TCS Daily

Mapping the Debate Over Technology

By Eugene Miller - September 2, 2003 12:00 AM

Technology has been a center of controversy since early modern times, when the program for its development was first laid out. After the Industrial Revolution, as the potency of science based production and engineering became obvious to all, the debate over technology broadened and intensified, so that today it encompasses most issues of concern to us.


Structure of the Debate


In approaching the long and complex debate over technology, it is important to see how it is structured. A noteworthy effort to map out this structure is Virginia Postrel's portrayal of the debate as one between "dynamists" and "stasists," with the latter consisting of either "technocrats" or "reactionaries." Postrel structures the options this way partly for polemical reasons, and she uses them adroitly to defend the dynamist position.[i]


As Postrel acknowledges, her work draws on the theoretical contributions of others, especially that of F. A. Hayek. In fact, her three options parallel the ones sketched by Hayek in his well-known Postscript to The Constitution of Liberty, where the defenders of liberty and spontaneous development are differentiated both from collectivist planners and from "true conservatives."[ii] Postrel brings technology to the forefront by framing these options as alternative ways of envisioning the future, particularly as it might be shaped by technological change. Hayek confessed himself to be at a loss for a term to describe "the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution." He suggests "Old Whig" as an option -- a term of political origin. Postrel offers instead the term "dynamist," whose connotations seem more technological than political.


Postrel's most valuable insight, from an analytical standpoint, is her recognition that the debate over technology is structured around two primary questions -- the question of benefits and harms and the question of controls. My aim here is to sketch a framework that affords a broader picture of this debate than Postrel gives us, but to do so by starting from the same questions. The resulting schema should help us to identify fundamental alternatives that run through the entire course of modern philosophy, to locate important thinkers in relation to these alternatives, and to trace lines of influence.


My schema [see Figure 1] presumes that the debate over technology has two main dimensions, which are defined by the benefits/harms question and the controls question. Along each dimension, relevant views can be arrayed sequentially from one extreme (using this term nonpejoratively) or pole to the other. The two dimensions intersect in such a way as to form a 2x2 matrix, whose quadrants represent broad alternatives in the technology debate. These four alternatives are not categorical and undifferentiated, but admit of degrees. They are possibilities within which particular views can be located, depending on where they fall along the two dimensions. This would mean, for example, that if the name "dynamist" should be assigned to one of the alternatives, it would probably be more accurate and illuminating to say that a particular author is a dynamist in some greater or lesser degree than to say that this is true categorically.




Variation Along the Two Dimensions


To see how positions in the great technology debate might vary by degree, it helps to examine the dimensions of that debate separately. In theory, each dimension admits of extreme or polar positions, but in practice, most views tend to move away from "either-or" towards "both-and."


The Benefits/Harms Dimension. Technology is sometimes depicted in a manner that is wholly cheerful or altogether bleak, but today the more prevalent view is that its advance produces some mixture of gains and losses, benefits and harms. The central issue is which element, on balance, predominates.


Joel Mokyr, like many economic historians, extols technology's benefits, but cautions that technological progress "inevitably involves losers" as well as winners. On balance, he argues, society benefits greatly from technological progress, but some people are harmed, and much of the resistance to advancing technology originates with the losers in this advance.[iii]


Neil Postman, one of technology's harsher critics, can agree that every technology "is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that." Contrary to Mokyr, however, he insists that modern technology's harms greatly outweigh its benefits. In fact, given Postman's dark portrait of our condition today, which he calls "technopoly," one might assume that he embraces the harms-only pole. He explains, however, that he has deliberately chosen to emphasize the burdens of new technologies and to remain mostly silent about the opportunities they present. Leaning this way is necessary, he maintains, to combat the throngs of zealous "Technophiles" around him, who love technology so much that they cannot see its blemishes and dangers.[iv]


The Controls Dimension. The other dimension of the technology debate is defined by the question of whether it is desirable, or even possible, to bring technology directly under social or political control. At one pole is the view that very tight controls are required, so that little room is left for spontaneous or unplanned development. The assumption is that human intervention can succeed in pushing technology forward along a desired path or else in limiting or suppressing its growth. Controls would here be viewed as both desirable and possible. If either their desirability or their possibility is questioned, the door is opened at least theoretically for the contrary view.


Persons at the opposite pole would refrain altogether from advocating controls because they are seen as wholly undesirable or else as completely ineffectual. Person A might grant that controls are possible, but think them altogether undesirable, while person B might wish for controls, but concede their impossibility. Both would end up on the side of no controls, but for different reasons.


