New Internationalist

seers

Issue 286

Techno-seers

Thumbnail summaries of the views of some brave thinkers who've dared to question the juggernaut of technology

Mahatma Gandhi

Known as the father of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi was also an astute critic of the impact of industrial technology on employment. His analysis grew first-hand from the crushing poverty of rural life in India which he believed was worsened by the import of cheap, machine-produced fabric from British textile mills. In fact millions of spinners and weavers lost their jobs when Britain flooded the subcontinent with Lancashire cotton goods and restricted the export of textile machinery to India.

Modern technology, Gandhi believed, would lead to a concentration of wealth and power and a further marginalization of the poor. In the 1920s he adopted the charkha or traditional Indian spinning wheel as the symbol of his campaign against the technology which had destroyed the lives of millions of his compatriots.

'It is machinery that has impoverished India,' he wrote. 'By reproducing Manchester in India we shall keep our money at the price of our blood... How can a country with millions of living machines afford to have a machine which will displace the labour of millions?'

His model of de-centralized development and village-level democracy was scorned by critics as reactionary nonsense in the face of necessary modernization. Gandhi was unapologetic: 'In so far as we have made the modern materialistic craze our goal, so far we are going downhill in the path of progress.'

Reading: Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles,Ved Mehta, Viking, New York, 1977 and Gandhi: A Memoir, William L Shirer, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1979

Marshall McLuhan

A cutting-edge thinker with a talent for baffling aphorisms, McLuhan became a media celebrity and cult intellectual in the tumultuous 1960s. At his most optimistic McLuhan believed that modern information technologies would create a 'global village', breaking down barriers of language and distance. He spoke of electronic technologies as extensions of human consciousness and preached 'the medium is the message'. By which he meant that technologies shape social and political environments and structure human relationships. But he also feared the loss of democratic control over technological choice and warned of humans becoming 'servo-mechanisms' of a technology which is controlled by the few at the expense of the many.

Before his death in 1980 his views became more sombre and he warned that technology was spinning out of control. 'Excessive speed of change isolates already fragmented individuals... At the speed of light man (sic) has neither goals, objectives, nor private identity. He (sic) is an item in the data bank - software only, easily forgotten - and deeply resentful.'

Reading: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1964.

Ursula Franklin

A Quaker and Canadian citizen for nearly 50 years, Ursula Franklin is a distinguished professor of physics and one of the country's pre-eminent scientists. She is also an outspoken peace activist and a strong critic of the impact of technology on modern life. Franklin makes a distinction between what she calls 'holistic' technology (when the doer is in control of the work process) and 'prescriptive' technology (when the work is divided into specific steps each carried out by separate individuals). Driven by goals of profit and economic efficiency, Franklin argues that 'prescriptive' technologies have taken over the world 'like a giant occupation force'. The result, she says, is a 'culture of compliance' where technology itself becomes an agent of social order and control. 'Prescriptive technologies,' she writes, 'eliminate the occasions for decision-making and judgement in general and especially for the making of principled decisions. Any goal of the technology is incorporated a priori in the design and is not negotiable.'

It has become 'sacrilege', she says, to question the fundamental value of technologies and their products. 'All too frequently what is efficient is seen as the right thing to do.' Instead she argues for a public discourse which focuses on 'justice, fairness and equality in the global sense'. This, she believes, is the first step towards 'redemptive' technologies and the re-introduction of people into the technological decision-making process.

Reading: The Real World of Technology, Anansi Press/CBC Enterprises, Toronto, 1990.

Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva is one of India's most insightful minds and a sharp and lucid critic of Western technology. She first made her mark as a scientist, author and teacher. However, in recent years she has become a familiar sight at conferences and workshops around the globe - a tireless activist, using whatever platform she can to praise passionately traditional cultures and indigenous technologies. At the same time she is fiercely critical of Western scientific traditions and the technology that has sprung from that research. She accuses Western science of being both smug and arrogant in its self-assurance. And short-sighted in its rejection of traditional knowledge and techniques.

As an alternative to a Western-imposed 'monoculture of the mind' she calls for an 'insurrection of subjugated knowledge' and a rejection of technologies which undermine and worsen the human condition.

'Since dominant knowledge is deeply wedded to "economism", it is unrelated to human needs,' she states. 'It leaves out a plurality of paths to knowing nature and the universe... 90 per cent of such production of knowledge could be stopped without any risk f human deprivation.'

Reading: Monocultures of the Mind, Zed Books, London, 1993

Norbert Wiener

And you thought cybernetics was nifty Nineties-speak. Not so. The American mathematician Norbert Wiener first coined the term back in 1948. Two years later he published The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society in which he used the used the word cybernation to describe the future era of computer-assisted industrial production.

Although Wiener's work boosted both computer science and artificial-intelligence research he himself was pessimistic (and eerily accurate) about the uses to which new technology would be put. He feared its use both by the military and by profit-conscious industrialists who would use the technology to lay off workers and increase production. Wiener wrote that the new technology would 'play no favorites between manual labor and white-collar labor' and would lead to 'an unemployment situation in comparison with which... even the Depression of the 1930s will seem a pleasant joke'.

Reading: The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, MA, 1950.

Lewis Mumford

One of the great public intellectuals of the twentieth century, the sharp-eyed Mumford was an indefatigable critic of modern technological society. Largely self-taught, he wrote more than 30 books and authored a column on urban life for the New Yorker for 63 years. Following in the footsteps of the great humanist philosophers Mumford challenged the notion that technological advances equal human progress. In The Myth of the Machine he described the domination of society by a small, powerful élite who use modern technologies to centralize social control.

Mumford called the endless stream of consumer goods produced by technological society a ‘magnificent bribe’ which masks our understanding of the real human impact of technological change. ‘The belief in technological progress as a good in itself,’ he wrote, ‘will replace all other conceptions of desirable human destiny’.

Mumford warned that both individual freedom and community will be submerged by the technical imperative – what he called the ‘mega-machine’. To operate ‘correctly and efficiently,’ he wrote, the mega-machine needs ‘a concentration of economic and political power, instantaneous communication and a system of information storage capable of keeping track of every event – this new invention [the computer] alone should suffice’. And the final purpose of life under this new order? ‘To furnish and process an endless quantity of data, in order to expand the role and ensure the domination of the power system.’

Reading: Technics and Human Development and The Pentagon of Power, Vols 1 and 2 of The Myth of the Machine, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1967 and 1970.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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