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close this bookScience and Technology in the Transformation of the World (UNU, 1982, 496 p.)
close this folderSession I: Science and technology as formative factors of contemporary civilization - from domination to liberation
close this folderTechnology and society
View the documentRalko Tomovic
View the documentConclusion

Ralko Tomovic

The term technology has had an interesting evolution. Originally it was used to refer to the processing of raw materials. However, production turned out to be but one small aspect of the resources and activities involved in successfully running an industrial organization. Gradually awareness grew that a combination of scientific knowledge and accumulated experience is necessary to run any large system, no matter what its nature. Thus, with the evolution of modern society, technology's role has increased enormously in depth and in scope.

Technology is not the only factor shaping our future, but there is no doubt that it will play a decisive role in all efforts to change our world. Knowing this, it would be too risky to allow technology to develop without monitoring its trends in terms of social needs. Already a new activity, technology forecasting and assessment, is becoming a prominent part of any national and global planning. The speed of technological progress has increased so much that, without a strategy of technological development, the economic and defensive capabilities of any country could be seriously undermined.

Choosing an adequate strategy for technological development has become a highly delicate issue, especially for developing countries. Traditional approaches, such as giving top priority to heavy industry, have lost much of their value because many other industries, once at the bottom of the priority list, have been promoted to the top (food production, data processing, raw materials, and so forth). On the other hand, many options in the selection of an appropriate strategy for technological development that did not exist 30 or 40 years ago are available today. I do not intend to discuss the whole problem of technology forecasting and assessment, but to emphasize that this important field of research and applied activity must be given an adequate place at the university level.

Technology's new social and political functions can be best understood by reviewing the general conditions under which modern technology emerged. This technology is still young; it is generally agreed that the technological era began with the advent of the steam engine and the first automatic regulator devices in the mid-eighteenth century.

Having been exposed to the tremendous production potential of the modern world, we easily forget the scarcity of goods only 200 years ago. In 1750 most tools used by farmers were made either by the village blacksmith or by the farmer himself. It was only around 1850 that farm equipment started coming in increasing quantities from factories. When speaking of numbers, it should not be forgotten that farming machines were selling at the rate of just a few thousand a year. In other words, the technological era began without an adequate farm equipment industry. The first sugar-beet factory, which had an extraction efficiency of only two to three per cent, was completed in 1802, which means again that the food industry, now of strategic importance, was marginal 150 years ago. At the turn of the eighteenth century, England's pig iron production was about 15,000 tons. The level of development of the most advanced technological countries around this time may be characterized by various statistics: for example, in 1841, 33 per cent of men and 49 per cent of women marrying in England and Wales signed the marriage-register with a mark, while the structure of England's work-force in 1850 was such that the number of blacksmiths exceeded the number of iron workers by nearly 50 per cent, and there were at the same time twice as many tailors as railway employees.

The most powerful factors shaping our technology - union of science, research and technology as well as extensive technological education - were almost non-existent until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The awakening to the need for technological education started in the period from 1851 to 1867. Mathematics and physics had been introduced as separate subjects in schools in Europe in 1840.

The middle of the nineteenth century may also be taken as the beginning of proper engineering education in Europe. A few facts taken from official university documents of that era clearly illustrate the contempt prevailing in academic circles toward engineering. For instance, the first professors in engineering had to give assurances that they would not encroach on other university disciplines. Attitudes such as that which considered that engineering was not "a proper department in which a degree should be conferred" were also indicative of the misunderstanding of the role of applied science.

One could add many other details from the history of technology in order to emphasize the striking differences in the production means of today and yesterday. In fact, a comprehensive study of this phenomenon proper rather than a mere comparison of facts and figures would be highly valuable to the understanding of the new social tasks of modern technology. An international effort in this direction would certainly be welcome.

I have repeatedly referred to the interaction of technology and society. Consequently, a full understanding of the reasons that technology has led to a consumer society, environmental destruction and abuse of natural resources would require studying the socioeconomic conditions under which it evolved.

Let me again mention just the most relevant features of the world situation in the mid-eighteenth century. First, the social structure of the world, in spite of great differences, was homogeneous in one important respect: the land and the production potential in general were, exclusively, privately owned. State ownership and participation, not to mention self-government, were at that time unheard-of principles of socio-economic structures. At the same time, vast areas of our planet, in fact the majority of mankind, were forced to live under colonial rule. Without exaggeration, one can say that never in the history of our planet was global decision power concentrated in so few hands located in such a narrow geographic area. It is under these circumstances that the basic features of our present technology were shaped.

