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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
7.1 (Winter 2007)
Modernity and the Machine: Viewpoints on Technology and Society
Mark Wegierski is an independent journalist based in Toronto, Canada, who has regularly contributed to this journal for several years, especially on subjects involving the economy, “pop” culture, and perspectives of the future.
Listed below are some salient positions of different thinkers and reflective persons (excluding inchoate popular and mass-politicians’ attitudes) in regard to technology in the Twentieth Century, generally divided into Right, Center, and Left (R-C-L) modes. It is important to note that a person’s explicitly held ideology is not all-determining for his or her outlook on technological and ecological matters.
By “technology” is meant the “advanced” or modern technology that arose out of the triumph of a scientific spirit in the West beginning in the 17th century A.D. Modern technology can be divided into “early industrial”, “late industrial”, and “postindustrial” (or “electronic”) phases. The process of expansion of new processes, devices, and substances is geometric. There seems to be no sign of “technological decadence” (decline in technological advance) in contemporary society.
Technology is ultimately derived from scientific theory. The “ideology” of science, scientific positivism, has had far less impact on society than scientific theory as a whole, while the practical impact of scientific theory in creating new technological processes, devices, and substances has been far less again than the over-all impact of these new technological processes, devices, and substances themselves on society as a whole.
Technology can refer to both the “skill” necessary to produce and use technological objects, and the objects themselves, thus describing a body of knowledge, processes, and results.
Main Attitudes Possible to World History
• Teleology: the belief that world-history is going in a generally “upward”, positive direction
• Eternal Recurrence: the belief in the endless cyclicity of world history
• “Negative Teleology”: the belief that world history is going in a generally “downward”, negative direction
• Indeterminism: the belief that world history is radically open to changes in direction; no “set” direction to history conditioned by previous developments.
Main Approaches Possible to Technology and History
• Pre-technological Approaches (Generally Out of Context Today)
Refers to pre-industrial societies where mass machine- or electronic-based technology was not an autonomous or existing factor. In such societies, attitudes to the explosion of such technology could probably not be formulated by thinkers, since it did not yet exist. (This statement assumes the uniqueness of the modern technological outburst out of the West, as well as the somewhat privileged position of serious commentary of those writing in a now-existing context that was non-existent before.)
• Non-technological Approaches (Unreflective About Technology)
Although the commentator is living in the twentieth century, no serious consideration of the effects of current technology on society is made, owing to the “old-fashioned” nature of the views held.
R: (e.g., Russell Kirk) “pure reactionaries”—teleological, indeterminist, or eternal recurrence, but without reference to technology (most Rightists probably actually fall under this category).
C: “old-fashioned liberals” who ignore technology—teleology of “freedom”, or indeterminist.
L: what is called today “vulgar” Marxism—teleology of “classless society”, without paying attention to technological context (especially necessity for technical specialization in industrial societies, which probably explodes Marx’s brief conceptualization of classless society, i.e. “fish in the morning, criticize literature in the afternoon”).
• Technology as Generally “Good” (Very Optimistic)
R: in his pre-World War II thinking, Ernst Jünger (German Right-wing theorist) sees technology as invariably “authoritarian” and disciplining—therefore supports it unqualifiedly; note also Futurism (Marinetti)—the obsession with speed, adopted by Italian Fascism. The early Jünger would argue that technology is invariably “militaristic” and “anti-humanistic” and would therefore support it, to sweep away “sentimental rubbish” and “humanism”. Teleological, optimistic; assumes that technology = discipline.
C: Many liberals and Left-liberals of various stripes see technological development as invariably liberating (assumes that technology = freedom); complete support for scientific and technological development, consumerism, effective melding of man and machine (e.g., computers, cars, and popular science-fiction imagery): teleological, optimistic.
L: Some old-style Marxists embraced technology fully, as the essential vehicle for the achievement of the classless society (e.g. producerism, “the war for production”, Stakhanovism, “engineers of souls”); teleological, optimistic.
• Technology as Basically “Value Neutral” (Rather Optimistic)
Under contemporary (or another) system, technology has negative consequences, but under a different (or contemporary) political system it would be used (or is being used) positively; belief in the absolute primacy of society or ideology or human values in the social/historical process
R: Forward-looking nationalists and so-called “postmodern” Right enthusiastically seek to integrate technology within national and religious traditions—probable ultimate goal is “feudal values plus high-technology”. Some fictional examples which could be used to illustrate the end-result of this possible synthesis are Dune (Frank Herbert’s far-future epic of heroic intragalactic struggle focussed on the desert-planet Arrakis), Chung-kuo (David Wingrove’s epic series about a future Oriental-ruled Earth), and—to a certain extent—George Lucas’ Star Wars movie trilogy wavering between teleology, eternal recurrence, and indeterminism.
C: Liberals of all stripes and some Left-liberals generally support ongoing technological development, with some variations in the proposed intensity of ongoing social reforms designed to deal with problems caused by technology (problems which can, generally speaking, be solved—meliorism and reformism); teleological or indeterminist
L: Postmodern Left and some Left-liberals seek to radically build classless, truly egalitarian society, where technology would be used for humanity, not against it (believe that such an evolution is possible); teleological or indeterminist
• Technology as Generally “Bad” But Possibly Amenable to Human Control (Rather Pessimistic)
Viewing technology as sometimes “value-neutral” and sometimes as generally “bad”.
R: Pessimistic variant of “postmodern” Right—have little hope for the future, but continue their efforts nonetheless in the belief something can be salvaged; believe somewhat more in eternal recurrence than in “negative teleology” (seriously question indeterminism). See technology, liberalism, Left-liberalism, and capitalism as intertwined “late modern” system destructive of all genuine cultural particularities and human identities.
C: Very pessimistic liberals (they have to be extremely pessimistic to fit in this category, as liberalism is generally optimistic)—have little hope for the future, but continue their efforts nonetheless (do not generally believe that most problems can be solved); wavering between teleology and “negative teleology”; generally believe technology to be “fascistic” or tending to release irrational impulses or greed (as in consumerism).
L-Neo-Marxist: Technology generally seen as “fascistic”; giving up hope in classless, truly egalitarian society—“everywhere they are in chains”; wavering between teleology and “negative teleology”.
L-Ecological: Technology generally seen as “fascistic”; desire to return to simpler and more natural existence; commune movements; deep-ecology; environmentalism; “green” trends; generally pessimistic—wavering between teleology and “negative teleology”.
• Technology as Invariably “Bad” and Virtually Unamenable to Human Control: (Very Pessimistic)
R: Heidegger sees technology as leading almost invariably to the dystopia of “the universal, homogenous world-state” (in Jacques Ellul’s and George Parkin Grant’s phrase), eliminating cultural particularities and all genuine human identities; escape by humankind from technology or reconciliation of humankind and technology is all but impossible; “negative teleology” of technological advance; conservative response: existentialism—“tend your own garden”, look after “the little things” (i.e., particularities).
No Center position because no liberals can be this radical and pessimistic.
L-Radical Ecology: Technology invariably seen as “fascistic”; desire to return to simpler and more natural existence; commune movements; deep-ecology; environmentalism; “green” trends; very radical—all life on Earth is probably doomed unless the so-called “human infestation” or “cancer of humanity” or “human virus” radically changes its destructive ways. Some would advocate extreme interventions to reduce human population and consumption-habits. Strongly “anti-speciesist”: human life is considered not inherently more valuable than that of any other species; “negative teleology” of technological advance; sometimes carry out a radical response, so-called “direct action” (called “eco-terrorism” by their opponents).