In Hayek's day, the case for tight controls came principally from advocates of central planning and technocratic rule. Today, however, the boldest formulations come from advocates of "strong" (or participatory) democracy. Richard Sclove has developed the most comprehensive proposal for governing technology along these lines.[v] Sclove emphatically rejects the "economistic" view that technology's course is best left to market forces and consumer preferences. Instead, its direction should be set through a process of deliberate planning whose procedures and outcomes are fully democratic. Strong democracy, in Sclove's formulation, requires small, self-governing communities, where citizens participate broadly and actively in framing policy and also share a commitment to egalitarian principles. In effect, Sclove calls for collective planning without centralized controls and technocratic rule, although he does encourage federation and expert advice. To head off "nondemocratic" technologies, Sclove would give citizen representatives a prominent voice in technological research, development, and design, where agendas are set, and not simply regulate technologies after they emerge. Along these lines, Langdon Winner has urged Congress to establish panels of ordinary citizens panels to advise, early in the research and design process, on societal issues relating to nanotechnology.[vi]


In theory, the opposite pole requires a complete laissez-faire position on technology controls. In practice, however, the defenders of a market approach are likely to grant that some technologies require moderate governmental regulation. A case in point is Glenn Harlan Reynolds' study of possible regulatory futures for nanotechnology. Reynolds opposes a policy of prohibiting nanotechnology as well as one of confining it to the military sphere. In his view, the best option for reaping nanotechnology's benefits while minimizing any risks is "a regime of modest regulation, civilian research, and an emphasis on self-regulation and a responsible professional culture." Clearly Reynolds would rely first on "soft law," or moral guidelines and expectations developed by the nanotechnology community itself and enforced mainly from within. Presumably ordinary citizens and community activists would have no voice here of the kind desired by Sclove and Winner. To supplement these private initiatives, government could provide modest regulatory oversight as might be necessary to reduce safety or national security risks. Reynolds believes that experience will show that "an effective regulatory regime can be based on a combination of consensus and self-regulation." Interestingly, he rules out "a laissez-faire regime" because of its "political difficulties." Prohibition is emphatically rejected because of its "dangers."[vii]


Once the polar (or near-polar) views on controls are identified, it becomes easier to place someone such as Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama, in a recent book and related essays, strongly advocates formal political controls over the development and use of biotechnology. Human cloning would be prohibited. Fukuyama is unwilling to rely on informal constraints in this area, because the stakes are high and private interests are at odds with the public interest.[viii] Some were surprised and chagrined by this stand, since in an earlier book, The Great Disruption, Fukuyama had sought a middle ground between leaving technology free to develop spontaneously and directing it by hierarchical authority. Even while advocating government control of biotechnology, Fukuyama grants that in other areas, such as information technology, only minimal regulatory oversight might be needed. By staking out a position between the polar views, Fukuyama invites attack from each side for making too many concessions to the other.


As noted above, some who refrain from advocating controls do so not because such efforts are undesirable, but because they are deemed to be fruitless. Martin Heidegger and Jacques Ellul are the most important thinkers of the past century to depict technology as an overwhelming or irresistible force, and certainly others, such as Gregory Stock, have suggested that technology now advances by its own dynamic, determining the shape of human institutions and defying all efforts to control it.[ix]


Even so, the bulk of writing on this issue now comes from those who criticize ideas of "technological determinism" and "autonomous technology." These critics include historians who want to preserve room for human agency and choice (see the essays in Smith and Marx[x]), philosophers who are sympathetic to Heidegger's critique of technology but reject his pessimism (see Andrew Feenberg[xi]), political theorists who advocate control through democratic initiatives (see Richard Sclove, Langdon Winner), sociologists who find "social construction" occurring at crucial junctures to bestow meaning on particular technologies and push their development in one direction or another (the SCOT approach[xii]), and economists who trace varying patterns of technological development and economic growth to human factors (see David S. Landes, Joel Mokyr, Nathan Rosenberg[xiii]).


Four Alternatives


In Figure 1, the two dimensions of the technology debate are shown to intersect in such a way as to produce four alternative standpoints. These can be useful not only in situating contemporary views, but also in clarifying the debate's philosophical and literary background. In fact, for each major alternative there is at least one key philosopher whose writings decisively shaped its foundations and deeply influenced subsequent thinking about it.