The above remarks should be helpful in understanding the following statements about the interaction of technology and society in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The basic social goals which globally affected the existing technology were as follows:

a. Mass production. There are very few books which will give full credit to the idea on which all modern technology is based. The founders of our technological civilization were really concerned just with small-scale production. Production tolerances at that time were so large that each machine had to be built as a single unit. The fundamental idea of developing industrial production on the principle of replaceable parts is not more than 130 or 140 years old. It is no wonder that the first experiments in this direction aroused great interest, because the technology of replaceable parts leads immediately to production specialization, assembly lines and services. Without such an approach, many goods such as household appliances, cars, television sets and so on would still be the privileges of very restricted groups. Let us not forget that even shoes and socks were once reserved just for the aristocracy. Creating a more democratic access to goods of all kinds is definitely a historical aspect of modern technology.

b. Profit optimization. Taking into account the historical conditions under which present technology grew, it is easily understood that profit motivation was the single major factor affecting the functioning, organization and management of production processes. How deeply the profit motivation has affected the very nature of our factories still remains to be analysed. In fact, very few studies based on the interaction of profit motivation and technology are available. But there is little doubt that absurd destruction of the human environment is the product of a narrowly oriented technology. Another example of negative interaction of one-sided social goals and technology is human settlements. Reducing the human being to a commuter between the suburbs and the working place deprives him of rich, many-sided interactions with the city, narrowing them down to just traveling and working.

c. Abuse of natural resources. A clear distinction between mass production and the consumer society must be made. Consumer technology, including marketing and advertising, is meant to satisfy not just the average needs of man but his artificially created demands as well. The folly of such an approach has now become evident. After the oil crisis, it requires little imagination to understand how absurd it is to develop megalopolises where, for each family, three to four tonnes of steel and several hundred litres of gasoline per month are needed just for transportation. This is just the minor part of the story. The chemical, drug, food, textile, electronic and many other industries also have been developed without paying due attention to the abuse of renewable and non-renewable natural resources.

d. Management. The term technology in its broader sense applies to the management of resources in general, to the improvement of the organizational aspects of applied activities and to improved decision making processes as well. The dominant management technology of our time is conceived on the basis of hierarchic organization, subordination, and separation of man's intellectual and physical involvement in the production process. That is, the fundamental principle of prevailing practice in management technology means rule by authority based on hierarchy rather than full involvement of all those concerned. This has led to two oppressive principles. First, although the equality of human beings as political decision makers is unconditionally accepted, at least in principle, when the same human being begins to work, in production or elsewhere, he is ruled by "orders and degrees" issued by an elite founded on hierarchy, property or education. Even more oppressive is the fact that such management and organizational principles are practiced not only in societies based on private ownership but also in those with state ownership of factories.

Evidently such undemocratic treatment of human beings cannot be maintained without considerable repression and manipulation. One of the most subtle and dangerous ways of manipulation is deeply rooted in current educational systems. Instead of extensive analysis of this phenomenon, let me just quote the words of Androrz (Proceedings, Fourth International Workshop of Metalworkers, April 1972, Oberhausen, European Publishing House).

From the social point of view, the educational system has essentially a selective role: it provides the cultural background for social inequality. The educational system forces students of all ages to a painful process of acquiring uninteresting knowledge without internal motivation; they are obliged to become part of a competition system within which beforehand the success of one individual depends on the failure of the others so that they are degraded to less ''valuable" positions. Thus the educational system is favouring not the most "talented" ones but the most ambitious ones: those who have the ambition to "improve themselves socially," accepting thus the disciplinary-hierarchical nature of the school which in its educational relations reflects already the patterns of production relations and has the tendency to reproduce them. As seen, the manipulation of human beings by power structures tends to start very early.

Now let us turn to the future. New socio-economic, scientific, educational and cultural conditions affecting the interaction of technology and society can hardly be compared to the old ones. Again, I shall not use numerical data to emphasize the quantitative differences between the past and the present, but instead will attempt to summarize the essential features of the last two radical breakthroughs in the history of technology.

The rate of progress in technology and production potential of the world has been so fast in the last 150 years that, notwithstanding enormous market expansion, mankind's basic needs can be met. This is certainly true if the arts industry is included as a productive factor. For the first time in its history, humankind has at its disposal production facilities which, in principle, do not require discrimination in terms of goods to satisfy basic human needs (clothing, food, housing, public transportation, education, and health care). At least, such a goal is technologically feasible today. But other factors, beyond technology, still prevent faster progress in this direction.

