SCIENCE & SOCIETY

Technological fundamentalism
Why do we need leaf-blowers to clean up the garden when brooms would do just as well? Why do we need computer networks to communicate with colleagues in the next room? Because we have become technological fundamentalists, unwilling or unable to question our basic assumptions about how our tools relate to our larger purposes and prospects

by David W Orr

Scene One:
Entry to a classroom building. With a deafening noise he revved up the two-cycle engine on a blower preparing to clean the leaves, paper and cigarette butts that had accumulated in the entryway. He made considerable progress herding the debris away from the building and down the sidewalk until cigarette butts lodged in the seams in the concrete. Turning, he blasted the miscreant trash at right angles, but this only blew the debris onto the grass, posing still greater difficulties. Moving cigarette butts and bits of paper in an orderly fashion through grass is a challenge, even for a machine capable of generating gale-force winds. Then the apparatus stalled out -- "down time" it's called. In that moment of sweet silence, I walked over and inquired whether he thought a broom or rake might do as well. "What do you say?" he responded. "Can't hear anything: my ears are still ringing!" I repeated the question. "S'pose so," he said, "but they think I'm more productive with this piece of @&!@."

Perhaps he is more productive. I do not know how experts calculate efficiency in complex cases like this. If, however, the goal is to disrupt public serenity, burn scarce fossil fuels, create a large amount of blue smoke, damage lung tissue, purchase expensive and failure-prone equipment, frazzle nerves, interrupt conversations and  improve the market for hearing aids, then rakes and brooms cannot compete. When the technology and the task at hand are poorly matched, however, there is no real efficiency. In such cases the result, in Amory Lovins' telling phrase, is rather like "cutting butter with a chainsaw".

Scene Two:
A modern rakeCommittee meeting. I serve on what is called with some extravagance the Educational Plans and Policies Committee. It is a committee to which one is elected, or sentenced, depending on one's view of committee duty. In one meeting we were casually asked to pronounce our blessing on a plan to link the entire campus so that everyone would be able to communicate with everyone else via computer, 24 hours a day, without leaving dormitory rooms or offices. Stop awhile and think, I urged: are there some things that computers are ill-suited to? Can computers teach us to be properly sceptical of computers? Would people so wired and networked still want to talk to each other face to face? Would they remember how? Would they be sane? Or civil? Would they still know a tree from a bird? And after all the hype, what is the relation between information, knowledge and wisdom? My fellow committee members, thoughtful persons all, stirred impatiently. After an awkward pause, one said: "We've been through this before and don't need to rehash the subject." I asked, "When?" Another awkward pausse. No one could recall when that momentous conversation had occurred. "Well, it's all in the literature," said another. I asked for citations. None was forthcoming. What I had read on the subject by Joseph Weizenbaum, Theodore Roszak, Neil Postman and C A Bowers, would suggest to the curriculum committees of the world good reasons for caution. But these books had not been discussed by the committee, and no others were suggested.

Scene Three:
Washington, DC: A high public official is describing plans for the creation of a national information super-highway. The speech is full of hi-tech words and mega this and that. Sober-looking public officials, corporate executives and technicians glance at each other and nod approvingly. Members of the press dutifully scribble notes. TV cameras record the event. The questions that follow are mostly of the "gee whiz" kind. From the answers given one might infer that the rationale for a superhighway is: (a) it will make the American economy more "competitive" because lack of information is what ails us; and (b) it's inevitable and can't be stopped anyway.

I am neither for nor against leaf-blowers, computers, networks, or the information age for that matter. My target is fundamentalism, which is not something that happens just to religious zealots. It can happen to well-educated people as well who fail to ask hard questions about why we do what we do, how we do it, or how these things affect our long-term prospects. We, leaf-blowers and computer jockeys alike, have tended to become technological fundamentalists, unwilling, perhaps unable, to question our basic assumptions about how our tools relate to our larger purposes and prospects.

Scene One is an obvious case of technological overkill in which means and ends are not well calibrated. The deeper problem, noted by all critics of technology from Mary Shelley and Herman Melville on, is that industrial societies are long on means but short on ends. Unable to separate "can do" from "should do", we suffer a kind of technological immune deficiency syndrome that renders us vulnerable to whatever can be done and too weak to question what it is that we should do.

An economic butter-knifeIn Scene Two, the committee did not know how computers affect what we pay attention to and how this, in turn, affects our long-term ecological prospects. Not knowing these things and being unwilling to admit them as honest, even important questions, we did not know whether all of this technology could be used for good or not. Assuming that it could be used to good effect, we did not know how to do so. Seduced by convenience, dazzled by clevements, armed with no adequate philosophy of technology, and not wanting to appear to our peers as pre-modern, we were at the mercy of those selling "progress" to us without a whisper about where it will ultimately take us.

