Erwin Marquit, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota,
Published in vol. 13 of the Encyclopedia of Applied Physics (entry “Technology, Philosophy of”), pp. 417–29. VCH Publishers, Weinheim, Germany, 1995.
1. Technology and Societal Development
1.1. Role of Technology in Human Evolution
1.2. Hunting and Foraging Cultures
1.3. Transition from Mobile to Sedentary Cultures: Crop Cultivation, Animal Domestication, and Social Differentiation
1.4. Occupational Specialization in the Bronze and Iron Ages
1.5. Reckoning Technology, Mathematics, and the Origins of Writing in Mesopotamia and the Americas
1.6. Technological Development and Blockage in Classical Greece
1.7. Technology and Society in China
1.8. The Middle Ages
1.9. Beginnings of the Technological Revolution in Feudal Europe
1.10. From Feudalism to the Industrial Revolution in Europe
1.11. From the Industrial Revolution to Modern Technology
2.Origins of Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Technology
3. Contemporary Views on Philosophy of Technology
4. Unresolved Problems of Technological Development
Philosophy of technology, which only emerged in the nineteenth century as a field of philosophy, investigates interconnections among the human needs that invoke a technology for their satisfaction, the determinants of these needs, and how people come to know them.
The term technology is a combination of the Greek techne, meaning art, and logos, meaning word or discourse. In English it first (1615) denoted a discourse on an art or arts (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1933), later embracing the scientific study of the practical and industrial arts and their methods. In philosophical literature, the terms technology, technic (or technics), and technique are differentiated. Hood gives the traditional definition of technology originating with Aristotle as “a human arrangement of technics—tools, machines, instruments, materials, sciences, and personnel—to make possible and serve the attainment of human ends” (Hood, 1983, p. 347). Technique is usually used to convey the method of using technics, but because usage varies among different authors and languages, readers may find the terms used interchangeably. Martin Heidegger's concept is broader: “The manufacture and utilization of equipment, tools, and machines, the manufactured and used things themselves, and the needs and ends that they serve, all belong to what technology is.” He adds that according to the current conception, technology is “a means and a human activity” (Heidegger, 1977, pp. 4–5).
Heidegger here incorporates two contemporary connotations of technology, the most common being the means and methods used to produce and deliver goods and services for industrial, commercial, and military use. Another, or anthropological, sense is: “the body of knowledge available to a civilization that is of use in fashioning implements, practicing manual arts and skills, and extracting or collecting materials” (American Heritage Dictionary, 3d edition, 1993). This second sense excludes aspects of modern technology, which depends more on the integration of science with technological applications and less on the manual arts and skills. Hidden in the differences among these definitions is a philosophical question: does technology deal with a body of knowledge, only its application, or both?
Technology refers in some usage to “spiritual,” religious, and aesthetic needs also. In 1897 Alfred Espinas, noting that the Greeks applied techne to both the fine and the applied arts, argued that “we should give the applied arts the name techniques in order to distinguish them from the arts that tend to produce aesthetic emotion” (Espinas, 1897, p. 7). The case of a culture that regards a rain dance as necessary for agricultural production, however, shows that such a distinction is not always clear.
Ferré (1988, p. 26) suggests limiting the term technology to the “practical implementation of intelligence.” He considers the purpose of “practical intelligence” to be “to survive or thrive,” and that of “theoretical intelligence” as “to know or understand” (p. 33). This distinction, however, may obscure the social connections that form the essence of technology and constitute the principal stimulus for its development.
The following definition of technology is suggested for our discussion here: Technology denotes the systematic, conscious application of knowledge by a society to meet its culturally conditioned real and perceived physical, biological, and spiritual needs and to guarantee its continued social existence. This knowledge is the socially accumulated understanding of how human labor and available material resources and artifacts are integrated by a society; the aspect of the society primarily involved here is its particular set of historically conditioned social relations of production.
The association of technology here exclusively with human activity is deliberate to stress the central role that tool use and toolmaking play in human life, despite the fact that animals use and even make tools. The qualitative difference between these activities by animals on the one hand, and tool use and toolmaking in a deeply social context by humans on the other, is so sharp, however, that one scholar even suggests the term utensil be used for objects used or produced by animals, while the term tool be limited to objects produced by humans (Tobach, 1993). Only humans consciously create artifacts. Early examples are primitive tools made by combining or reshaping natural objects to be held in the hand for physical protection or for procuring or processing food. Shaped stone objects in the vicinity of fossil bones identify the remains as protohuman. Toolmaking has been a criterion to distinguish humans from other animals at least since the time of Benjamin Franklin, to whom James Boswell attributed the definition that man is “a tool-making animal” (Boswell, 1934, p. 245). Thomas Carlyle's remark that “Man is a Tool-using Animal” has also been used to distinguish between humans and other animals (Carlyle, 1921, p. 37). Charles Darwin (1981) attributed to tool use a distinctive role in human evolution.
Since technology involves the conscious application of knowledge by a society, ontological and epistemological questions arise: What is this knowledge and how do we come to know it? This body of knowledge, in turn, involves three areas: material objects (frequently referred to in philosophical literature as “artifacts”), skill and knowledge in employing them, and the technological relations of production, that is, the way human labor is organized in the technological process.