The remarks that follow will suggest why various writers or texts are placed as they are in Figure 1. Some cautionary points should, however, be kept in mind. First, the listings are meant to be illustrative and not exhaustive. Second, clear-cut decisions here are not always possible, particularly when a writer takes different stands on different technologies, or when texts by the same person point in different directions. The placements in Figure 1 are thus somewhat tentative or experimental and should be regarded as matters for further investigation. Third, as explained above, each major alternative has two dimensions along which variations can occur. This means that writers who agree sufficiently to fall within the same quadrant may not end up in the same place. Figure 1 obscures this, since writers are listed without reference to these internal variations. A better diagram would try to indicate placements along the horizontal and vertical axes. Obviously, those authors who adopt the extreme (in the spatial sense) or polar views will occupy the outer corners of the quadrants. Finally, the four major alternatives are characterized but not named, since they are not intended as essential or undifferentiated categories. Instead, they are to be understood as frameworks of possibilities or commonalities within which individuals holding somewhat diverse views can be positioned.


Views that Emphasize Benefits and Favor Controls (upper left quadrant). Here the key philosopher is Francis Bacon, who not only helped to lead the intellectual revolution that made modern technology possible, but also drew up and promoted the most detailed plan for its development. Bacon suggests that technology will be the salvation of humankind, but only if it is developed and used under the close supervision of top scientists and inventors, who exercise control partly through state power.[xiv]


The technocratic vision, as it derives from such early moderns as Bacon and Descartes, would be fervently embraced in the early 19th century by French scientists and engineers associated with Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.[xv] Marxism and Fabian Socialism also hoped to capture the benefits of technological progress through controls of one kind or another, as did the collectivist states that these two movements inspired. Progressivism, as it took shape the United States late in the 19th century, and the regime of pragmatic liberalism, as it was articulated by John Dewey and implemented in the New Deal, also proposed to reap technology's benefits by controlling it. As we have seen, Richard Sclove's version of "strong democracy" looks favorably on technology, but would bring its development under collectivist controls that are democratic in character, rather than technocratic, and local, not centralized. Andrew Feenberg urges Marxists to work for the democratic transformation of technology along lines envisioned by Herbert Marcuse rather than succumbing to Heideggerian pessimism and resignation.


Views that Emphasize Benefits but Oppose Controls (lower left quadrant). This option has been preferred by writers in the classical liberal tradition, because it best fits their conviction, first, that personal well being and economic growth depend on technological progress and, second, that the very conditions of that progress -- individual freedom, private initiative, entrepreneurial activity -- are greatly endangered by governmental encroachment.


Classical liberalism's philosophical foundations were articulated chiefly by John Locke, Montesquieu, and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith. In Locke's writings, particularly his Second Treatise (Of Civil Government), we find an emphasis on the benefits of productive labor and private property, on ways that enterprise and exchange develop spontaneously under conditions of freedom, and on the rule of law as a barrier to arbitrary government. The Scots shared these principles, but sought to ground them more firmly on experience and also to show how they operate to sustain economic order and to promote the development of civilization. Their historical inquiries, like those of Montesquieu, seek to show that liberty and prosperity require progress in the arts and sciences as well as the flourishing of commerce.


The development of technology after 1750 was facilitated by the incorporation of these principles into the jurisprudence of commentators such as Blackstone, into the constitutional thought of American statesmen, and into leading treatises of political economy. Benjamin Constant and other French liberals recognized that "modern liberty" owed much of its success to the free development of the arts and sciences. Tocqueville reaches a similar conclusion about American democracy. Over the past half century, economists and economic historians who strongly favor economic growth have linked it closely technology and markets. Libertarians and "dynamists" look to Hayek's restatement of classical liberalism in making the case for technology. In The Culture of Hope, poet and critic Frederick Turner develops market-oriented defense of technological progress on esthetic grounds. This is not to deny that the dynamist and esthetic visions have a vitalist thrust that is much less prominent in classical liberalism.


Views that Emphasize Harms and Advocate Controls (upper right quadrant). The revolutionary project of Bacon and Descartes soon came under attack from thinkers who doubted that reformulating science to conquer nature would have beneficial consequences. Pascal and Vico questioned the capacity of Cartesian science to understand the human things, while Jonathan Swift assaulted the new philosophy from the standpoint of ancient learning. Swift's depiction of life in Laputa (Gulliver's Travels, Part III) brilliantly satirizes Baconian and Cartesian science, calling into question both its wisdom and its benefits. Jean-Jacques Rousseau proved, however, to be the most influential thinker to emphasize at once the harmfulness of what later developed as technology and the need to bring it under political control.


