Technology in the Context of Commonwealth and Posterity
copyright 1998, 1999 by Tad Beckman, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA 91711
To say "our relationship with technology" is a little bit misleading. Any number of thinkers, in this century, have pointed out that we are mistaken in holding the rather common view that technology is merely an object that we can relate to and, in particular, that we can control, for good or for ill. Technology, in this sense, is not the object or tool, say, the repeating rifle; it is, rather, the whole mentality that imagined the need for and the design of the repeating rifle. Technology is the metallurgical science that stands behind the rifle, the machining of rapidly moving parts, the economy that distributes the resources and the products, and perhaps even the political situation that offers its applications. In this respect, we live well within technology; it defines us as much as we define it. Our relationship with technology is very complex.
Most thinkers on this subject have also observed that the character of technology has changed over the long time span of human history; and perhaps needless to say, all agree that technology, today, is far more pervasive. Hence, our lives are woven into technology in very much more complicated ways than they were even a mere two hundred years ago. There are two significant dangers in this. First, it is far more likely that technology itself will define the future than will we. Second, our experience with this kind of intensive technology is so limited, historically, that it is difficult to find rational bases for our decisions and actions. Within his conception of "technopoly," Neil Postman suggests that technology itself, in this contemporary stage of its development, has become the driving force in determining human culture, putting the cart before the horse.
As we consider the issues of democracy and posterity in relation to technology, we need to keep these overarching issues in mind. In particular, when we identify problems with specific aspects of technology today, we need to understand the complexity through which such problems are generated and, hence, the extreme difficulty required of any significant solutions.
An Example As an overview exercise, let us ponder the typical large-scale damming project undertaken by the Bureau of Reclamation in the American West, over the fifty year period from 1930 through 1980. The technological feat of locating and constructing a dam is one of enormous proportions. No individual citizen, corporate body, or even community has ever attempted it on the grand scale. The great dams of the West were all constructed by the Federal government under the auspices of the Bureau of Reclamation and, as such, they were paid for by the tax payers of the United States. The Bureau's clear intention was not so much to re-claim land but rather to claim it; that is, the Bureau set about a policy of claiming land from nature, the dry natural West. The dams would control flooding by holding back rivers in large reservoirs. Having created a fall line for the run-through water, electrical power could be generated. Meanwhile, portions of the reservoir could be channeled or pumped off in the directions of new communities or new farm lands. Incidentally to these projects, the reservoir itself could be developed as a recreational and tourist attraction.
Did the construction of dams throughout the American West have significantly democratic benefits? Was American democracy enhanced? In short, who benefitted from these creations? The simplest answer is that Westerners benefitted at the expense of Easterners; and so far as I know, there was never any pay back to the government as a whole. The country simply invested enormous sums of money to benefit development of the West. But then we might ask whether the West was developed "democratically" or with a sense of common wealth or common good. Here, we are awaited by further disappointments. Development of recreation, power, and water was never something that average individuals or communities had easy access to; instead, well situated individuals quickly capitalized on these projects and developed substantial wealth and political power through them. If the great dams were built for the people, the people failed to achieve either wealth or a political voice from their completion. These were possessions of well situated Capitalists. Generally speaking, dams in the West have brought huge benefits to a disproportionately small number of Western citizens who are not even forced to pay back a portion of the nation's investment in their wealth-producing resources.
So much for democracy, what about posterity? In its natural state, a river is a living thing both in the biological sense and in the geological sense. Rain and snow-pack feed Western rivers from the high country of the watershed. Virtually all Western precipitation is seasonal; thus, rivers flow hard at one time of year and slow at another. There can be great annual variations, depending on many different weather conditions. From a geological standpoint, a river is an earth-moving system. Its constant activity cuts into rocks and moves them downstream, breaking them down into gravel and then to fine sand. Biologically, the river's path provides a wide variety of environments for flora and fauna, perhaps even for spawning fish.
A dam immediately stops the downstream flow of erosion debris, both in normal years and in the occasional flood clean-up. Geological time stops. It also halts the up-stream migration of spawning fish. Even for resident fish, the environment is so changed that species can become extinct. Thus far, while dams have decimated both migrating and resident fish, they have not provided any habitats conducive to the emergence of attractive new fish species. The toll has been heavy for posterity. Many people are aware of this damage, of course, and we know that various attempts have been made at "technological fixes" -- fish ladders, hatcheries, regulated flows, etc. What most people are not aware of is the geological processes and their cost. While the dam prevents silt (erosion debris) from continuing downstream where it used to have some beneficial results, it does nothing to stop erosion upstream. Consequently, all of the primal debris flow is now trapped behind the dam. In this sense, a dam, as a technological masterpiece, is merely a temporary obstruction in an ongoing geological drama. When the back of a dam is filled up with debris, the dam becomes an expensive cement waterfall! At that point, of course, it no longer holds back water and it no longer provides a power source and it is no longer a haven for jet skis and powerboats. Dams are not built for posterity. Many dams in the West are already wearing out.