Our species emerged in a process of biological evolution. The technology by which we provide our material needs was an integral part of this process. After the emergence and biological stabilization of our species, technological development continued. We shall begin this article with a discussion of the role of technology in human evolution, then go on to consider the interconnections between technological development and the evolution of human societies through their various stages. Readers are referred to PHYSICS AND TECHNOLOGY, HISTORY OF, for a detailed discussion of that history. Here, we shall focus our attention on stages of technological development that represent turning points in human history. We shall consider some theoretical and practical areas in which science and technology interact and conclude the article with a discussion of viewpoints being presented in contemporary philosophical literature on problems arising from technology today.
A principal concern of philosophy of technology is how technological development influences the course of societal interrelationships at different stages of societal organization, as well as how specific stages of societal organization and culture affect technological development. Among philosophical approaches, technological determinism sees technological development as a spontaneous evolutionary process requiring a given society to organize itself so as to make efficient use of the technologies becoming available. It also seizes upon individual technological innovations as immediate and direct causes for fundamental social change. A second approach views technological advance as a consequence of the development of human spirit and culture. The most generally held view is that technological change is the cause of profound societal change at certain points in human history, while at other times societal change stimulates technological development. Followers of this third approach attach widely varying weights to the two sides of this interaction.
The discussion in Sect. 1 of this interaction between technology and society will be organized around the historical sequence of key stages of human societal development. The aim here is not to unfold a chronology of technology, but to examine the intricacies of the interrelationships between technology on the one hand, and the complex of science, culture, and socioeconomic organization on the other. (It will be noted that this section and PHYSICS AND TECHNOLOGY, HISTORY OF, are thus very different in content and focus.)
The interconnections between technology and society begin with the evolution of the human species. It is therefore appropriate to begin this section with the three-way interaction of technological, societal, and biological interactions that have led to the emergence of the modern human species Homo sapiens.
The unique character of human toolmaking and tool use along with the uniqueness of bipedality suggests these two factors as the primary stimulus for the evolution of the modern human being.
The evolutionary line of the modern human species, Homo sapiens, can be traced backward through at least two earlier species of the genus Homo, namely Homo habilis and Homo erectus, to the bipedal genus Australopithecus, originating in Africa some five million years ago, branching off from the family of the primates from which the modern chimpanzee descends (Hood, 1993). Bipedality frees the hands for many activities, including using tools. The first fossil evidence for tools appears later—some 2.5 million years ago—stone choppers, scrapers, and sharp flakes, probably used for stripping meat and skin from bones (Napier, 1993, pp. 43–44; Howells, 1993, p. 118; Isaac, 1976, p. 487), leading some scholars to suggest that the development of the brain was a more important factor in human evolution (Lovejoy, 1993). On the other hand, the tools that we observe among pongids like the chimpanzee today such as stripped branches for prodding termite nests or stone anvils for cracking open hard fruits (Candland, 1987; Goodall, 1968) are not likely to leave a fossil trail, so that it is not unreasonable to assume (even without evidence) that the early bipedal hominids not only did not lag behind the pongids in toolmaking, but also had begun to advance in their use of tools.
Apart from structural changes favoring bipedal locomotion, the fossil trail from the australopithecines to Homo sapiens is marked by significant increases in brain size (Falk, 1993, p. 64); changes in the bone structure of the hand (Napier, 1993); a lowering of the larynx so as to increase the space between the larynx and the back of the nasal cavity, thereby enhancing the possibility for articulate speech (Laitman, 1993); and a decrease in the size of the canine teeth (Skelton et al., 1993). Toolmaking, development of the hand, socialization of food consumption, increasing differentiation in vocal communication, and mental development move forward in the evolutionary process as an integrative whole, a development in one area contributing to the development of the others.
1.2 Hunting and Foraging Cultures
The term hunting and foraging is generally used to characterize both the level of technological development and form of societal organization within which this technology is applied. The first evidence of hunting, probably by Homo sapiens, appears some 100,000 years ago in northwestern Germany, where a fossil elephant with a wooden spear nearly eight feet long between its ribs was found. Apart from the weapons themselves, the earliest symbolic representations of their use are the cave paintings with hunting scenes in northwestern Spain and southwestern France painted perhaps some 10,000 to 30,000 years ago.
To overcome the lack of information about the technological culture of ancient hunting and foraging societies, it is necessary to consider recent and contemporary hunting and foraging cultures, such as the Mbuti people in the Ituri rain forest in Zaire. These people lived until the 1980s much as they had thousands of years ago, with a cultural form that is essentially pre-stone age. The primary economic standard is one of adequacy, the mobile lifestyle mitigating against accumulation of private property. The adult men, women, and unmarried youth all participate in the hunt. Mbuti net hunters establish their symbiotic relationship with the forest ecology by a culture of minimal hunting, spending a daily average of only four to five hours away from camp (Turnbull, 1983, p. 138).
The close cooperation of women and men in the hunt and the division of labor between them are reinforced in their hunting songs, which are always sung in round form, utilizing a technique that recreates the cooperative patterns required by the hunt. The other major types of song, the foraging song and the death song, also reinforce the appropriate patterns for the corresponding activity. Except for the lullaby, none of the songs can be produced by a single singer. The ritualistic character of the singing suggests that this art form is viewed as a necessary component of the hunt itself.
