New Internationalist

Technology As A Trojan Horse

Issue 232

new internationalist
issue 232 - June 1992

Illustration by P J POLYP
Technology as a Trojan horse
How the tools we use control us... The regimented world
that lies behind each electric switch... The fragile
magic that holds the Third World spellbound...

There are two entirely different principles which can shape a society's image of itself. Either a person-to-person or a person-to-things relationship predominates. In the first case, events are examined in the light of their significance with regard to neighbours or relatives, ancestors or gods; whereas, in the second, all circumstances in the life of society are judged according to what they contribute to the acquisition and ownership of things. The modem epoch, whose thoughts and aspirations revolve mainly around property, production and distribution, devotes itself to the cult of things; the use of technology is thus its beatifying ritual.

It was not until after the Second World War, precisely in the age of 'development', that the Third World countries moved into focus within this worldview; they were perceived for the first time from a material-centred viewpoint. Spurred on by the experience of societies investing all their physical and mental energies in the propagation of things, development strategists perused the world and, lo and behold, discovered an appalling lack of useful objects wherever they looked.

However, what was of primary importance in many villages and communities - the tissue of relationships with neighbours, ancestors and gods - more or less melted into thin air under their gaze. For this reason, the popular image of the Third World was dominated by have-nots desperately battling for mere survival; and whatever constituted their strength, their honour or their hope remained out of sight.

Although such a definition fails to capture the realities of the lives of many people, it still provided the basis for programmes of global good will. A classic example of this occurred when John F Kennedy called upon Congress in March 1961 to finance the 'Alliance for Progress'. 'Throughout Latin America,' he said, 'millions of people are struggling to free themselves from the bands of poverty, hunger and ignorance'. In the wake of such an exposition, in material-centred terms, of the aspirations of people throughout Latin America from traders on the Gulf of Mexico to cattle farmers of the pampa the strategic conclusion was self-evident. 'To the North and the East,' Kennedy continued, 'they see the abundance which modern science can bring. They know the tools of progress are within their reach.'

From Truman's pledge to provide scientific and technical aid, to the hopes of some countries in recent years to leapfrog the outdated industrial nations with the help of biotechnics and information technology, the 'tools of progress' were regarded as the guarantors of successful development. Indeed, if ever there was a single doctrine uniting North and South it was this: more technology is always better than less.

The popularity of this doctrine derives from the tragic fallacy that modem technologies possess the innocence of tools. Are they not basically comparable to a hammer which one can choose to pick up or not but which, when used, immensely increases the power of one's arms? Throughout all classes, nationalities and religions the consensus was for 'more technology' because technology was viewed as powerful but neutral, entirely at the service of the user.

In reality, of course, a model of civilization follows hot on the heels of modern technology. Like the entry of the Trojan horse in the ancient myth, the introduction of technology in the Third World paved the way for a conquest of society from within.

The world behind the whirr
Commercial artists particularly love to represent modern technologies as the triumphant heirs of primitive techniques. The jungle drum is pictured as the precursor of intercontinental computer mail, the search for medicinal plants compared to the synthesis of antibiotics, or the striking of fire from flint revealed as an underdeveloped form of nuclear fission. Hardly any piece of fiction has contributed more to hiding the true nature of technical civilization than that of seeing in modem technology nothing more than a mere tool, even if a particularly advanced one.

Take the example of an electric mixer. Whirring and slightly vibrating, it makes juice from solid fruit in next to no time. A wonderful tool! So it seems. But a quick look at cord and wall-socket reveals that what we have before us is rather the domestic terminal of a national, indeed worldwide, system: the electricity arrives via a network of cables and overhead utility lines which are fed by power stations that depend on water pressures, pipelines or tanker consignments, which in turn require dams, offshore platforms or derricks in distant deserts. The whole chain only guarantees an adequate and prompt delivery if every one of its parts is overseen by armies of engineers, planners and financial experts, who themselves can fall back on administrations, universities, indeed entire industries (and sometimes even the military).

As with a car, a pill, a computer or a television, the electric mixer is dependent on the existence of sprawling, interconnected systems of organization and production. Whoever flicks a switch is not using a tool. They are plugging into a combine of running systems. Between the use of simple techniques and that of modem equipment lies the reorganization of a whole society.

