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. []

Innovation via Science Fiction

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Famous scene of surveillance-directed touch screens from Minority Report, a 2002 film based on a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick.

Last week, Paul Guinnessy, an editor at Physics Today, sent me a copy of a new report put out by Nesta. Formerly the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts – Nesta is a U.K.-based non-profit that works to promote British innovation and invention. The report is called “Better Made Up: The Mutual Influence of Science Fiction and Innovation.”1

Written by three British academic – Caroline Bassett, Ed Steinmueller, and George Voss – the Nesta piece examines the relationship between sci-fi and innovation with the intent to trace how “real world science and technology” is a “co-constitution” with “science fiction/speculative fiction.” The authors, who are all academics at the University of Sussex, aim to examine the connections between sci-fi and innovation by looking for a more complex relation than “direct linear transmission” where sci-fi provides “the inventive seed for innovation.” (In this sense, the report resembles an earlier paper by futurist Alex Lightman which, unfortunately, I can’t seem to download today) Instead, the authors posit “processes of transformation” in which “questions of influence, persuasion, and desire” are central. To make their point, the Sussex crew did an “interdisciplinary survey of work” on sci-fi, building up a database to explore “transformation paths,” and developed a “web crawl tool” to better understand how fictional ideas travel.

The focus of the Nesta report caught my attention for several reasons. In The Visioneers, I make the case that popularizations of radical ideas for the technological future can have influence of policy makers. They certainly can shape how the public imagines the future and also “close out” ideas or speculations for other possible futures. In other words, if everyone is imagining a future in which we all have autonomous Google cars, this may  push alternative ideas – mass transportation or high-speed rail – to the margins.

The report’s title also reminded me of a book I like quite a bit – Howard McCurdy’s Space and the American Imagination.

Screen Shot 2013-03-29 at 1.25.17 PMUsing the case of space exploration – primarily during the Cold War – McCurdy’s book examines culture as a force for policy making. As he puts it (p. 233): “The rise of the U.S. space program was due in part to a concerted effort by writers of popular science and science fiction, along with other opinion leaders, to prepare the public for what they hoped would be the inevitable conquest of space.” Popular culture, in other words, is a (often neglected) explanatory device for making public policy. At the same time, the wild expectations that technological elites and popular culture creates for technology – say, space colonies or nanobots – creates a problematic gap between what is possible and what is actually doable.

The Nesta report notes that scientists and engineers often draw on sci-fi as a resource, in part to support the value of science but also as part of “discourses shaping thinking ‘on the future.’” As its authors see it, sci-fi helps shape desire “for change, for progress, for novelty, for a sense of wonder and discovery” while not providing an actual roadmap.  Innovation, on the other hand, also supposedly influences sci-fi although the report seems less clear on this aspect.

I can’t summarize the entire 95 page report. But readers of it will get a nice intro to the history of sci-fi and its genres going back to the Gernsback era. This made me ask “what was it about the 1920s that led to such a flowering of sci-fi?” Was it the post-World War One moment and the disillusionment and anger that came with it? Were people seeking fictional better/different worlds to replace the ones shattered by shellfire? Or was it the decadence of the 1920s economies in places like the U.S. and the U.K.? Dissecting the “hard” sci-fi of the Cold War era seems more direct – an arms race and a space race provided narrative fuel for Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke while fears of all stripes drove the paranoid fantasies of Philip Dick and Robert Anton Wilson.

So – what more does this study tell us about sci-fi’s two-way relationship with innovation? Does it go beyond the insights that books like McCurdy’s present? In the end, I found the report set out some possibilities that while interesting were far from definite. Engagement with sci-fi requires what the authors call a “theory of influence.” Outlining what this means first requires that one appreciate that the sci-fi influence itself has a history i.e. it’s not constant over time and is contingent. OK, this seems reasonable and something most any historian would agree with.  The sci-fi needs an audience to have an influence. Again – kind of a no-brainer.

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One of the “loops” described in the report; this one tracks “aversion to vat grown food” over time.

The third aspect of the theory is what caught my eye: science fiction “creates an enabling space for innovation.” This is very similar to what I argue in The Visioneers. People with radical ideas for the technological future can challenge conventional ideas as to what is possible. Although visioneers’ ideas may sit outside the mainstream and require considerable work to establish their legitimacy, their work toward that end secures a beachhead where exploratory notions can exist while entrepreneurial scientists and engineers mobilize and push things one way or the other. Maybe the verdict is “no” but visioneers help foster an adjudication in the first place.

Ultimately, I found the Nesta report somewhat disappointing. Or, put more charitably, it set out some directions that others might be able to continue to probe. Perhaps it’s because the authors come from disciplines outside of history or because they never really give specific and well-grounded cases of actual and productive dialogues between sci-fi and  innovation. Sure, sci-fi is both a resource and an inspiration for innovation. But plenty of “enabling space” remains in which historians and other scholars can work out the mechanics of how force between them is transferred.

  1. There is a great companion piece to this, also from March 2013, by science writer Jon Turney. I learned about this after this post was originally published so my thoughts below are on the former report. However, if you’re really interested in the topic, you might wish to download both. []