The egalitarian character of Mbuti society is characteristic of most hunting and foraging societies, generally marked by the absence of hierarchical structures. Group members make decisions collectively or through councils of elders. The prestige of certain individuals is based on respect for their achievements as outstanding hunters or foragers. The individual function of the chief stands out; he gives leadership in dealing with conflict with other groups of people. A second individual function is that of the shaman, who is believed to have special powers in connection with the group's religious beliefs or mythology, and a third is one with skills in rituals practiced by the group, such as a dancer or singer (Coudert, 1991, p. 398). Although a certain degree of social division of labor, partly based on levels of skill, emerges in hunting and foraging societies, the society is essentially free of social conflicts, the disputes and tensions that do arise do so as conflicts among individuals and are frowned upon by the other members of the society. It is for this reason that many social philosophers reject the sociobiological views asserting that humans are genetically conditioned to be aggressive and acquisitive.
1.3 Transition from Mobile to Sedentary Cultures: Crop Cultivation,
Animal Domestication, and Social Differentiation
The first major revolution in social organization associated with technological developments appears to have occurred toward the end of the Ice Age in the period 12,000 to 10,000 B.C. in the Near East. Sedentary settlements and the subsequent development of crop cultivation and domestication of animals were accompanied by relatively rapid technological changes in comparison with the preceding millennia, resulting not only in the increase in production above the subsistence level, but also in the emergence and deepening of social stratification within the population. This process, culminating in the formation of great city-states, occurred in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India, Mesoamerica, and the Andes.
Donald O. Henry (1989, p. 4), on the basis of suggestions from Binford (1980) and Gould (1982), sees the first signs of technological change as involving a transition from simple foraging to complex foraging. Henry summarizes simple foraging as “a high mobility and movement to resources” and complex foraging as a “collecting strategy in which greater residential permanence is maintained through storage and logistical acquisition of resources.”
The increased productivity that resulted from this transition led both to population increase and social differentiation. The new technology involved not only a new level of foraging activity, but also qualitative changes in the handling of the products as a result of the increased quantity of goods and people. Administrative problems seem to arise when more than two hundred people engage in coordinated activity. Structures that appear to have been communal storehouses suggest the need for administering and redistribution of the goods stored. Similarly, ceremonial structures suggest leaders (Henry, 1989, p. 212), and some central management may have been needed for housing the larger population.
A widely accepted model of social development through several stages of the social reorganization that began with the production of a food surplus has been put forward by Fried (1967). Fried suggests that the domestication of animals and plants initiated a series of changes in social organization from the egalitarian societies of hunters and foragers to the formation of what he calls rank societies, then into stratified societies, and finally to the formation of the state.
The rank society is characterized by the emergence of an individual, such as a chief, whose principal function is the redistribution of the products derived from the technological activity. According to Fried, in a stratified society, essential basic resources become the private property of a ranked segment of the community. Fried makes a distinction between what might be called the personal property of an individual or family, that is, objects of immediate use or consumption, and the basic resources that are needed to produce them (pp. 193–96).
The state emerges as an institution that stabilizes the stratification through control over the productive resources and products. Haas (1987, p. 2) defines the state society “as a type of society in which rulers have control over production or procurement of basic resources and as a result exercise coercive power over their respective populations.”
Stone-walled dwellings and storage pits are evidence of sedentary settlements; stable storage of food was necessary beyond that immediately consumed (Henry, 1989, p. 19). The production of such a surplus is needed since life cycles of plants and, to a large extent, animals are tied to the seasons of the year. Stored supplies can be exchanged among different communities or even be produced specifically for exchange.
Once the technology to produce a surplus is available, the possibility for continual accumulation of a wealth of products arises, although this potential has not been realized uniformly everywhere, since subsistence-level economies persist to this day. Therefore, Fried's model of social evolution must be viewed as a tendency rather than a specific sequence of stages through which every coherent community of people must pass.
The change from mobile to sedentary cultures involves a division of labor in two distinct areas: the organization of production and the associated infrastructures for production and storage on the one hand, and the administration of the process of redistribution for consumption on the other. The managerial/administrative functions are often combined with the role of leader in ritualistic functions, since the rituals to a large extent are considered necessary components of the technology. The increase in the storable surplus also creates the conditions for the separation of the product from the producers through increasing bureaucratization of the administrative/managerial function. Those appropriating the product ultimately must establish state institutions based on a morality justifying the social stratification and also set in place means of physical force to enforce the new social morality.
1.4 Occupational Specialization in the Bronze and Iron Ages
Bronze metallurgy was introduced about 3300 B.C. in Mesopotamia and Egypt. This technological change was not a revolution in the sense of the speed with which it spread, but in the economic, political, and social consequences of the use of metal in weapons and tools. The new technologies significantly increased the level of agricultural production and thereby stimulated larger-scale irrigation projects. The agricultural surplus made possible an increase in the number of people who could separate themselves from agriculture, thus contributing to the growth of urban settlements. The rank societies turned into stratified state societies by the fourth century B.C. , with the political and economic control centered in temple-cities ruled by priest-kings. Iron metallurgy appeared about 2200 B.C. and was in widespread use by 1100 B.C.
During the same period, the plow, the horse, and wheeled vehicles were introduced. The workmen involved in the mining, transport, and smelting of ores and in producing tools may have been the first specialists separated from agriculture who did not raise their own food and were not part of the ruling bureaucracy. It therefore appears that by the third millennium B.C. technological development in Mesopotamia and Egypt had reached a level that could sustain the principal types of social stratification we now find in contemporary populations except, perhaps, for a strata of intellectuals. The first intellectuals, the mathematicians of Babylon, may have also emerged in this period, but evidence for their presence does not appear until the second millennium B.C.
