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close this bookThe Impact of Technology on Human Rights: Global Case-studies (UNU, 1993, 322 pages)
close this folder1. Technological impacts on human rights: Models of development, science and technology, and human rights
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe definition of the concept of technology
View the documentThe origins of the western technological culture
View the documentEnlightenment, the open industrial society, and human rights
View the documentThe enlightenment model of industrial development
View the documentA critical analysis of the enlightenment model of industrial development (technological imperialism)
View the documentModels of development and the technological factor
View the documentDevelopment, choice, and human rights
View the documentThe ''deconstruction'' of deterministic models of development
View the documentNotes

A critical analysis of the enlightenment model of industrial development (technological imperialism)

The model of development described above is, as observed earlier, still dominant in the thinking of many innovating elites in modern industrial societies. It will also continue to be so in future decades, as it correctly describes tendencies that can be observed in the actual development of industrial societies. It is therefore worth while to have a closer look at the assumptions on which this model is based.

As will be apparent from our description of the industrialist model of development, the origin of scientific discoveries and technological innovations does not need to be explained by factors other than the inquisitive mind, following the rules of positivist science. Society has just to wait and see what comes out of these processes of discovery and to adapt to their results. There are no other possibilities for controlling this "march of rationality" than the control exercised by scientists and technologists themselves. They do not control the direction of scientific development but must see to it that their fellow scientists abid by the tenets of logico-empirical science. The development of science and of new technologies based on these scientific developments is as such not determined by human needs. In fact, the logic of the model implies that societal development is a process of reduction of human subjectivity by rational calculation. Control over men and things is secured by substituting technological rationality for human desires and needs when organizing any activity. "Subjectivity" is subordinated to "objectivity." An important consequence of this development is that "technology tends to shape the user and not simply in ways suggested by cultural materialism, specifically, technology shapes the user as it alters society's paradigms" 30 (for example, by replacing social relationships by technically determined links).

The uses of technology in this model of development stand in sharp contrast to the utilization of technical tools in the pre-industrial period. While all societies developed technologies to cope with the problems of their existence, it is only in the West that a model of development is applied in which human beings are systematically brought under the yoke of technology and in which most energy is invested in the improvement of technologies and technological systems, rather than the improvement of craftsmanship for its own sake. In other systems technologies may be used in accordance with the standards of craftsmanship of those who apply them but who compensate, by their skill, for any deficiency in the tools they use when accomplishing these productive tasks.

Ellul described very aptly this difference between pre-industrial and industrial technology:

Technical progress today is no longer conditioned by anything other than its own calculus of efficiency. The search is no longer personal, experimental, workmanlike; it is abstract, mathematical, and industrial.... The individual participates only to the degree that he is subordinate to the search for efficiency, to the degree that he resists all the currents today considered secondary, such as aesthetics, ethics, fantasy In so far as the individual represents this abstract tendency, he is permitted to participate in technical creation...' 31

In the next section we will discuss whether this statement also applies to "post-industrial technology." At this point it is important to note that the Enlightenment model of industrialism is based on a cluster of values - the "technological culture" or the "culture of rationality" - that comprises universalism, instrumental rationality (Zweck-Rationalität, in the Weberian sense), calculability of processes and outcomes, control, efficiency, effectiveness or efficacy, contract relationships, materialism, economic growth as the primary source of welfare, individualism, and individual remuneration (primarily material remuneration).

This march of rationality that is the basis of industrial development promises, as we have seen, the liberation of individuals from traditional bonds and an increase of individual autonomy. Although the coming of Western industrial society went hand in hand with the development of citizenship for all, a strong increase in welfare and opportunities to conduct one's life according to one's own preferences, it is also true that this industrial society did reduce many opportunities for workers. Historically, the coming of industrial society was accompanied by strong resistance by artisans who provided small-scale, custom-oriented local markets with their goods and services and who feared the replacement of their craft by factories. Calhoun shows in his analysis of the south-east Lancashire textile region that it was such workers who were at the base of revolutionary movements at the beginning of the nineteenth century, rather than the mass of unskilled factory workers who had been in most cases unskilled agricultural workers before entering the factories.32

It is certainly true that the further development of industrial society provided many opportunities for individual advancement, especially at the end of the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century, as a consequence of the enlargement in scale of organizations and the accompanying increase in complexity of production processes and market relations. In this period we witness an increase of upward social (occupational) mobility in all of the industrialized countries. But we also notice that the ongoing rationalization of economic life tends to reduce, in many instances, the autonomy of both blue- and white-collar workers and tends to contribute to an increase in long-term unemployment. These trends are reflected in the present-day debate, whether the long-term development of jobs is connected with gradual degradation of the work content or with the polarization which occurs when a few types of jobs are upgraded while the mass of jobs loses qualities considered to be rewarding or attractive to those performing them.

All this is, of course, related to the right to work and to the idea that man does not work for bread alone, but also wishes to be a creative, autonomous worker. The future of work is, however, rather uncertain in this respect. Those in particular who accept as valid the industrial model of development that we have presented view the march of rationality as unavoidable. They are inclined to regard the reduction of the tension between determinism and autonomy as associated with a future which is not so far away, wherein there will be no jobs in the present sense. The Polish philosopher Schaff expresses it in the following way:

This will be a great achievement of science and technology as it will put an end to the Biblical Jehovah's curse that man has to cat bread in the sweat of his brow. But this revolution - for it is the most deep-reaching social revolution we can imagine - which reopens the gates of paradise to man, implies problems which, if left unsolved, may be much worse than the old curse of the Maker who became angry with his creation.33

This is only one of the many points of view which can be discerned with respect to technology and the future of work. We will return to this problem after our analysis of the theoretical reactions to the Enlightenment model of industrialism and to the technological determinism this implies. Before doing so, we have to make some remarks about the Enlightenment, the advent and development of industrial society, and the development of the social sciences.

