a perfect justification for their activities, and that enabled them by the same efforts to serve both God and Mammon.
Hagen6 refined the Weber model and pointed out, among other things, that it was only because the Puritans were some way up the social ladder that their peculiar religio-culture succeeded in spreading through British society. If it had been developed by an alien group with low prestige, this could not conceivably have happened. This thesis fits in well with the experience of Japan.
Its remarkable industrial revolution was basically the work of the poorer Samurai, or lesser nobility, who developed a world view, similar in many respects to that of the Puritans, which provided the rationale for their industrial undertakings that were to be rapidly emulated by the rest of society.
As Hagen points out, such a worldview would satisfy the psychological requirements of a sector of society whose traditional worldview provided them with a goal-structure that political and social changes had rendered inachievable. For centuries the Tokugawa peace had prevented them from fulfilling their normal role as warriors attached to local kings or daimyos, for their ability to wage wars on each other had been seriously curtailed. In such conditions, the cultural pattern of the frustrated Samurai could only disintegrate, and the industrial ethic was ideal in that in the changing social and economic climate it furnished them with an achievable goal-structure, one that would provide them with psychological as well as material satisfactions.
As industrial activities began to spread throughout what are now the industrialized societies, so did the ethic underlying and justifying them itself undergo change. Preoccupation with the material products of industry began to obscure their ethical justification, and the materialist paradise that science, technology and industry appeared to be creating came to replace its conventional Christian equivalent which to practical men appeared ever more remote and speculative.
In this way, perhaps, can be traced the genesis of the goal structure of technological man: the achievement of a materialist paradise in which drudgery, poverty, social inequality, ignorance, unemployment, famine, disease, and even death (i.e. what are assumed to be the ills with which man has always been afflicted) will have been eliminated once and for all.
It is fashionable to pour scorn on the conventional notions of paradise proposed by the principal religions of today, and, a fortiori, the more outlandish sects that have sprung from them. None, however, is as naive as this one. Its achievements would violate not only the fundamental laws of thermodynamics, but also practically all the basic principles of biological, ecological and social organization.
As could be predicted, the behavioural pattern associated with such a goal-structure could only have the most disastrous consequences, and when globalized and on a sufficient scale must inevitably lead to man’s eventual annihilation.
One might well ask why are we behaving in so misguided a manner at a time when knowledge has never accumulated faster and when, as we are told, 90 per cent of the scientists who have ever lived are at present operating. Is not the object of knowledge and in particular “scientific” knowledge to guide public policy so as to best serve man’s interests? How can one explain this apparent paradox? The answer is that modern science is not as objective as it is made out to be. If one examines the worldview that gives rise to the technological goal structure and corresponding social behaviour pattern, one finds that it is taken as given, one might even say, as gospel by the main body of today’s scientists. To criticize its basic tenets is to draw upon oneself the wrath, even the sanctions (if one is professionally involved in an academic establishment), that heretics have often met with from the established church.
Indeed, rather than serve as the critics of our technological society offering some protection against its worse abuses, the scientists have been as involved in it, as instrumental to it, as the technologists and industrialists who have exploited their “discoveries”. Functionally speaking, they are its priests. It is they who have formulated the worldview that provides its rationale, and they have couched it in the most up-to-date “scientific” terminology, and supported it with a wealth of empirical data, which confer on its principal tenets a degree of indubitability seldom enjoyed by religious dogmas.
What is more this priesthood is backed by massive government subsidies and its prestige and influence is as great as that of the most firmly established of conventional religions. Like other priesthoods, it has reserved for itself the sole right to dispense the “mana” or vital force whose accumulation in terms of the current Weltanschauung is a measure of one’s power over nature. In our society this “power” is called scientific knowledge.
This is defined in a very subtle way. It only refers to data accumulated as a result of experimentation. Information deduced from basic principles does not qualify unless it can be “tested” empirically in the artificial conditions of a laboratory. Thus it is obvious that wide-spectrum chemical pesticides cannot work, as they accumulate in food chains and thereby do more damage to the predators than to the target species that they control. In the same way it is quite evident that efforts to eradicate infectious diseases by waging chemical warfare against their vectors must be counterproductive, since one is thereby substituting a precarious, highly simplified, externally controlled, and hence very unstable device for a much more complex set of highly stable, self-regulating controls. However, such information is not regarded as contributory “scientific knowledge” because it is not backed by sufficient experimental data. Needless to say, this can only be acquired by trying out these iniquitous devices, thereby providing our technologists with the green light.
When unexpected consequences appear, there is an irresistible temptation, on the part of those brought up on the technological ethic, to attribute them to sheet technicalities. The devices themselves, it is usually held, are beyond reproach. They must have been improperly used, or the conditions were not appropriate, or the requisite well-trained personnel was not available, etc.
“Scientific method” does not provide a sure means of testing such assertions. Observation (and hence experimentation) is not the objective means of acquiring information that it is made out to be by empiricist philosophers. It is the brain, not the eye, that does the observing.7 An observation is just a hypothesis formulated in terms of the observer’s personal model of his environment.
As Wittreich8, Witkin9, Ittleson and Kilpatrick10, and a host of other modern psychologists have demonstrated, one observes what one expects to observe. In other words, if one is firmly convinced of the efficacy of certain technological devices, then one is very unlikely to “observe” their inefficacy. On the other hand, one will almost certainly “observe” technical errors in their exploitation.
Man, in fact, is a rationalizing animal rather than a rational one, and unfortunately modern “scientific method” does little to combat this human failing.
In reading this book, the reader must constantly bear this question in mind: are the experiences described incriminating “careless” technology or technology itself when practised on a sufficient scale?
This preface provides some theoretical considerations on this subject. It is, needless to say, controversial, and I am sure that many of the participants in this remarkable symposium would disagree with many of the points I have made. However, all, I am sure, would agree that a lot of basic rethinking is required on the relationship between technology and the environment, and this must automatically open the door for controversial, even heretical, views.
Editor The Ecologist
1. Craik, Kenneth. The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge University Press, 1952.
2. Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium. London: (Secker & Warburg) 1957.
3. Lecky, William E. H. History of European Morals. London: Longmans Green & Co., 1908.
4. Runciman, Stephen. “Le Manicheïsme Mediaevalc”. Paris: Payot.
5. Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalism. London: Unwins University Library, 1968.
6. Hagen, E. E. On the Theory of Social Change. London: Tavistock Pub., 1964.
7. Noel-Martin, Charles. The Role of Perception in Science translated by A. J. Pomerans. London: Hutchinson, 1963.
8. Wittreich, W. J. “Visual Perception arid Personality”. Scientific American, April 1959.
9. Witkin, H. A. “The Perception of the Upright”. Scientific American, February 1959. 10. Ittleson, W. H., and Kilpatrick, F. P. “Experiments in Perception”. Scientific American, August 1951Back to top