1.5 Reckoning Technology, Mathematics, and the
origins of Writing in Mesopotamia and the Americas
Along with the first evidence of cultivation of cereals in Syria and Iran, the harvesting or hoarding of grain, and the domestication of animals, occur finds of small clay objects of various geometrical shapes—spheres, cones, disks, and cylinders. Each type of token served as a counter for a definite quantity of a particular food or other basic commodity stored or delivered. These tokens have been found throughout the Middle East, with the earliest dated about 8000 B.C. in the Zagros Mountains of Iran (Schmandt-Besserat, 1992, pp. 40, 168).
After the emergence of city-states in the fourth millennium B.C. , accounting acquired a new importance. The tokens, originally sealed in small clay containers (envelopes) were now impressed on the clay envelopes into which they were placed so that the contents were visible on the envelopes themselves. Ultimately, the tokens became unnecessary, as their shapes and markings were reproduced on clay tablets. A conceptual leap toward abstract thinking then occurred. Quantitative and qualitative aspects of the goods became symbolically separated, so that a token of one shape represented a given commodity, while a second set of tokens represented the quantity. The wedge-shaped impressions developed into the system of writing known as cuneiform (Latin cuneus, a wedge).
In the Peruvian Andes in the eighth or ninth century, a period of major state formation, a system of knotted strings called khipus (Patterson, 1991, p. 43) was used to keep accounts. The khipus did not lead to writing, however. The Mayans later adopted a system of writing from other peoples and refined it with both ideographic and phonetic elements. They used it to record events and dates, deeds involving the nobles, the position of the stars and planets, religious rituals, and calendar reckoning, but there is no evidence of its use for accounting. The failure to develop written accounting and, except perhaps for calendars, the largely noneconomic use of writing were manifestations of different paths of technological development as compared, say, to Mesopotamia. The absence of large domesticated animals restricted the transport of goods, and the resulting fragmentation of the economies further limited technological development (Gille, 1986, p. 424). The Mayan, Inca, and Aztec rulers never developed the technological infrastructure that could tightly link the conquered peoples into vast, geographically expanding empires. The extraction of tribute and the continual pillaging of weaker neighbors by the stronger city-states in the Andes and Mesoamerica evoked resistance that could not be permanently repressed, ultimately allowing a small number of Spanish invaders, with their superior military technology, to form local alliances in order to destroy the Inca, Aztec, and Mayan states (Patterson, 1991).
The first sign of activity that can be called scientific (according to our current understanding of scientific knowledge) in antiquity is the development of mathematics in Babylon, known to us from tablets written between 1800 and 1500 B.C. The Babylonian tablets contain lists of conversions of measurement units, multiplication tables, and mathematical exercises. The calculations concerned practical problems such as work quotas, food requirements, and wages for workers; materials for wells and building construction; weights and measures; and inheritance and compound interest (Hooke, 1954, pp. 786–91). Ancient Egyptian mathematics was more geometrically oriented than was Babylonian, its greater sophistication attributable to greater economic complexity and more diverse technological activity. The availability of mathematical methods coordinating elaborate economic projects made it possible to undertake construction projects of increasing complexity (pp. 790–92).
The tokens, khipus, and the types of calculations represented on the tablets seem to indicate that mathematics did not arise as an aesthetic intellectual pastime, but was an integral part of the application of technology to the economy. Subsequently, the Greek philosophers of the fourth to first centuries B.C. separated mathematics from technology and integrated it with logic, a process that culminated with Euclid's hypothetico-deductive system of geometry.
1.6 Technological Development and Blockage in Classical Greece
Despite the emergence of Greek science concurrent with the technological advances between the sixth and third centuries B.C., no revolution in production occurred on the scale that might be expected.
The usual explanations for this “technological blockage” are based on the economic and social structures of the Greek city-states. Most Athenians were peasants, and played no direct role in the political life. Citizens lived in the cities and neighboring villages, were generally landowners, and did not engage in manual labor or crafts. Their economic well-being was based on extensive domestic, craft, and field labor by slaves taken as spoils of war (Anderson, 1974, pp. 29–52; Lilley, 1965, pp. 32–33). It was simpler and cheaper to put slaves to heavy work than to construct machines to do it (Lilley, 1965, p. 32). The mechanical arts, increasingly being left to slave labor, could not be respected by the ruling elite. According to Aristotle, since artisans, historically, were slaves or foreigners, the “best form of state will not admit them to citizenship” (Politics, III.5.1278a.5–10). “Some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right” (Politics, I.5.1255a.39–41). “For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule” (Politics, I.4.1254a.20–25). “No man can practise virtue who is living the life of a mechanic or labourer” (Politics, II.5.1278a.20–25).
Free men, according to Aristotle, would best realize their nature through the sciences—above all, through politics, “truly the master art” (Ethics, I.2.1094a.25). Such ideological blockage could only have led to technological blockage. It has also been suggested that the Greek view that mechanics could be reduced to a rational, closed system based on the five simple machines (lever, pulley, screw, winch, and wedge) failed to leave room for the role of experiment in the development of mechanics, which in effect had been limited to statics (Vernant, 1957, p. 217).