Modern technology possesses yet another fundamental asset. As is well known, the Industrial Revolution was carried out in its early stages without using such powerful resources as science and education. Individual creativity and heuristic approaches were the most frequent tools of technological progress in the eighteenth century. Nowadays the greatest potential for technological progress lies not in "hardware" but in "software." Modern science, industry, and society possess a most powerful tool: we know how to manage, organize, and implement the transfer of new scientific knowledge into all human activities. By mastering this most complicated transfer process, promoting technology becomes an organized social activity rather than one involving only individuals or companies.

In contrast to the extreme national and regional concentration of technological power in the past, know-how, advanced industry, and promotion of new technology are no longer the privileges of a few western nations. Europe as a whole belongs today to technologically developed societies. Nations in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East also possess powerful industries and technological resources. Even more important, education in science and technology has spread all over the world either directly or indirectly. This profound change in the distribution of technological power across the world and the fall of colonial rule have laid down the basis for a global order of equality of nations rather than rule by domination and monopolies.

The once homogeneous socio-political system of governing represents nowadays but a part of the global order. Socialist ideas are not theoretical considerations any more but have become the founding principles and guidelines of many nations, both large and small. In these circumstances it has become inadequate to assess technology just in terms of profit optimization. Its meaning and impact must be evaluated in a much broader context, including urban environment, education, health, and human rights at work.

New living conditions have placed new requirements on technology. It is a matter of complex multidisciplinary studies to propose more precise guidelines for a strategy of technological development in our era. At this point I shall just present a sketch of some of the options which lie before us.

a. Urban technology. So far it has been technology's role to support the functioning of human settlements whose basic profiles and growth have been determined by the needs of consumer society, commerce, banking, industry and administration. Eventually, with increased social consciousness and in the face of an alarming deterioration in the quality of life in metropolitan areas, steps were taken to use technology to improve the worst effects of the urban crisis.

From a long-term point of view, palliative measures cannot resolve the problem; instead, the basic approach must be changed. Social, urban, regional and economic planning must be granted the same status as other factors so that human needs are matched not to patterns imposed by the past but to projects containing completely new value systems. For instance our cities would certainly offer much better opportunities for human contact if urban transportation systems had been built on the principle of pedestrian zones, public transportation and individual motorized displacement. New technology for human settlements must be oriented in a way which will strike a better balance between human needs and economic constraints.

b. Health care systems. The most striking fact about health services is the very idea that "health care," conceived as a nation-wide system, is relatively new. The basic human right to have equal access to the best medical care available is still far from a reality in our world. Technology is certainly one restraint on progress in this area.

Medical instrumentation, hospital management and existing organizational institutions are still unable to accomplish the transition from the centuries-old practice of "small-scale operations" to the full coverage of citizens' demands in health services. Our current knowledge of automation, electronics, computers, telecommunications and so forth is such that with concurrent efforts of science, technology and organized social forces a much better functioning of large-scale health care systems can be assured.

The effect of profit-motivated technology on the drug industry is another deep problem related to health care. How many of the drugs bombarding us are effective, semi-effective or ineffective remains to be analysed, though drug and food safety regulations are certainly a small step in the right direction. Technology's future role in health care presents great challenges and expectations. Neglecting health care problems is a reflection more of misplaced social priorities than of current technology deficiencies.

c. Management technology. I have pointed out that the most adverse effects on human rights in the production sphere occur during decision making processes. Authoritative management was understandable in the early stages of technological development when a large amount of physical labour was a sine qua non for any production system. However, the advent of modern automation and the computer makes any kind of non-creative, degraded human work obsolete, provided there is enough professional and social support. The basic question today is not mass production but the human factor. Quite a change in a rather short historical period: let us not forget that the industrial era relied heavily on child and illiterate labour, as well as pushing workers to the limits of human endurance.

Such practices are marginal in contemporary conditions. But, even so, the most challenging tasks lie ahead. The fundamental goal of social and technological endeavours must become the right of each man to be free not only in terms of civil rights but also in a much deeper sense. "As long as human activity is not shaped freely but by chance, his own product becomes an adverse and estranged power constraining man instead of freeing him" (Karl Marx). "To be free means fulfillment of one's life. That means a great number of freedoms.... If one cannot become himself, does it make sense to become anything?" (Tennessee Williams). "It seems to me that we owe to each human being many other lives" (Arthur Rimbaud). Taking away from a human being the right to self-government at any level of his activity is equivalent to the amputation of his personality.

Quoting poetic visions of human destiny in the context of technological considerations may seem artificial. However, the interaction of society and technology has reached such a level that the strategy of technological development must take into consideration not only economic values but the human factor in its full richness as well.