Whereas Hume and others had sought to show that human freedom, virtue, and happiness are greatly increased by progress in the arts and sciences, Rousseau takes just the opposite view. His First Discourse (On the Arts and Sciences) looks back to the rude societies of ancient times and argues that moderns are, by comparison, miserable, vicious, and suited for slavery. They have been corrupted in body and soul by the luxury and enlightenment that accompany progress in the arts and sciences. His Second Discourse (The Origin of Inequality) goes back even earlier, to man's beginnings in the "state of nature," in order to make good his critique of modern society. According to this account, mankind's accidental discovery of the arts of agriculture and metallurgy changed things radically for the worse, luring men into productive labor, making them dependent on each other, stimulating a desire for property in ever greater amounts, and producing finally a horrible state of war between the rich and the poor.


In the Social Contract, Rousseau offers a political remedy for the injustice and corruption of existing society, namely, a community that is small enough for the people collectively to perform the sovereign task of legislation. The laws would tightly control the arts and sciences with a view to preserving the community's equality, virtue and freedom. In other places he suggests that exceptional souls might choose a nonpolitical course, namely, turning away from modern civilization and embracing a simple life in tune with unspoiled nature.[xvi] This side of Rousseau finds expression in 19th century Romanticism, whose leading figures deplored industrialization and the abuses of science while proclaiming the goodness of nature. Initially at least this was more a movement of literary and social protest than one aimed at state controls on technology. One of its British offshoots was the Arts and Crafts Movement, associated with John Ruskin and William Morris, which viewed mass production with machinery as dehumanizing for workers and promoted craftsmanship as an expression of natural beauty. The political side of Rousseau resurfaces in various proposals to govern technology through the mechanisms of participatory democracy.


By and large, American writers have been hospitable to the advance of technology, but some have viewed it as largely harmful and have looked for ways to prevent or mitigate those harms. The Southern Agrarians, for example, would have barred industrialization and advancing technology to protect a traditional way of life. In calling for a governmental ban on human cloning, Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama are inspired by not by Rousseau, but by pre-modern conceptions of nature and politics. Often protest or resistance is seen as the proper initial step in curbing technology, with controls to follow when feasible. Postman, who in the final chapter of Technopoly describes himself as "a loving resistance fighter," fits this description. Radical environmentalists, self-described Neo-Luddites, and opponents of globalization are also resistance fighters, but typically in ways that are confrontational and sometimes violent rather than conciliatory.


Views that Emphasize Harms but see Controls as Ineffectual (lower right quadrant). Prior to the 1930s, there were many who saw the advance of technology as irresistible, but largely beneficial, and many others who feared technology's harms, but offered programs to combat them. Martin Heidegger was the key philosopher who emphasized at once the overwhelmingly harmful consequences of modern technology and the utter incapacity of humans to control or master it.

According to Heidegger, technology is the destiny or fate of our time. We live inescapably in a technological age because the mysterious ground of being has opened itself up to us this way. Technology is no mere instrument or tool. It is a mode of revealing that determines our way of positioning ourselves in the world and perceiving its truth. More precisely, technology is a challenging revealing or "enframing," wherein all that is, including man himself, appears as raw material for our manipulation and use. This is its essence. Hope lies only with those few thinkers or poets who remain open to Being and the possibility of its coming to presence as some new truth.[xvii] As Heidegger put it in an interview with Der Spiegel, "Only a god can save us."


It is well known that Heidegger, as a university professor and later as Rector of Freiburg, embraced Nazism and worked for a time in its service. He sought to excuse this later by claiming that National Socialism at first had moved toward an adequate relationship to technology, one which, he might have supposed, would preserve community and high culture. This was the movement's "inner truth and greatness." Supposedly when the Nazis failed to carry through this program, he became disillusioned with it and formulated his distinctive view that technology is both uncontrollable and intrinsically malign.[xviii] By implication, people today in liberal societies who embrace technology approvingly, after Heidegger has explained its essence, are more blamable than he was for his early and hopeful embrace of Nazism.