Technology and Commonwealth Having dwelt on one example at length, let us think about each issue in more general terms. Part of the problem in assessing the democratic impact of technology is a genuine confusion about democracy and its relation to commonwealth. Americans tend to be extremely confused about what democracy really means. Some will explain that it simply means the right to vote in free elections. Others, however, will suggest that it means the right of self government by a people. If the two are connected, then very significant assumptions are being made about the relationship between elections and government -- that is, that political parties put up platforms that reflect important issues, that their candidates remain faithful to platforms after being elected, and that the overriding factors weighed by representatives in the processes of legislation, administration, and adjudication are all directed by the public good, the commonwealth of the people.
Unfortunately, part of the confusion about democracy in America derives from Classical Liberalism in the old English sense of laissez faire Capitalism, essentially the "right" of an individual to gain whatever he/she can, unrestrained by any political power. Thus, the concept of public good is either ignored or transcribed into a concept of the ultimate good to all individuals of free competition. It takes no genius to see that the idea of commonwealth disappears quickly in this system.
Overall, in assessing the social and political roles of technology, we should keep in mind two concepts that are fundamental to the issues, above. One of these is social and political power, as it exists in America. The democratic ideal certainly speaks to the idea that all people will have a significant role in determining national policies. The other concept is that significant resources will go to community or to the public good. Resources and wealth will be equitably distributed for the good of all members of the democratic state. The question, then, is to what degree technology plays to these concepts or works against them.
In the contemporary discussion of technology, one argument form looms large. I will call this the "spin-off argument." What this argument proposes is that a technology being considered is a benefit to the public good so long as it can be shown that it will have "spin offs" which will benefit the majority of the public. One of the classic technologies to be supported in this way was NASA's assault on the moon. Why would anyone in their right mind believe that sending a few men to the moon would contribute to the public good? Yet the case was argued on many levels, and it received a strong blessing from America's young president, John F. Kennedy.
The chief sponsor of NASA's mission was the American tax dollar. And it was a big bill. One would have to believe that very substantial benefits were about to flow to Americans, bettering their lives in very significant ways. Otherwise, the benefits would seem to fall only to a few astronauts who would experience a fantastic adventure, some scientists who would satisfy their curiosity about the nature of the moonscape, and quite a few entrepreneurs involved in designing and building space vehicles suitable for this kind of mission. This would scarcely seem to be a force for democracy or commonwealth. In the end, most Americans satisfied themselves with an argument that technologists had made ever since the Second World War, namely, that every technological adventure of this kind produces "spin offs" that have direct marketability to all Americans. We should assault the moon because it would inevitably bring us new kinds of auto bodies, more efficient refrigerators, and more "miracle drugs."
The logical structure of the "spin-off argument" encourages us to accept major costs of dramatic new technologies on the grounds that there will always be some new products, brought forward only through this path, that we will enjoy having. The argument has set a standard of sorts in the American mind to the effect that we should welcome any technological advance so long as we can find some part of it that contributes to personal pleasure. The "spin-off argument" is, in other words, a form of technological hedonism. We seem to think something is universally useful if it is true that most people can find something useful about it. We connect the "universality" of applications to "democracy;" that is, it is this spreading across people that makes us think technology is a force for democracy. Unfortunately and to the contrary, what we avoid looking at is the fact that the central technology is developed at enormous cost to the tax-paying majority of people and with great benefits to only a very small number of people. When the spin-off goodies are finally developed into commercial consumer products, it is by or through the same or related entrepreneurs who benefitted from the development of the central technology so, while we may benefit from the availability of new products, it is once again a benefit that it distributed inequitably. It might be considerably more "democratic" if the profits from spin offs were used to pay back the taxpayers for their initial investment.
Consider the technology of computing, today. The fact that this technology has spawned personal computers that can be linked into the Internet and used for home banking, shopping, friendly communication, games, etc. seems to make us believe that it is a great democratizing force. Yet the computer industry was really invented, decades ago, for military purposes and it continues to have major import in the military as well as in national intelligence operations. Beyond that, it is heavily used in banking communications and marketing, both of which have enabled a rapid and pervasive development of capitalism across the globe. Through data entry at all levels of society, there is now a massive collection of information about each of us and this can be used by a number of private organizations that are willing to pay for it. It is not at all clear that this is beneficial to democracy; in fact, people today have good reason to fear for their right to privacy. Even though we can clearly count many small ways in which computing benefits us as individuals, there is no doubt that the overall development of computing technology has placed tremendous power and wealth at the disposal of a very small number of people (comparatively speaking).
The Internet is, in fact, an excellent example of a spin off from military computing technology since it was developed specifically for the transfer of data between military computing sites. Furthermore, there is no doubt that the Internet provides many benefits to those who can afford to purchase the essential computing equipment and access. We should not, however, ignore the very real way in which those involved in this technology from the beginning are making enormous profits by selling us spin offs from the very technology that we taxpayers financed in the first place. We should not ignore the many ways in which our participation in Internet technology gives these same people continuing access to us as well. While many people do experience benefits, we have to examine the cost as well as the inequitable distribution of the major economic benefits. And finally, we have to ask where the public good lies in all of this. How is commonwealth benefitted, in opposition to "specialwealth?"
