The hidden ideology of technicism
We have come to rely heavily on science and technology. As a result we find ourselves heavily dependent on technical things such as aeroplanes, cars, roads, cell phones, computers, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, power stations, domestic appliances and more. Technology shapes our lives to a major extent. We enjoy its benefits daily.
Such benefits notwithstanding, technology also presents us with significant challenges, many of which raise questions of a bioethical nature. This article seeks to stimulate critical reflection on the meaning of modern technology and our responsibility for its on-going development.
The evolution of technology
Technology can be defined as the activity by which people give form to nature for human ends by means of tools (Schuurman, 1980: 5).
In the past such activity was largely the domain of artisans who used relatively basic tools and worked with materials found in nature. Today it has become much more complicated; we rely largely on scientists and engineers who use already existing technical objects to design the tools and processes to make things. Furthermore, many contemporary materials, such as plastics, are not found in nature.
Many people seem to operate out of an unquestioned belief that technology evolves naturally for the benefit of humankind. According to this view the world is itself an evolving piece of machinery and technology develops as if it were part of nature. As an example of this thinking, the Expo 2000 World Fair held in Hannover (Germany) portrayed the course of technology as an ever widening river meandering through history and bringing forth, naturally, developments such as modern nuclear technology in our age. Thus, nuclear energy has arrived at the precise time when oil runs out, the Internet has come about so that we can cope with the complexities of the modern world and genetic technology will enable us to cure diseases that have so far proved to be incurable. (Assheuer, T. 2011: 44).
The fundamental belief that underpins this understanding of technology is the notion that technological developments are inevitably beneficial for humans. It is not that those who think along these lines don't accept that new technologies may cause unforeseen problems and accidents. However, in line with their unshaken trust in the benevolence of technology, they hold that the challenges created by technological developments are the means that will, in turn, inspire the development of further new and improved technologies.
While there is a core of truth in this stance, inasmuch as new technologies build on preceding ones and yield many benefits, the most basic problem with this view of the world is that it minimises human responsibility for technological developments. This may be seen most starkly in the light of nuclear accidents.
Nuclear power was made possible once scientists had figured out how atoms could be split. By aiming neutrons at Uranium 235 a chain reaction is triggered which releases huge amounts of energy. However, ever since the first nuclear power stations were built in the 1950s, no-one has managed to solve the problems associated with the accumulation of dangerous radioactive wastes or the fall-out of radioactive pollution as has occurred from time to time. The explosions of the Fukushima nuclear reactors are the most recent example of this.
In March this year the tsunami that followed the 9.1 earthquake in Japan crippled the nuclear reactors of a power plant in Fukushima, resulting in the release of radioactive materials. As a result, agricultural land close to the plant has been contaminated for hundreds of years, whilst radioactive water has been spilled into the ocean. Other major mishaps include the 1979 incident in Harrisburg (USA) and the 1986 massive explosion which destroyed reactors at Tchernobyl (Ukraine), causing many deaths and widespread cancer as well as taking a large swath of fertile land out of production.
Assheuer (2011:44) is of the opinion that the recent explosions of the Fukushima nuclear reactors have begun to shake human belief in the notion that technological development is naturally friendly to human well being. While renewed caution in regard to the use of nuclear power is understandable and timely, the key question is whether such caution ultimately challenges the dominance of the metaphor that shapes people's attitudes to technology – namely the idea that the world is an evolving piece of machinery.
The link between science and technology
Scientists, to use yet another metaphor, might well be described as people who use microscopes to focus in on the smallest of details, isolating from the broader context the thing they want to analyse in depth. This process is known as 'abstraction'. The scientists' aim is to present a precise logical account of how things work. Then, armed with such precise knowledge, they find themselves in a position to develop and make new things. This approach typically involves four abstractions, as pointed out by Schuurman (2003: 96-102). Scientists:
- Seek knowledge that is universally valid, abstracting (ignoring) from what is concrete.
- Analyse functions, generally focussing on one function, rather than things in their entirety.
- Ask what sort of law applies to the phenomena under investigation. How do they make sense?
- Abstract from their private interests in the interests of truth.
For example, rather than giving thought to the fact that real cows function in many different ways, scientists might focus on the question of how they digest their food, or how they process grass into milk. Equally, scientists may focus in on the question of how humans learn to speak (lingual function) or how we act economically (economic function).
