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The Tragedy in Technology

by Jon Katz

19 May 1998

In our lifetimes - if ever - it's hard to imagine anything approaching a consensus on technology's place in the world.

Fixed positions and ideologies regarding technology always seem troubling and inadequate, perhaps because they fail to take into account technology's inherent unpredictability. We seem perpetually shocked by the productive creations and terrible consequences of technology, even though it should be clear by now that both are inevitable, that one follows the other.

Most theories about technology fail to capture its essentially pathos-ridden and fateful nature, which is that technological progress is unstoppable, affirming, wondrous, and destructive.

The classic tragedy - the story of a protagonist's struggle against fate, ending in disastrous consequences that inspire pity - is an apt analogy for the story of technology's role in civilization.

This view of technology as inherently tragic has been advanced by certain novelists and filmmakers but is rarely put forth as a social or political philosophy. Samuel C. Florman, an engineer and the author of Blaming Technology and The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, is an exception.

Florman strikes a deep chord when he writes: "I suggest that an appropriate response to our new wisdom is neither optimism nor pessimism, but rather the espousal of an attitude that has traditionally been associated with men and women of noble character - the tragic view of life."

Florman's idea accepts responsibility for the damage technology inevitably causes, but avoids fixing blame. It affirms the value of technology in human life, challenges us to do what needs to be done, and to proceed - always, always - with caution. The desire to create, invent, experiment, and improve our lives is a testament to the human spirit. Our inability to control, think through, or predict the nature of what we create virtually guarantees that technology will also menace and damage us.

It's a view of technology that rings true. Evil exists, but most of our disappointments with technology come not from people seeking to do harm but from decent people trying to act constructively - create pesticides to help farmers; develop drugs and procedures to help infertile couples have healthy babies; find safe, inexpensive sources of electricity.

The tragic view of technology is based on this paradox - that technology comes from a wish to do good but its fate is to cause evil. Without the will to invent, create, and improve ourselves, we are nothing. With it, we fiddle with the nature of the world and its very survival. This is a profoundly fatalistic view of technology, suggesting that the very best aspect of human nature is also its most destructive.

In recent memory, we find lots of reasons for people to be optimistic about technology. Modern science and technology transformed the world in miraculous, visible, and obvious ways - purifying water, offering flight, generating light and warmth, creating extraordinary new medicines. Now that we've spent a couple of generations with such creations, almost all of us have a more sober understanding of the trade-offs that accompany these amazing discoveries.

To argue otherwise, claiming that technology is primarily evil or inherently wonderful, is to display our own intellectual laziness and lack of maturity. As Florman wrote in one of his wise but mournful essays, "The human condition is still the human condition."

This type of tragedy is not gloomy but uplifting. It presents us with the drama of heroes struggling with fate. It's our destiny to die, to be defeated by the more powerful forces of the universe. But in challenging destiny, in summoning all possible ambition and resourcefulness, the questing technologist shows what human beings can aspire to; thus becoming the tragic hero - the doomed human being with the hubris to take on the world and improve it, no matter the odds or the unforeseen consequences.

Critics often present a false dichotomy - the spread of technology versus a peaceful and pristine world. But it's hard to look at history and agree with that. From the first cave dwellers making hammers and spears, men and women have used technology to try to better their lives. Did they really have a choice?

In an essay published in, of all places, House & Garden, written in celebration of the American Bicentennial in 1976, Florman said there was no other option:

"For all our apprehensions, we have no choice but to press ahead. We must do so, first, in the name of compassion. By turning our backs on technological change, we would be expressing our satisfaction with current world levels of hunger, disease, and privation. Further, we must press ahead in the name of human adventure. Without experimentation and change, our existence would be a dull business. We simply cannot stop while there are masses to feed and diseases to conquer, seas to explore and heavens to survey."

. . . . 

How do you see the epic story of technology?

What would you do if you read a criminal confession online?

Related columns:
Could the Unabomber's insanity spark a sane dialog on technology's effects?
Do the McCaughey septuplets prove the Unabomber's point?
Part I in a series examining the Unabomber's legacy
John McChesney interviews David Gelernter on Surviving the Unabomber.


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