The stagnation discussed here is relative to the far more rapid developments in Europe in the second millennium A.D. The gradual improvement in the technological system that characterized Greek technology after the third century B.C. was continued by the Romans, who acquired through their conquests the technological traditions of Greece, the Near East, and Egypt, absorbing whatever was useful for them from other peoples in their expanding empire. Individual Romans did gather information about technological practices in various parts of the empire, but little attempt to coordinate or codify it was made (Gille, 1986, pp. 320–26). Although the towns grew, the propertied classes maintained their traditional disdain for trade (Anderson, 1974, p. 81). While the Romans did not introduce revolutionary changes in the technological system, they did make important improvements in hand tools, agriculture, architecture, city planning, the use of water-powered grain mills on an industrial scale, and the building of aqueducts, cisterns, irrigation canals, and roads.
1.7.Technology and Society in China
The history of Chinese technology paralleled in time and in some fields even excelled the early technological developments of the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Near East and, later, of Europe (Needham, 1954–1967). Chinese interest in philosophy and science unfolded at about the same time as in Greece. The Chinese had already learned to write by the fourteenth century B.C., well before the Greeks (Haudricourt and Needham, 1963, p. 162). Yet by the second half of the second millennium A.D. European technology moved decisively ahead of Chinese technology.
Needham discusses in detail what he sees as the reasons why China took an early lead in so many areas of technology and then failed to maintain it. The country's topography and agriculture required a vast network of waterworks for flood protection and irrigation, especially for wet rice cultivation, and a far-flung canal system whereby the tax grain could be brought to granary centers and to the capital. A highly centralized system emerged in which the emperor assumed the role of one great feudal lord governing and collecting taxes through a gigantic bureaucracy that became known as the “mandarinate.” The mandarinate collected taxes and mobilized unpaid labor (similar to corvée labor of European feudalism in which a serf is required to perform a day of unpaid labor by a feudal lord) for the water projects. They enjoyed no hereditary succession, and were recruited afresh in each generation through state examinations based on literary and cultural subjects that rarely included what might be called scientific subjects (1969, pp. 195–97). Under this system, referred to by some Chinese scholars as “bureaucratic feudalism” (pp. 177–79), the economy was based on taxation in kind, so that money was not widely used. The mandarinate was not salaried by the state, but supported itself through its administrative powers over agricultural production and whatever wealth it could garner from its bureaucratic functions in the towns.
The value system that favored the development of merchant wealth in the feudal towns of Europe found no parallel in China. While capital accumulation in Chinese society was possible, “the application of [capital] in permanently productive industrial enterprises was constantly inhibited by the scholar-bureaucrats, as indeed any other social action which might threaten their supremacy” (Needham, p. 197). “There is nothing in Chinese history resembling the conception of a mayor or burgomaster, alderman, councillors, masters and journeymen of guilds, or any of those civic individuals who played such a large part in the development of city institutions in the west” (p. 185).
Since Chinese philosophy was not capable of allowing the mercantile mentality a leading place in the civilization, it was not capable of fusing together the techniques of the higher artisanate with the methods of mathematical and logical reasoning that the scholars had worked out, so that the passage from the Vincian to the Galilean stage in the development of modern natural science was probably not possible.
1.8 The Middle Ages
The scientific and technological heritage of the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Mesopotamian civilizations of antiquity was in part preserved and continued by the Byzantine and Arabic scholars. Arabic here includes Arab and other scholars of the Near and Middle East, Northern Africa, and Moslem Spain, where Arabic was the scientific language. From its beginnings, Islam encouraged the study of the sky and the earth to find proofs of one's faith (Arnaldez and Massignon, 1963, p. 385). “Arabian schools were organized on the pattern of the Greek, publishing commentaries, encyclopaedias, dictionaries and scientific manuals. The scholars versed in more than one science if not in all, . . . were the rule rather than the exception” (p. 386). The best known of these encyclopedic minds were the Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna (980–1037 A.D.) and al-Biruni (973–1048 A.D., probably born in Uzbekistan). The Moslem scholars elaborated algebra and passed on Hindu-Arabic numerals from India (p. 407). Like the Romans, the Arabs absorbed the technological knowledge of the peoples they conquered and disseminated this knowledge over their empires, innovating, but not generating a technological revolution of their own.
In Europe proper, the period from the end of classical times following the collapse of Rome to beginning of the eleventh century is commonly referred to as the Early Middle Ages or the Dark Ages. The term Dark Ages suggests a darkening relative to Greek and Roman antiquity and in many ways is misleading. The so-called barbaric invaders had already achieved an iron-age culture and had access to the technology of the Roman Empire. The principal regression relative to Greece and Rome was the collapse of an elaborate city-state culture. With the collapse of Greece and Rome, literacy in Europe outside of Byzantium retreated significantly.
The principal developments in technology during the early Middle Ages, between the collapse of Rome and the eleventh century, appear to have been the introduction of the heavy iron plow in northern and western Europe; the horse harness, which allowed the replacement of oxen by horses for plowing; and triennial crop rotation and fertilization with marl. These innovations caused a rapid increase in population and an agricultural surplus that permitted the growth of towns (Hilton and Sawyer, 1963; White, 1962; Anderson, 1974, pp. 182–83).
White put a technological determinist explanation for the specific direction of the development of feudalism in Europe forth in his influential Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962). White asserts that the introduction of the foot-stirrup in the Frankish kingdom of the eighth century immediately changed the nature of warfare. A mounted knight could deliver a strong blow with a lance, and cavalry replaced foot soldiers as the main fighting force. Since “mounted warriors could only be maintained in large numbers by landed endowment, . . . [the] estates of the Church were . . . seized and handed over to an enlarged body of followers on condition that they serve him on horseback. . . . Protofeudal and seignorial elements had, of course, saturated the very fluid Celtic, Germanic, late Roman, and Merovingian societies; but the need for cavalry . . . precipitated and crystallized these anticipations to form medieval feudalism” (pp. 4–5).
