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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 definition of the concept of technology

When we speak about the relationships between technology and human rights, it is evident that we have to deal with the interrelations between some very complex phenomena: technology, science, society or systems of societies, and systems of rights of a universal nature.

To begin with the concept of technology, nearly all human societies have, or have had, technologies which are often very elaborate. As we know, archaeologists have used the occurrence of characteristic technologies as the basis for the classification of prehistorical societies. These classifications are largely based on artefacts left behind by the peoples who once used them. In view of the task in hand, however, we have no use for a general definition of technology which includes only artefacts or the material products of inventions. Our definition of technology must enable us to distinguish between the use of technology in pre-industrial and industrial societies and between industrial societies and post-industrial ones in terms of such factors as flexibility, rigidity, or its pervasiveness in social life.

In a very broad sense the concept of technology may refer to those aspects of culture which relate to the manipulation of the natural environment by man or "that whole collection of ways in which the members of a society provide themselves with the material tools and goods of their society - the collection of artefacts and concepts used to create an advanced socio-politico-economic structure." 7 As we shall explain, such a definition is not adapted to our purposes, as it is too wide.

In order to clarify the questions relating to the interactions between technology and society, we distinguish between:

1. Technology as sets of physical objects, designed and constructed by man. In an industrial society this term refers especially to "artificial things, and more particularly to modern machines: artificial things that

(a) require engineering knowledge for their design and production; and
(b) perform large amounts of operations themselves." 8

In this context the term may also be used to refer to inventions and processes with extensive potentialities for application, such as laser technology, chip technology, and DNA recombinant technology, and the applications of such technologies within existing or new machines and production processes.

2. Technology as a term which refers to human activities in connection with the utilization of artefacts. Moreover, technology implies the knowledge requisite to use these technical things. "Technological 'things' are meaningless without the 'know-how' to use them, repair them, design them and make them. As such this know-how can, partly at least, ... be systematized and taught, as in the various disciplines of engineering." 9

3. Finally, "technology" may refer to a body of knowledge that is necessary to generate new rules for the design, construction, and application of technical possibilities to different types of problems (such as, for example, the control of environmental pollution). Here the term technology refers to the theory of the application (logia), not just to "artificial things," the ways in which they are used in practice and the transmission of this practical knowledge ("technics": German, die Technik; French, la technique) as is emphasized in the first and second meaning of the concept "technology."

It could be observed that in the third meaning the development of "software" is stressed, in contradistinction to the "hardware" side of technology that predominates in the first two meanings of technology. Moreover, it is evident that when the third meaning of technology predominates, the distinction between "science" and "technology" tends to fade away. This is shown in Bell's analysis of post-industrial society when he says that "What has become decisive for the organization of decisions and the direction of change is the centrality of theoretical knowledge - the primacy of theory over empiricism and the codification of knowledge into abstract systems of symbols that, as in any axiomatic system, can be used to illuminate many different and varied areas of experience."10

Bell points to the importance of the rise of new intellectual technologies, enabling the management of organized complexity - the complexity of large organizations and systems, the complexity of theory with a large number of variables - and the identification and implementation of strategies for rational choice in games against nature and games between persons. Bell argues that "by the end of the century [a new intellectual technology] may be as salient in human affairs as machine technology has been for the past century and a half." 11

It follows from what has been said thus far that in the third meaning of technology not only does the distinction between "science" and "technology" become blurred, but also that this meaning is strongly associated with a new, emerging mode of production in which these intellectual technologies play a pivotal role. As such, the third meaning of technology goes together with specific types of artefacts (hardware) and a specific way in which the hardware of production has been laid out in a factory or other place of work. This implies, as Hill observes, "the division of labour and work organization which is built into, or required for efficient operation by the productive technique." 12 Habermas, approaching Bell's encompassing delineation of technology, states that technology means "scientifically rationalised control of objectified processes. It refers to the system in which research and technology are coupled with feedback from the economy and the administration." 13 In this context it should be remembered that the division of labour and work organization is not to be regarded as the inescapable result of the "logic" of "technology" - as is often argued - but as the result of engineering and management decisions.

This is an important observation because it means that in the debate on the relationships between technological changes and human rights we need not restrict ourselves to questions of whether the "inevitable march of technology" makes it urgent to develop measures to protect people in those cases where their fundamental rights and liberties are at stake. We can also concentrate on the values upon which decisions concerning technological developments and applications are based and on the desirability of enhancing the quality of such decisions in line with human rights. Such thinking is extremely important for many - if not all - developing countries because it highlights the role of choice and of cultural diversity in the process of economic development.

In this section we have briefly discussed some definitions of the concept of "technology." We have shown that the term is used in different ways, varying from the references to material things or artefacts to systems of control embracing complex societal processes. Moreover, the definition of the concept of "technology" is also dependent on the type of society that is being considered (e.g. pre-industrial, industrial, post-industrial). We conclude from this overview that it is necessary, when we are analysing the different ideas and models concerning societal development and technological change, to be alert to indications of altering relationships between technological change and societal change (or even societal transformation).