The development of the social sciences and the reactions to the social and cultural effects of the Enlightenment and industrial development contain some explanations for the puzzling fact that the impact of technology on human rights has only recently become a topic for scientific analysis. We have pointed out that the Enlightenment and industrialism are closely connected when we look at their common pattern of values and also that human rights as individual liberties are imbued with "rationalism," "individualism," "universalism," and "cosmopolitanism." Already in the eighteenth century this modernization trend was criticized severely, among others by Herder, who introduced in 1774 the idea of Volksgeist, a concept that emphasizes the uniqueness of peoples and cultures. He rejected the idea of universal, timeless principles concerning, for example, Truth, Justice, Beauty. He argued that all norms originate within a specific cultural context and are dependent on this cultural context for their further development.34


Since the advent of industrialism we have witnessed a continuous conflict between the emerging new society and the "universal" values it represents on the one hand, and the varied types of social life and their values which are threatened by modernization on the other. This opposition is strongly set out in such studies, published at the end of the nineteenth century, as Tonnies' Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society, 1887) and Le Play's Les ouvriers européens (European Workers, 1885).

Until the present time this opposition has been reflected - and this has not yet been overcome - in the rift in the West between positivist social sciences standing in the tradition of the Enlightenment, and the historicist tradition related to Romanticism, in which Truth is not the "work of reason - emancipated from all forms of unreason like emotions and partnership," but an understanding that can be made compelling only for a time, even with the best available methods.35 This is not to say that this rift is the only important one in the social sciences, but it is a very basic one in the context of the divide between methodological, individualistic, and structuralist approaches.36 These oppositions have also important consequences in our time for policy implementation in the social sciences and for the interpretation of the development of human rights.

It is necessary to make the observation that the social sciences have not analysed in a serious way the development of technology since the coming of the industrial society. Within the positivist tradition the social sciences could only, logically, restrict their analyses to the social and cultural consequences of science and technology. The social sciences could not claim, and still cannot claim, within this approach to be sciences with a methodology that enables them to evaluate the rationality of the natural sciences. Nor did the social sciences which were opposing the tenets of positivist science analyse the nature of technological development as such, but restricted themselves largely to the analysis of nonindustrial ways of life, including ways of life which were being threatened by industrialism. Still another bias may be discerned within the social sciences. As a consequence of the fact that industrial development primarily touched the lives of workers and their families, an overwhelming part of the attention of the social sciences has been directed to the analysis of the impact of technological change on the division of labour in the production processes, on workers' behaviour and attitudes, and on changes in the class structure of society.

There has been a neglect of the study of:

(1) the societal and cultural conditions of technological development and technological applications;

(2) the nature of technological development themselves, such as the analysis of the socio-political factors which impinge on the selection of technological trajectories;

(3) the nature and types of new technologies introduced within organizations (in which ways are new technologies selected, by whom, how are they introduced, and with what consequences?);

(4) the opportunities that are provided by the different options in the process of implementation of new technologies with respect to human dignity, human rights, and collective or solidarity rights;

(5) the consequence of the contemporary systematic character of technological developments and the increasing intertwining of technological and societal systems;

(6) the significance of technological developments in everyday life (for example, the changing patterns of social relations in the family as a consequence of technological innovations, or how people deal with the new, often imposed, choices produced by technological change).

The rather one-sided views on the relationships between technological development and societal change, in which the problem is largely restricted to either adaptation of social life to technological exigencies or to the protection of ways of life against the attacks of an aggressive technological culture ("modernity" versus "cultural identity"), have not only hampered - and still hamper - the actual systematic analysis of technological development in the Western industrial countries, but are also clearly present in the debate on the impact of technology on developing countries. However, we must be aware of the fact that

Science and technology are not independent variables in the process of development: they are part of a human, economic, social and cultural setting shaped by history. It is this setting above all which determines the chances of applying scientific knowledge that meets the real needs of the country. It is not the case that there are two systems -science and technology on one side and society on the other - held together by some magic. Rather, science and technology exist in a given society as a system that is more or less capable of osmosis, assimilation and innovation - or rejection -according to realities that are simultaneously material, historical, cultural and political.37

From this statement it follows that one cannot, at the same time, introduce Western technological changes in a specific country and avoid changes in the traditional ways of life. This is impossible because technological changes are part of a technological system that includes a broad technological culture base and specific, often implicit, notions of social relations. In the context it is perhaps useful to refer to our discussion of the concept of technology that comprises artefacts, the know-how to design, use, and repair them, and the body of knowledge necessary to generate new rules for the design, construction, and application of technological potentialities in relation to different types of problems (pp. 15-17 above). Moreover, the increasingly global character of modern technology makes it impossible to think about these problems in terms of "nations." Technological systems are in many instances quickly developing as transnational information systems.

The conclusion must be that there is no way back on the road that has been taken by Western technologies and by the Western countries since the eighteenth century. There will not be opportunities to hide from this worldwide development and to protect such cultural diversity as still exists against technological change. But it is also true that within this general direction of development, choices can be made which may engender new types of diversity and reinterpretations of traditional cultural differences. But such a policy must be based, as we shall see, on a careful analysis of the nature of technological-social constraints in development processes and of the opportunities to choose.