Hilton and Sawyer (1963) criticize White's technological determinism as being methodologically at fault, the conclusions based on it not standing up to the historical evidence. They show that the stirrup was not a new arrival in Europe, but reached Europe well before the eighth century and that a complete change in Frankish weapons did not take place at that time—despite the stirrup, mounted shock troops did not become the rule in the eighth century.
Cultural, economic, and environmental factors all interact with technology to affect the rate of historical change. The African Mbuti, for example, satisfied with their traditional hunting methods, rejected the use of guns for hunting despite clear advantages over nets and spears, while the differing circumstances of the Eskimos led them to accept guns.
1.9 Beginnings of the Technological Revolution in Feudal Europe
Toward the end of the ninth century signs appeared that a new period of technological development was about to begin in Europe. The political disarray of constant invasions, marauding, and remapping of boundaries gave way to greater stability as central governments established authority. In 789, Charlemagne issued edicts to establish schools for the largely illiterate clergy. A ninth century mini-Renaissance produced educational advances, including adoption of a legible script and restoration of a good Latin, but with little or no scientific content (Beaujouan, 1963, p. 471).
Increasing artisan and merchant activity fueled rapid expansion of urban commercial centers in the tenth to thirteenth centuries. The growing use of metals—silver, gold, copper, lead, tin, and iron and steel—put mining, metallurgy, and metalworking in the center of industrial activity and trade. Grain mills powered by waterwheels had already appeared throughout Europe, not all concentrated in the towns. They became a traditional source of revenue for the lords, who required that the peasants take their grain to be ground at the lord's mill. The Domesday Book, an English economic census completed in 1086, reported 5624 watermills in 3000 communities south of the Trent and Severn (cited by Forbes, 1956, p. 611). Water-powered cloth-fulling and grain mills and forges (many in monasteries) began in the mountainous regions of southern and central Europe, later spreading into France and northern Europe. By the fourteenth century, the water-powered hammers, stamps, and bellows were fairly general in the entire Alpine region. “Such machines,” writes Forbes, “entailed heavier capital expenditure than formerly, and the rise of western capitalism was largely tied up with the development of mining and metallurgy.” The feudal lords promoted the rise of industrial-commercial towns (pp. 62–69). Manufacturing was at the heart of the urban economy, and initially a symbiotic relationship existed between the social environment of urban industry and trade and the feudal agrarian economy. Although more or less self-governing, the towns were still under the aegis of the feudal lords, who cornered markets or scooped off profits from long-distance trade and obtained their domestic or imported luxury goods from the towns. Production was regulated by the artisan guilds, which emerged in the tenth century.
The first great mathematician of the thirteenth century, and perhaps the most outstanding in the Middle Ages, Leonardo Fibonacci (1170–1250, also known as Leonardo Pisano or Leonardo of Pisa), came from the rising commercial social stratum (Smith, 1923, pp. 214–18). Italian merchants acquired computational methods from their North African counterparts. Double-entry bookkeeping first appeared in 1340 in Genoa (Beaujouan, 1963, p. 516). In parallel with the commercial interest in practical mathematics, the growing application of a variety of mechanical devices to manufacturing contributed to an interest in the representation of spatial relationships. The contributions of Leonardo da Vinci in this connection are well known.
A close relationship thereby developed between the artists and the artisans. This bond among those engaged in the arts and crafts continued to spread through Western Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Consisting of artist-engineers, painters, sculptors, and architects, builders of locks and canals, fortifications, and toolmakers, this group of practitioners, who themselves did not study questions of a scientific character, stimulated others to do so. A related group included the instrument-makers (who supplied navigators, geodesists, astronomers, and musicians with the instruments they needed), the clock-makers, the cartographers, and the military technicians. “Empirical knowledge did not have to be sought deliberately, but arose naturally from the pursuit of technical trades; the waiting was only for theoretical reflection, which, however, was helped by the fact that there is no single department of physics which calls more urgently for mathematical treatment and lends itself more naturally to it than mechanics. The first essential element of classical physics, the mathematical approach, thus came into its own as spontaneously as the second, the empirical foundation” (Dijksterhuis, 1969, p. 243).
The center of scholarship initially rested in the monasteries, later moving into the universities, themselves Church institutions. Interest in mathematics developed among Church scholars because the Church calculated the date of Easter by combining the lunar cycle with the solar year on the basis of the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the heavens. In the tenth century, the French monk Gerbert of Aurillac (who later became Pope Sylvester II) brought Hindu-Arabic numerals to Christian Europe from Spain. Gerbert also greatly simplified the methods for arithmetic computations. Within the Church, however, conflicts arose between the traditions of classical scholarship and the new approaches needed for the burgeoning crafts and trade.
The English monk Roger Bacon (1214?–1294) was among the first Europeans to recognize the need for empirical verification of theoretical knowledge: “Reasoning does not make a conclusion certain, unless the mind discover it by the method of experiment.” He also recognized the need to deal with nature quantitatively: “Nature cannot be known without mathematics” (Beaujouan, 1963, p. 492).
