Technology – Still an Opiate?

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July 1969 cover of the New York Review of Books

In late July 1969 – less than two weeks after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin cavorted on the moon – the New York Review of Books published a controversial essay by John McDermott, a professor of Social Science at the State University of New York. “Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals” was a sharp rejoinder to those who saw the Apollo 11 mission as a triumph of technology and harbinger for even more expansive technological frontiers.

McDermott composed his critique specifically in response to a report by Harvard University’s 4th Annual Report of Program on Technology and Society. Specifically, the target was a section of that report by Emmanuel Mesthene on the role of technology in society. The Harvard project was a grand interdisciplinary effort funded at the tune of several million dollars by IBM and Mesthene, a former RAND employee, was its director. His report was a sanguine statement about what wonks had learned about technological change and society. McDermott, as his blistering riposte showed, was having none of this “extravagant optimism.”

Galvanizing McDermott’s view was the on-going war in Vietnam, particularly the U.S.’s aerial bombing campaign. He particularly objected to the ways in which “intelligence data is gathered from all kinds of sources, of all degrees of reliability, on all manner of subjects, and fed into a computer complex…From this data and using mathematical models developed for the purpose, the computer then assigns probabilities to a range of potential targets…” Despite its seeming logic – the system supposedly prevented random bombing runs – McDermott pointed out that these high-tech strikes were an attack on “the lives and well-being of various Vietnamese” (thus undermining broader national goals) as well as “the opinions of some less important Americans.” Just as pernicious to McDermott was the idea that the technologies being used in Vietnam were too advanced and complex to be understood by those wearing the boots on the ground.

McDermott went on to consider the social effects of technology in American society, concluding that the ideology of technology was especially attractive to those already in power who stand to reap its benefits and avoid its less attractive costs. Abstract analyses of technology – such as that offered in the Mesthene’s Harvard report – saw technology as a “self-correcting system…Technological innovation exhibits a distinct tendency to work for the general welfare in the long run. Laissez innover! As he said, “we now observe evidence of a growing separation between ruling and lower-class culture in America, a separation which is particularly enhanced by the rapid growth of technology and the spreading influence of its laissez innover ideologues.” McDermott called for looking closely at specific cases and examples of “technology” (i.e. specific things and their particular interactions with people and politics) rather than talking in grand, hand-waving ways about some abstract concept of “Technology.”1

I think we are beginning to see some signs of a renewed conversation about technology (and Technology). This moves about several poles including higher education and warfare. In the academic world, a good deal of this talk is directed toward debates about “Massive Open On-Line Courses” (MOOCs). Here, the idea that technology might be the opiate of the intellectuals jabs at us in several ways. Too many of the people and institutions who are pushing for these technologies come from the “academic ruling class” of deans, politicians, and the entrepreneurs who stand to profit. The “academic lower classes” i.e. faculty and lecturers are late-comers to the conversation in many cases. (I’m drawing on what I’m seeing at the University of California where I work). Also, the morphine of MOOCs threatens to anesthetize (and perhaps even euthanize) faculty and lecturers. As one economics professor wrote, “creative destruction is a fine economic theory until you become its object.” Historians of technology need to get more involved in this conversation. Not only does the outcome affect us directly but we have decades of experience in helping explore and explain the complex relations between people and things.

Looking more broadly, there has also been a growing discussion about robots in general (one can think of MOOCs as somewhat robotic anyway, in both form and execution). The latest issue of The Chronicle Review is devoted to robots, asking whether and how they are redefining our jobs and us. Debates about technological unemployment have a long pedigree – Luddites c. 1800 or battles over machine-created unemployment in the 1930s.2 The best articles in the Chronicle Review – Richard Florida’s piece is especially good – combine a sense of historical understanding with some valuable insights into contemporary economics.3

After reading the various essays about robotics, I’m left to conclude that there is another factor at play. Discussion about robotic workers, robotic health care providers, and robotic girlfriends (and perhaps artificial intelligence as well) serves as a proxy for discussions about the military use of unmanned aerial vehicles – drones.

Debates about drones – the morality, the military value, and the counter-effect it has on the US’s foreign policy goals – maps closely to McDermott’s 1969 essay. McDermott after all attacked what he believed was an anti-democratic ideology promoted by people at large institutions in pursuit of narrow and often self-serving social and political goals.

There is danger in technologies that make learning or killing too easy. Evgeny Morozov makes a nice argument in a recent NYT essay. For these activities, we want more thinking and more contemplation, not less. Lately, Morozov has been on tear with his critiques of “solutionism” – the idea that society’s ills can be fixed by just applying the right on-line technology and social media. It’s an idea, he claims, is especially popular among Silicon Valley types. In his new book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, he quotes, for example, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt as saying once: “The Web will be everything, and it will also be nothing…It will be like electricity. … If we get this right, I believe we can fix all the world’s problems.”

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal recently wrote a herculean essay that both responds to and critiques Morozov’s view. (The web as been abuzz with pro/con Morozov stories the past week…here is another view.) A shorter gloss on Morozov’s work might be this: he is basically arguing against what Alvin Weinberg famously called back in 1966 the “technological fix.”4 But where Weinberg argued that technology was capable of giving people shortcuts to solving complex societal problems, Morozov – aiming at digital technologies rather than things like Weinberg’s nuclear power and desalination plants – is far less sanguine.

Surely something is lost when teaching is done remotely on-line or when warfare is conducted impersonally from thousands of miles away. When it comes to the implications of technology in war, education, and workplace, we should be as awake and aware as possible. Otherwise we’re just a bunch of dopes.

  1. An essay by Ruth Schwartz Cowan in the January 2010 issue  Technology and Culture reevaluated the roots and legacy of McDermott’s essay which prompted a reply from him. []
  2. Amy Sue Bix, Inventing Ourselves out of Jobs: America’s Debate over Technological Unemployment, 1929-1981 (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). []
  3. The less successful ones conflate material from history with that from literature – Blade Runner meets Bertrand Russell – in ways I found unhelpful. []
  4. Alvin M. Weinberg, “Can Technology Replace Social Engineering?,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1966, 22, December: 4-8. []

One thought on “Technology – Still an Opiate?

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