However innocent they appear to be, the products of the modern world only function as long as large parts of society behave according to plan. This entails the suppression of both individual will and chance, apart from odd remnants of spontaneity. After all, the aforementioned mixer would not make one revolution were it not assured that, in the whole system chain, everything happens at the right time and place and is of the right quality. Co-ordination and scheduling, training and discipline, not just energy, are the elixir of life for these exceedingly compliant devices. They appear helpful and labour-saving, yet call for the predictable performance of many people in distant places; the tools only function insofar as people themselves turn into tools.

But in developing countries especially, things often don't work that way. In almost any developing country you can find unused equipment, rusting machinery and factories working at half their capacity. For the 'technical development' of a country demands putting into effect that multitude of requirements which have to be fulfilled to set the interconnected systems whirring. And this generally amounts to taking apart traditional society step by step in order to reassemble it according to functional requirements. No society can stay the same; there can be no mixers without remodelling the whole. It is not astonishing, in view of this Herculean task, that the development debate has incessantly repeated the phrase 'comprehensive planning instead of piecemeal solutions' since the early 1960s.

The thrill and the threat
Any technical device is much more than an aid; it is culturally potent. The overwhelming effects of its power dissolve not only physical resistance but also attitudes to life. Technologies shape feelings and fashion worldviews; the traces they leave in the mind are probably more difficult to erase than traces they leave in the landscape.

Who has not experienced the thrill of acceleration at the wheel of a car? A slight movement of the ball of the foot suffices to unleash powers exceeding those of the driver many times over. This incongruity between gentle effort and powerful effect, typical of modem technology, gives rise to the exhilarating feelings of power and freedom which accompany the triumphant forward march of technology. Be it car or plane, telephone or computer, the specific power of modern technology lies in its ability to remove limitations imposed on us by our bodies, by space and by time.

There is more to it, though, than the shaping of feelings. Something new becomes real: it is probably no exaggeration to say that the deep structures of perception are changing with the massive invasion of technology. A few key words probably suffice: nature is viewed in mechanical terms, space is seen as geometrically homogeneous and time as linear. In short, human beings are not the same as they used to be - and they feel increasingly unable to treat technologies like tools by laying them down.

Through transfer of technology, generations of development strategists have worked hard to get Southern countries moving. Economically they have had mixed results, yet culturally - entirely unintended - they have had resounding success. The flood of machines which has poured into many regions may or may not have been beneficial, but it has certainly washed away traditional aspirations and ideals. Their place has been taken by aspirations and ideals ordered on the co-ordinates of technological civilization - not only for the limited number who benefit from it, but also for the far larger number who watch its fireworks from the sidelines.

Fragile magic
As everyone knows, magic consists in achieving extraordinary effects through the manipulation of powers that are not of this world. Cause and effect belong to two different spheres; in magic, the sphere of the visible is fused with the sphere of the invisible.

Whoever puts their foot down on the accelerator or pulls a lever also commands a remote, invisible world in order to bring about an event in the immediate, visible everyday world. All of a sudden, incredible power or speed becomes available, whose actual causes lie hidden far beyond the horizon of direct experience. The firework display happens, so to speak, frontstage, whilst the gigantic machinery that makes it all possible ticks away backstage, out of sight.

In this separation of effect and cause, in this invisibility of the systems that pervade society and produce technical miracles, lies the reason for the magic technology which, especially in the Third World, holds so many people spellbound. The speeding power of the car excites the driver precisely because its prerequisites (pipelines, streets, assembly lines) and its consequences (noise, air pollution, greenhouse effect) remain far beyond the view from the windshield. The glamour of the moment is based upon a gigantic transfer of its cost: time, effort and the handling of consequences are shifted onto the systems running in the background of society. So the appeal of technical civilization often depends on an optical illusion.

The 40 years of development have created a paradoxical situation. Today the magic 'tools of progress' dominate the imagination in many countries but the construction of the underpinning systems has got stuck and, indeed, may never be completed in view of the shortage of resources and the environmental crisis. It is this rift between the newly acquired ideal and the reality lagging behind that will shape the future of developing countries. There was no way to shove the Greeks back into the wooden horse after they had appeared right inside Troy.

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