Post-war thinking about technological society and its ills was deeply influenced by Heidegger. His account offered no program of amelioration or reform, except for counseling a posture of openness to a new revelation of Being. Its effect, however, was to deepen the hostility that many in philosophical and literary circles felt towards technology and to provide them with a new way to formulate their opposition. Classical Marxism had taken a highly favorable view of technology's promise and its manageability, but under Heidegger's influence, leading works of the Frankfort School, most notably Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, came to view technology as a dehumanizing and uncontrollable force. Much writing today in Marxist circles is designed to recover the classical view by showing that technology is not inherently destructive, but mainly becomes so when developed under capitalism, and that it can be controlled democratically.


Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society and George Parkin Grant's Technology and Justice advance arguments that are rather similar to Heidegger's, but unlike his they are grounded in Christian theology. Ellul, who had fought with the French Resistance during World War II, disassociated himself particularly from Heidegger's politics. Grant, an influential Canadian thinker, was more willing to acknowledge Heidegger's influence.


Maps as Starting Points


If we are to enter intelligently into philosophical inquiry and discussion on any subject, it helps to have some sort of map, some guide to possible ways of viewing that subject. This discussion of alternative positions in the debate over technology debate intends to provide such a map. It differs in obvious and important ways from a road map, but its intentions and limitations are similar.


Road maps try to lay out positions and show their relation to each other. They indicate how we might go from one point to another, but are silent as to whether a particular destination is desirable. They provide a valuable starting point for judgment but do not themselves pass judgment. Location implies no approval or disapproval, whether positions fall near extremes or somewhere in the middle.


Intellectual maps have a similar character. If adequately drawn, they may facilitate inquiry and discussion. If poorly drawn, they may throw inquiry and discussion off track or lead to a dead end. Even so, just thinking about a map's deficiencies can stimulate deeper reflection and bring the genuine alternatives into sharper focus. Intellectual maps are, however, only the beginning of inquiry and not its terminus. They can identify the important questions in a debate and lay out its structure, but in themselves they tell us nothing about the cogency or truth of various positions, nothing as to whether any one of them should be embraced or rejected. Such decisions require insight and good judgment, or theoretical and practical wisdom of the kind that philosophy, when fully developed, hopes to supply.



[i] Postrel, The Future and its Enemies (The Free Press, 1998).

[ii] Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 1960). Hayek's Postscript is entitled: "Why I Am Not a Conservative." Citation on p. 408.

[iii] Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 253. Mokyr develops this argument concisely in his review of Kirkpatrick Sale's Rebels against the Future. This review can be accessed at ReasonOnline.

[iv] Postman, Technopoly (Vintage Books, 1993), pp. 4-5.

[v]Sclove, Democracy and Technology (The Guilford Press, 1995).

[vi] Winner, Testimony to the Committee on Science of the U. S. House of Representatives, April 9, 2003.

[vii] Reynolds, "Forward to the Future: Nanotechnology and Regulatory Policy," Pacific Research Institute Briefing, November 2002.

[viii] See Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (Picador, 2002), and "How to Regulate Science," The Public Interest, 146 (Winter 2002).

[ix] Stock, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

[x] See the essays in Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, Does Technology Drive History?: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism (MIT Press, 1994).

[xi] See Feenberg, "Subversive Rationalization: Technology, Power and Democracy," Inquiry, 35: 3, 4 (1992).

[xii] SCOT is an acronym for "the social construction of technology," an approach that took shape in the Netherlands in the 1980s. See Wiebe Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch (eds.), The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (MIT Press, 1987).

[xiii] See Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (W. W. Norton, 1998), Mokyr, The Lever of Riches (Oxford University Press, 1990), and Rosenberg and L. E. Birdzell, Jr, How the West Grew Rich (Basic Books, 1986).

[xiv] See Bacon, Novum Organum and New Atlantis. The introduction to the Novum Organum was entitled The Great Instauration. Jerry Weinberger's edition (Harlan Davidson, 1989), which contains The Great Instauration and New Atlantis, has an excellent introduction and notes.

[xv] Saint-Simon, Comte, and the Ecole Polytechnique are discussed at length by Hayek in The Counter-Revolution of Science (Free Press, 1955).

[xvi] See The Reveries of The Solitary Walker, trans. Charles E. Butterworth (Harper Colophon Books, 1979). Butterworth's Preface, Notes, and Interpretive Essay are illuminating.

[xvii] See particularly the title essay in Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (Harper & Row, 1977). Lovitt has a helpful Introduction.

[xviii]The Heidegger Controversy, ed. Richard Wolin (MIT Press, 1993), contains many important selections by and about Heidegger on his political involvement, including the Der Spiegel interview, which was conducted in 1966 but only published in 1976, following Heidegger's death.


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