As a way of illustrating the process of 'abstraction' Schuurman (2003: 98) uses the example of giving four apples to four children. From a theoretical perspective the solution seems easy. In practice, however, because children prefer particular apples, the outcome can be much more complicated. In reality everything is unique, multi-functional, connected to everything else and in a state of change.
The process of analysis and abstraction is enormously powerful. It has led to the development of many of the technical wonders of our age. However, because the world consists of concrete things, plants, animals and humans, rather than abstractions, we must all continuously exercise great care and responsibility in the application of new technologies.
As abstractions are projected into the development of increasingly complex modern technology, the technical objects we use become highly functional and uniform and are typically fabricated in large numbers. Laptops and mobile phones are essentially the same everywhere. In the field of agriculture, where cows are bred to become efficient milking machines, we also find ourselves moving towards more uniform monocultures, a trend which potentially threatens the biodiversity which is so essential for life.
While scientific technology has been seen as the key to controlling and exploiting the world since the 17th Century, we now need to seriously question the ideology of technological progress.
The responsible use of science and technology in a multi-faceted and complex world of interconnected concrete realities requires that we apply our discoveries with a critical attitude. It is a matter of technology being at the service of humankind rather than vice-versa.
Unfortunately, such prudence tends to be lacking. In a world in which technical innovations are often developed by business corporations with significant financial interests, science and technology are too often deployed as instruments to achieve material benefits regardless of the long term human and environmental consequences.
Schuurman uses the label 'technicism' to describe the use of scientific technology to control and subdue the earth for human purposes:
Technicism is the pretension of humans, as self-declared lords and masters using the scientific-technical method of control, to bend all of reality to their will in order to solve all problems, old and new, and to guarantee increasing material prosperity and progress (Schuurman, 2003: 69).
I would argue that technicism exists as one of the hidden ideologies of our time. As an ideology it acknowledges no limits. We are currently experiencing the influence of technicism in all areas of life, including human inter-relationships. The use of telephones and/or computers in rural areas in certain countries for diagnosing medical conditions is a ready example of this.
If it is true, as I believe it is, that many of our problems today have been brought about by the hidden ideology of technicism, then we must seek a more responsible way of developing and using technology.
Technicism can be avoided if we abandon the metaphor of the earth as a machine and replace it by the Biblical metaphor of a garden-city (Schuurman, 2003: 165-168).
A garden is a peaceful, beautiful place, full of variety, in which plants, paths, animals and humans all have their rightful place. In the Bible, the narrative begins in the book of Genesis with a garden and it ends in the final chapter of the Book of Revelation with a city in a garden setting. The biblical view is clear; there is a rightful place for science and technology within the world in which we live.
The reference in Revelation 22 to the river of life-giving water flowing through the new Jerusalem with the tree of life growing on either side whose leaves serve as a medicine for the nations, provides a powerful reminder of the interconnection between the health of the environment and human well-being. Among other things this should inspire us to clean up polluted rivers and waterways, such as the Manawatu and to take all possible steps to minimise the future risks of oil pollution from ships such as the Rena.
There are already many examples that point towards the possibility of a basic renewal of our technological culture. The garden-city metaphor challenges us to use biological science and methods in agriculture in a way that does justice to nature. For example, farmers who have changed from milking twice a day to once a day have discovered that the costs saved make up for the somewhat smaller volume of milk produced. In addition there are encouraging developments in sustainable ways of generating and using energy.
While this path is certainly not easy, it is, nevertheless, full of promise.
New scientific technological developments should be carefully evaluated before they are put into practice. Too often we try to do this only after problems have become apparent.
If we continue without questioning the concept of the world as a huge machine we may seriously endanger life and the planet's ability to feed and house humankind. When king Midas was granted his wish that everything he touched would become gold he died. Similarly, our sophisticated technology has the potential to stifle life on our planet.
The challenge we face is to think and behave as if our society and the earth we inhabit is a garden that is progressing to a peaceful garden-city.
Petrus Simons is a retired economist, with a PhD in philosophy.
Assheuer, T.H. 2011. Tausend Sonnen; die nuklearen Katastrophen von Tschernobyl und Fukushima haben das Vertrauen in eine menschenfreundliche Evolution der Technik zerstört. Die Zeit (Hamburg) no. 17, 20 April, p.44.
Schuurman, E. 1980. Technology and the future; a philosophical challenge. Wedge, Toronto, trans. H.D. Morton.
Schuurman, E. 2003. Faith and hope in technology. Clements, Toronto, trans. J.Vriend.