The lesson is this. A significant criticism, or evaluation, of a technology requires us to work hard and use our imagination. We have to go beyond what we are simply told by the advocates for the technology. We have to imagine other things that we might value or that might contribute to the public welfare, other choices that we would like to have. Americans tend to think that because they have choices they are free. Believing this, they tend to ignore the quality of choices they possess. But it is not merely a matter of having choices; it is a matter of what choices we might value having. We have to learn to look at the whole picture. This means, of course, that we will begin discovering ways in which the introduction of a new technology limits our choices (as well as offering new ones) and we can begin to appraise the damage that new technologies may cause. This is not something that their advocates want to talk about.
In my memory, many people chose (wisely) to escape runaway commercialism on television broadcasting by subscribing to cable television programming. In two decades, now, cable providers have successfully brought in commercials so that there is no longer any difference at all, except that you still pay a monthly fee for cable. You simply do not have the choice of escaping the agony of being bombarded by commercial messages. The only choice is to avoid television programming in any form.
Let us, then, return to the question at hand. Does modern technology tend to be a democratizing force? The answer clearly depends on what we call democracy. There are many, today, who will simply accept the privilege of voting (the choices given us) as the sign of democracy and even praise the possibility that digital communication may make voting more efficient. On the other hand, I am more concerned about what choices my vote actually gives me and whether the voting habits of the majority of people even has any practical impact on the decisions that are made. It seems much more obvious, today, that corporate capitalism is the true national power and that only a small number of very wealthy people control that power. These are the same people, in fact, who can control the media and political processes that offer us our voting "choices." Now, I believe that democracy, in the true sense, is not choosing among the limited opportunities dealt a people by an aristocracy or oligarchy. It is, instead, that situation where the people have a significant voice in determining what the issues are and, hence, what the choices are.
Having said all of this, it will probably not be surprising to hear that I do not see modern technology as a democratizing force. Why? The main answer lies in the fact that modern technology, like modern politics, costs big money for development and deployment. Needless to say, then, modern technology is developed rather wholly with the interests of those paying the bills in mind. This is not to say, that those interests will preclude some of our interests; but it is also not to ignore the very big fact that wealthy interests pursue greater wealth and power. In a market society it is always important to develop some aspects of any new technology that will become attractive to the consuming public. It is also important to keep the public organized in consumption. This is, after all, exactly what the media spends most of its time doing.
I fully grant that, if modern technology could be developed and deployed at much lower cost so that ordinary people and communities could effectively pursue their needs and interests, the argument above would fail. But that would also mean, of course, that jobs as scientists, engineers, and computer specialists would no longer bring huge salaries. Ironically, the career-promotion that brings many students to Harvey Mudd is living proof of the argument I have made. The small number of very wealthy and powerful people who can afford advanced technological innovations are those who provide large salaries and who continue the political and social domination of the US which is carrying us farther away from democracy rather than toward it.
Technology and Posterity Let us turn again to the issue of posterity. The example of our ultra expensive dams silting over is just one in a long line of examples where technology has led us to build great things that offer great effects but that can only last a short time. What do we do when the dams silt over? Will we be willing to fork over the enormous costs of building new ones? Where? Or will we allow the irrigated fields to dry up and the "irrigated" communities to go dry? The typical answer is that we will find a technological solution to the problem.
What we forget, in all of this, is that our historical experience with technology at this intensive level is very limited. When we suggest that technology has always gotten us through, we forget that our historical experience with technology is primarily in dealing with first-order needs. The original damming of a river to create water and power is what I've called a first-order need. The fixing of a problem like the silting of a dam, on the other hand, is what I'll call a second-order need. It is a need created by technology itself. We do not have a lot of historical evidence about technology solving second-order needs.
Unfortunately, our rather blind faith in the ability of technology to solve all problems is a major causal factor in our behavior. We tend to develop technologies regardless of posterity. That is, we spend enormous amounts of money for immediate profit taking and imagine that we can carry the game elsewhere when the profits dry up. This tactic is unfortunate for those who have decided to depend on that technology; it is even more unfortunate for the natural environment that has been exploited in the process. Science and engineering, with corporate promotion, have developed a fantastic number of products out of crude natural oil. We have come to depend on these in manifold ways. Unfortunately, however, we know it for a fact that oil is neither an unlimited resource nor a renewable resource. We are running the oil supply thin -- thinner yet as we enter the "global-village" era of all-out global consumption. How will we replace the goods that we have become used to having? This is a second-order problem. One characteristic of second-order problems, as this example shows us, is that first-order developments are easy because of exploitable resources and second-order problems often occur because continuing exploitation has become less likely. High technology, so called, is more likely to run into second-order problems of various kinds because it tends to exploit increasingly rare non-renewable resources. If anything, then, modern technology is antithetical toward posterity and intensively concerned only with the near future.
While most of what I have said in this essay may sound entirely negative toward technology, I do not mean to claim that technologies should be thrown over the cliff or that scientists and engineers can have no place in the future. It is clear to me that what we need are engineers who have a talent for discovering "appropriate technologies."