Francis Bacon (1561–1626) may be considered the first to have seen a direct dependence of science on technology. He called for scholars to place technology on a scientific foundation by familiarizing themselves with empirical knowledge accumulated in the crafts (Dijksterjuis, 1969, p. 401). The encyclopedia Bacon proposed was accomplished by Diderot and d'Alembert. By including descriptions of all tools and the methods of their fabrication and utilization, it conferred the status of knowledge and social dignity to that which up to that time was a matter of utility, of spontaneous empiricism (Fontenay, 1982)
1.10 From Feudalism to the Industrial Revolution in Europe
In the historical shift that initiated the most rapid growth in material production in history, the interaction among factors that stimulate or are stimulated by technological development may be seen clearly. Small-scale manufacturing continued to grow throughout Europe and North America, but developments in Britain took on a distinctive character that led to what became known as the Industrial Revolution.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, Britain's manufacturing and commerce, especially the slave-based sea trade in colonial products such as tea, sugar, and tobacco, were prospering. Perhaps one-tenth of all fixed investments other than real estate was in the maritime trade. Britain had several times the number of ships as France, its nearest competitor. The rural economy of Britain developed into a substantial system of cash incomes and sales; tenant farmers employed large numbers of farm laborers, unlike the predominantly subsistence-farming peasant households that persisted on the continent (Hobsbawm, 1968, pp. 10–19). Manufacturing spread throughout rural areas, the typical workers being village artisans or smallholders in their cottages making specific products, such as cloth, hosiery, or metal goods. With rapid urbanization and wood being in short supply (Gille, 1986, p. 590), the growth in the production of coal, primarily for heating and cooking, formed a substantial preindustrial base for subsequent industrial expansion (Galloway, 1969, ch. 4–5). Coal was the first industrial commodity to be produced at a rate of millions of tons a year (Hobsbawm, 1968, p. 31). Unlike on the continent, the large landowners, rather than the monarch, drew royalties from mining operations and had a direct interest in supporting village manufacturing, as well as canals and turnpikes to facilitate the sale of the goods produced. The British economy was thereby in a unique position to benefit from a major expansion in goods produced cheaply enough to be purchased by the middle classes, instead of the production of luxury goods for the wealthier strata as on the continent.
The main advantage of the preindustrial home market was its size and steadiness. “The domestic market may not have provided the spark, but it provided fuel and sufficient draught to keep it burning” (Hobsbawm, 1968, p. 32). The spark, according to Hobsbawm, was the export market. “Between 1700 and 1750 home industries increased their output by seven per cent, export industries by seventy-six percent; between 1750 and 1770 (which we may regard as the runway for the industrial ‘take-off') by another seven per cent and eighty per cent respectively. Industrial production increased—but foreign demand multiplied.”
Cotton manufacture was responsible for the bulk of the export trade. All raw material had to be imported and by the end of the eighteenth century, about two-thirds of the industry's output was exported. Prior to the 1760s, the spinning wheels could not supply enough yarn to keep pace with looms now employing the flying shuttle, introduced in 1733. A breakthrough came with the spinning jenny in 1765. Further improvements in spinning followed, leading finally to the fully mechanized spinning mule in 1777 (Gille, 1986, p. 624). Subsequent improvements in the machines increased the yarn yield per worker one hundredfold in relation to the spinning wheel. As the textile industry expanded, its machinery was increasingly driven by the steam engines made possible by James Watt's invention, although water power continued to be used when convenient. The widespread use of steam power made possible industrial activities in regions in which water power was not available. The entire technological basis of British manufacturing thereby shifted from water and wood to iron, coal, and steam.
The rapid advances of science and technology at this time were quickly absorbed by the various branches of manufacturing. The relatively simple technology required for cotton production, however, propelled the Industrial Revolution forward at an unprecedented rate without much interaction with science. The majority of the technological innovations were made by people closely involved with production—foremen, entrepreneurs, and skilled workers (Gille, 1986, p. 594). Scientific advance in eighteenth-century Britain came largely from societies established by craftsmen and industrialists, such as the Lunar Society of Birmingham and the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (Hill, 1967, p. 198). James Watt was an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, where he learned about Joseph Black's discoveries of latent heat. Bernoulli and Euler's work on ships no doubt influenced ship construction. It should not be forgotten, however, that Carnot's theoretical introduction of the cyclical engine came much later, in 1824, while the distinction between force and energy was not theoretically explained until the 1860s. In general, the sciences during the early years of the Industrial Revolution did not lead to direct results in design, but pinpointed quantitative relations that inventors and innovators could take into account in their empirical work.
The immediate result of the Industrial Revolution was great economic benefit for entrepreneurs and harm for workers. Mechanization of the textile industry threw large numbers of weavers out of work. The shift of the workplace into factories from rural cottages and homes destroyed this source of supplemental income. Wages were kept at subsistence levels. The shift to the cities was precipitous. In 1750, only London and Edinburgh had populations over 50,000. In 1851 there were twenty-nine cities with populations that big and nine with over 100,000. “And what cities! It was not merely that smoke hung over them and filth impregnated them, that the elementary public service—water supply, sanitation, street cleaning, open spaces, etc.—could not keep pace with the mass migration of men into the cities, thus producing, especially after 1830, epidemics of cholera, typhoid, and an appalling constant toll of the two great groups of urban killers—air pollution and water pollution, or respiratory and intestinal disease” (Hobsbawm, 1968, p. 67). As the industrial economy reached new heights quantitatively, qualitative changes in market relationships ushered in an era of cyclical economic crises of unprecedented depth. The first deep crises occurred in the 1810s, in response to which displaced textile workers directed their anger against the machines that replaced them. Crises occurred again in the 1830s, and again in the 1840s, leading to large-scale bankruptcies and high unemployment. The conditions of the laboring population were so harsh that advocates of slavery in North America argued that chattel slavery in the U.S. South was far more humane than wage slavery in Britain. In the 1850s, economists began to conclude that higher wages would put more money in circulation and thereby stimulate industrial production. Growing restiveness among the workers and their reliance on trade unions finally led to higher wages and reform in labor legislation.
