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close this book The uncertain quest: science, technology, and development
close this folder Introduction: From tradition to modernity
View the document The importance of science and technology
View the document Science, technology, and society
View the document The institutional and policy requirements
View the document The new international context
View the document Modernity and the uncertain quest
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Science, technology, and society

The social and cultural factors - the attitudes and the beliefs attached to economic, political, and social organization - influence the role that science and technology play in a given society. In their turn, the spread of new knowledge, products, and processes derived from scientific and technological progress transforms social structures, modes of behaviour, and attitudes of mind. The role of technical change in the process of economic growth is recognized by all theories of development. But what precisely is that role? In particular, what part did science and technology play in the economic and social transformations that accompanied the Industrial Revolution from its beginnings? Answers to these questions can be neither easy nor, consequently, swift, requiring as they do a subtle analysis, a long-term historical perspective, and reference to examples drawn from different branches of social science [2, 14].

Today the ways in which technical change transforms attitudes, institutions, and societies cannot be reduced to a simple linear relationship that is automatic, i.e. deterministic. Technology is one social process among others: it is not a question of technical development on the one hand and social development on the other, as if they were two entirely different worlds or processes. Society is shaped by technical change that, in turn, is shaped by society. Conceived by man, technology eludes his control only in so far as he wants it to. In this sense, society is defined no less by those technologies that it is capable of creating than by those it chooses to use and develop in preference to others [15].

Indeed, the present situation is very different from the expansion of mechanization encouraged by the development of machine tools and the steam engine in the nineteenth century. The spread of the "new technologies" (electronics, computers, telecommunications, as well as new synthetic materials and biotechnologies) creates far greater disparities than those that were possible between European countries at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, it involves much greater challenges than those tackled by nineteenth-century European societies (which were pre-industrial rather than purely agricultural), which achieved success thanks to their long preparation in basing their interpretation of natural phenomena and their handling of techniques on, among other things, mathematics, experimentation, measurement, calculation, and proof [16]. On the one hand, in fact, the geopolitical situation in the world today is more complex, with events and actors constantly in motion on a continental scale, further augmented by the explosion in the means of communication themselves. On the other hand, the very tools (both conceptual and practical) that allow us, at least partially, to understand the world in which we live and to manipulate it, have continued - in large measure thanks to the spectacular progress of science and technology - to become ever more "sophisticated" and therefore difficult to master without specialist skills and qualifications.

It is against this background of the increasing complexity of problems as much as of methods that the "shock" of the new technologies has struck both developing and industrialized countries. For the latter - given the economic difficulties of the early 1980s, the very moderate rates of growth and the persistence of high unemployment- the adjustment to the new technical system that is just beginning to spread poses problems that are not very different from those that gave rise to the various stages of mechanization in the course of the nineteenth century. Whatever the social costs in terms of redundancies and job displacement, and however substantial the pockets of poverty that remain (and that sometimes even grow as a result of the crisis and uneven development), we are nevertheless dealing with societies where basic needs are by and large satisfied, and furthermore the resources available to train and retrain the labour force are considerable. It is not for nothing that they have been called "post-industrial" societies, characterized by the dominance of the service sector, the very rapid growth of information-related activities, and the large scale of investment in education and research.

By contrast, for most of the developing countries, the most basic needs for survival - food, health, shelter, and education - are far from having been met, so that the things that are perceived by the rich countries as essential can seem to the poorer countries like a display of luxury or a gimmick of a consumer society. In addition, they face the double pressures of the population problem, which seems unlikely to see major improvement before the end of the century, and the debt problem, which has become so dramatic that some countries can barely cope with payment of the interest charges. Against this background some people question the claim that the new technologies are what many developing countries should seek as a high priority in order to meet their real needs. And yet- given both the growing interdependence of economies and the internationalization of trade on the one hand and the undeniable opportunities to modernize and "catch up" that are offered by the new technologies on the other- it seems inconceivable that any country should choose to deprive itself of the products and the infrastructures that increasingly define the "nervous system" of the contemporary world and determine its functioning [8]. In this connection one cannot underestimate the relevance and the value of "technology blending," i.e. the application of new technologies economically deployed to upgrade, modernize, or develop traditional activities (or to exploit natural resources that would otherwise remain untapped) while causing minimal social and economic disruption.

The rapid spread of a new technology does not of itself imply rapid social change. Other factors are involved, such as economic, social, and educational policies, the negotiations and agreements between interest groups, the well-established customs of daily life and social institutions, the society's values and traditions. Once again it needs to be stressed 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. Nothing is more revealing from this standpoint than the case-studies of technology blending, which indeed show precisely that the application of new technologies in traditional sectors is not simply a technological issue but more so an institutional, social, and political one [1]. It is this above all that determines the chances of applying scientific knowledge that meets the real needs of a 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 formula. 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.

All in all, there is no inevitability in technical change: neither its pace nor its direction is predetermined (even though one cannot underestimate the strength of certain industrial and national lobbies in imposing their factories or products), and the success of an innovation is never certain. Technology influences economics and history, but it is itself the product and the expression of culture. The same innovations can therefore produce very different results in different settings, or at different periods within the same society. Technical change and technology itself thus make up a social process in which individuals and groups always make the determining choices in the allocation of scarce resources, an allocation that inevitably reflects the prevailing value system [14]. At the same time, science and technology are not "black boxes" with principles and effects that leave unchanged the social structures of the societies that adopt them. They cannot be shipped like commodities: the process is never neutral, straightforward, or permanent; it demands levels of skill and often also perseverance, without which it constitutes a tool without a handle or a box of tricks without a key.

It is from this angle that the links between science, technology, and society in developing countries should be addressed. Beyond a certain threshold of resources, capital accumulation is never by itself a guarantee of growth. On the contrary, it is first and foremost the organization of society which in turn determines the organization of production - that allows a country to create and exploit its scientific and technical resources. These factors define the extent to which science and technology can operate to initiate and stimulate the process of development, and not vice versa. If science and technology are not external to this process, it is because they cannot themselves be either developed or used other than in a given economic and social framework. Extreme underdevelopment is in this sense the stage of development that puts no pressure on the social structure to become involved in scientific and technical research. And, lacking a favourable economic and social structure, even countries above this level may find themselves unable to take advantage of science and technology. If there is a lesson to be kept from history, and especially from the history of science, it is that the routes and institutions by which knowledge develops and is transmitted across a society, as much as across cultural frontiers, are never linear nor mechanistic.