In Scene Three, much of the same is true on a larger scale as we approach the entry ramp of the "information superhighway". Smart and well-meaning people believe this to be the cat's meow. But by what standard should we judge this enterprise? Will it, on balance, help us preserve biotic potential? Will it help to make us a more sane, civil and sustainable culture? In this regard it is englightening to know that a substantial part of the traffic now appearing on the superhighway so far built has to do with the distribution of pornography.

Our descendants may wonder why we were so mesmerized by the capacity to move massive amounts of information at the speed of light. What kind of information for what purposes needs to be moved in such great quantities at that speed? At what velocity and volume does information become knowledge? Or wisdom? Is it possible that wisdom works inversely to velocity and volume? The bottle-neck in this system will always be the space between our two ears. At what rate can we process information, or sift through the daily tidal wave of information to find that which is important or even correct? It would seem sensible to move the smallest possible amount of information consonant with the largest possible ends at a speed no faster than that at which the mind can assimilate it and use it to good purpose. This speed is probably less than that of light. Relative to our long-term ecological prospects, the most valuable information may prove to be that which is accumulated slowly and patiently -- the kind of information that is mulled over and sometimes agonized over and with the passage of time may become cultural wisdom.

Future generations may wish that we had asked about the distribution of costs and benefits from the information superhighway. Looking back, the American interstate highway system was a great boon to the heavy construction industry, car-makers, oil companies, insurance companies and  tyre manufacturers. It was less useful to those unable to afford cars, who once relied on trains or buses. It was decidedly not beneficial to those whose communities were bulldozed or bisected to make way for multiple-lane expressways. Nor was it useful to those who had to spend a significant part of their lives driving to their newly dispersed workplaces. Accordingly, our descendant might wish us to ask whether access to the information superhighway will be fair. Will it be equally open to the poor? Will it be used to make society more or less equitable? Or more sustainable? Or will it be said of the information superhighway that it, like the "computer, as presently used by the technological elite, is...an instrument pressed into the service of rationalizing, supporting and sustaining the most conservative, indeed reactionary, ideological components of the current zeitgeist?"

Our descendants may wish that we had asked whether the standardization  and uniformity imposed by information technology will homogenize our thoughts and language as well. For comparison, automobiles, interstate highways and their consequences have served to homogenize American culture. Because of the scale of our automobility, our economy is less diverse and less resilient than it otherwise might have been. Our landscape has been rendered more uniform and standard to accommodate 200 million cars and trucks. Highways and automobiles have exacted a sizable toll on wildlife and biological diversity. Automobiles destroyed other and slower means of mobility including walking and bicycling. Will the imperatives of the information superhighway have analogous effects on our mindscapes? Will standardization and uniformity, shaped to fit information technology, homogenize our thoughts and language as well? Can cultural differences or cultural diversity survive technological homogenization? Will the vernacular information of indigenous cultures survive the information superhighway? Can increasingly uniform and standardized societies protect cultural diversity? And if they cannot, can they protect biological diversity?

The 20th century is littered with failed technologies, once believed to be good in their time and promoted by smart and well-meaning people: automobiles, H-bombs, CFCs, toxic chemicals and television all promised great things. These things failed in large  part because they succeeded too well. They became too numerous, or too efficient at doing one thing, or intruded too much in places where they were inappropriate. A world with 100 million automobiles, for example, is probably okay. One with 500 million cars has more problems than I can list and fewer options for solving them than one might wish. Moreover, each of these technologies has caused unforeseen ecological and social problems which we wrongly call "side effects". There are, however, no such things as side effects, for the same reason that many technological accidents, as sociologist Charles Perrow once pointed out, are "normal accidents". Given human errors and acts of God, all such happenings are predictable events. What some call "side effects" of technology are the fine print of the deal, when we think we are buying only convenience, speed, security and affluence.

For a technological society, Garrett Hardin's query "what then?" is the ultimate heresy. But standing, as we do, before such technological choices as nanotechnologies, genetic engineering, virtual reality machines and information superhighways, no previous society needed its heretics more than ours. Information superhighways, what then? Ultimately the answer, as Paul Valery once noted, has to do with "the habits it inflicts on us", and how it "modif(ies) the physiology of our minds, our perceptions of all sorts, and above all what we do with our perceptions, and... the place and function of the mind itself." Minds and perceptions so modified have different ecological prospects as well. Stripped of all the hype, the information superhighway is only a more complex, extensive and expensive way to converse. But conversations conducted on that highway must ultimately be judged, as all conversations must be judged, not on the amount of talk or its speed, but by their intelligence, wisdom and by what they inspire us to do.

This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.