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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

The origins of the western technological culture

Discussing the impact of technology on human rights is primarily a debate about the impact of Western science and technology on such rights. Before introducing the dominant model of Western development, in which science and technology have played such a pivotal and unique role since the eighteenth century, it is useful to reflect on the reason why this specific type of development took place in the West. Of course, this question cannot be answered in a systematic way, but we shall try to formulate some arguments which may contribute to a better understanding of the social and cultural circumstances which contributed to the genesis of Western technology.

An important element in the explanation of the rise of Western technology relates to the subordination of nature in the Jewish and Christian religions. This point was formulated in an original way by Archbishop Temple when he said: "Christianity is the most materialistic of all higher religions, for while they attain to spirituality by turning away from matter, it expresses its spirituality by dominating matter.'' 14 The thesis concerning the subordination of nature as a necessary precondition to the modern dynamic pursuit of technical progress seems to be generally accepted by theology, according to van der Pot.15 It relates to the view that in the Judeao-Christian religions God is conceived as being on the side of humans in the struggle between human beings and nature. This view is, in its turn, tied to the idea that God created the world - so the world itself is not God and is not to be considered to be sacred. It is tied also to the idea that God created man in his own image and elevated him above all other creatures on earth, giving him the right, so to speak, to intervene in the course of events on earth. In contradistinction to most other religious systems, the Judeao-Christian beliefs do not contain inhibitions on the control of nature by man. According to Max Weber, Christianity inherited its hostility against magical thinking from Judaism. This opened the road to important economic achievements, for magical ideas place a heavy constraint on the rationalization of economic life.16 With the coming of ascetic Protestantism this demystification of the world attained its completion.

This lack of deference towards the limits of the "natural" order was accompanied by an absence of disdain for activities directed at practical utility, as was, for example, certainly the case in ancient Greek culture.

Van der Pot concludes, after a systematic analysis of many theological, historical, and sociological sources, that Christianity contributed significantly to the origin of the modern dynamic push towards technological change, by the subordination of nature, by contributing to a hopeful attitude towards the future, and by reacting with approval to work that is directed at practical utility.17 All this had already exerted important influences on technological development in the West long before the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century.

There were major applications of technological innovations during a long period preceding this revolution. In the thirteenth century a first "industrial revolution" took place. Many of the innovations then made, such as the watermill, came from outside Western Europe but the Western Europeans showed keen judgement in assessing the opportunities for their application. Necessity was not the major drive behind this technological trend, but, according to van der Pot, the idea that human beings are creatures of God and must not be humiliated by continuing monotonous labour.18 Here we witness an important contribution of technology as provider of opportunities for the liberation of human beings from labour and for the reduction of their dependence on natural conditions.

Religious and political diversity also created conditions that contributed to the emergence of modern science and technology since the sixteenth century. The ongoing struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and the secular powers within Europe, and the fact that neither church nor state succeeded in definitely imposing its will on the other, resulted in a demarcation between the secular and the sacral powers as in the Concordat of Worms in 1122. This facilitated the development of a rational type of control by the state. The emergence of modern bureaucracy, as described by Weber, contributed in the course of Western history to the secularization of the world. Moreover, the religious wars, connected with the rise of Protestantism, broke the religious monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church and gave a strong impetus to modern science and technology, especially in Protestant modernizing nations, such as England and the Netherlands in the seventeenth century.

What has been said in the preceding pages concerning the origin of Western science and technology is certainly not sufficient to give an adequate account of these developments. The analysis of Dijksterhuis shows us, in his The Mechanization of the Image of the World (De mechanisering van het wereldbeeld),19 the long line of development of the natural sciences. This led to the emergence of modern natural sciences in the period between 1543, when Copernicus published his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, and 1687, when Newton's Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica was published. This period represents an enormous advance of human knowledge and opportunity, and changes deeply the dominant view of life. This period determined the course of the natural sciences for centuries to come, based on a mechanistic image of material processes. This was not to be conceived of as a complex machine designed by the Creator, but as processes which can be understood by applying the concepts of mechanics: the physics and mathematics of energy and forces. Only the West witnessed the development of such a conception of science based both on rationality (especially mathematics) and systematic observation (especially controlled experiments).20

In this section we have described some elements of the origin of Western science and technology. The development of a mechanistic image of the (material) world, in connection with the social and cultural processes we referred to earlier, led to the advent of the technical culture we live in today, in the West and many other parts of the world.

In the following section we describe the model of societal development that arose in the eighteenth century, a model that is fundamental to understanding the impact of science and technology on social life and on human rights. When presenting this model we will have opportunities to elaborate on the relationship between science and technology and to discuss the link between technological-economic development on the one hand and individualism. secularization, and human rights on the other.