Although the Industrial Revolution replaced many skilled workers with unskilled workers, a need arose for a literate segment in the work force able to read and follow somewhat complex instructions, read technical drawings, and perform calculations. Public primary education was therefore initiated in the first half of the nineteenth century in Britain, France, and the United States.
In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing moved into a central position in the dynamics of the national economies of Western Europe, Canada, and the United States, spreading to Japan late in the nineteenth century, bringing with it an infrastructure of transportation, raw material sources, fuel, and finance. Raw materials were secured domestically, from other industrialized lands, or from colonial and semicolonial possessions. The role of the national governments in securing, maintaining, and regulating these infrastructures increased greatly. As the size of the enterprises increased, the pattern of ownership also changed from single owners and partnerships to the corporate form. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, investment banks formed, acquired, or merged with industrial firms. These developments took place simultaneously in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Japan; the United States overtook Britain in industrial potential around 1900. Competition for sources of raw materials and foreign markets grew intense. The economic, political, and military subjugation of almost all of Africa, Asia (outside of Russia and Japan), Central and South America, the Pacific, and the Caribbean was essentially completed by 1910 in an atmosphere of great political and military rivalry among the industrial powers, a rivalry that sharpened the interest of national governments in military technology.
Industrial managers near the end of the nineteenth century were not as closely connected personally with technological development as formerly. Research and development laboratories arose within the individual enterprises (see PHYSICS AND TECHNOLOGY, HISTORY OF). The universities remained centers of theoretical research and of the experimental research that necessarily preceded it.
The introduction of the assembly line at the Ford factory in 1913 based on the time and motion studies of Frederick W. Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth had a profound social and economic impact. The organization of work on the assembly line broke up complex manufacturing operations into simple jobs that could be performed by a worker with little or no training. By 1926, seventy-nine percent of the Ford workers needed less than one to no more than eight days training (Gille, 1986, p. 1017). The economic success of this method of production led to its use wherever technologically feasible. The dehumanizing reduction of labor to essentially mindless tasks, already foreshadowed in the textile mills, reduced workers to appendages of machines, alienating their spirits from their hands and from the object of production. Assembly-line production continues to this day, but with increasing involvement of the workers in setting up and rotating tasks. Many big manufacturing plants are now experimenting with abandoning assembly lines altogether.
From the seventeenth century on, scientific research tended to concentrate in academic institutions, while technological research and development was conducted largely in private industry, but this has become less true since the midtwentieth century. As the time between scientific discovery and technological innovation decreased, technology became increasingly dependent on science for its innovations. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the dominant view is that science is the primary stimulant to technological development and not the reverse.
Prior to the eighteenth century, no fundamental distinction was made between scientific knowledge and philosophy. The advances in physics, especially Newton's mechanics, stimulated the separation. The theoretical structure of Newton's mechanics is that of the hypothetico-deductive model employed by Euclid. The clearly empirical character of Euclid's postulates and axioms had not been understood, even in Newton's time. The simplicity of the axioms and their fewness of number continually stimulated the quest to find a logical basis for their origin, somewhat reminiscent of today's quest for a grand unification.
Kant (1966) proposed a compromise. Certain kinds of knowledge need not be demonstrated; logic, geometry, and time, for example, exist prior to and independently of material things. Knowledge about the material world is acquired through our senses. How does one identify a priori knowledge, however, since if it cannot be proved, it must be asserted? John Stuart Mill straddled the issue: “Axioms are but a class, the most universal class, of inductions from experience; the simplest and easiest cases of generalization from the facts furnished to us by our senses and by our internal consciousness” (Mill, 1904, p. 187).
Two logical problems immediately arise with what on the surface appears to be the experimental or empirical basis of Mill's view. One is the logical basis of facts furnished by our internal consciousness—this can only be a return to the Kantian a priori. The other is the source of the sensual stimuli that produce the “facts furnished to us by our senses.”
Francis Bacon had already recognized the need to put technology on a scientific basis by incorporating technological experiences into scientific investigation. The early nineteenth-century philosopher Hegel (1969) saw (without pursuing its logical consequences in detail) that properties of space and time are not independent of, but originate with, matter. Riemann, confronted first with the non-Euclidian geometry of Lobachevsky and Bolyai, and then with his own, concluded that only experiment would establish the validity of a geometrical system.
Though known, perhaps, as the leading nineteenth-century proponent of philosophical idealism, Hegel uncharacteristically took a very earthy approach to technology by asserting the importance of means in relation to the ends: “The means is superior to the finite ends of external purposiveness: the plough is more honourable than are immediately the enjoyments procured by it and which are ends. The tool lasts, while the immediate enjoyments pass away and are forgotten. In his tools man possesses power over external nature, even though in respect of his ends he is, on the contrary, subject to it” (Hegel, 1976, p. 747). Thus, in Hegel's view, the ends are established through human reason, but this reason is transcended by the technology created to procure the ends and which can continue to be employed for other ends. Hegel here begins what might be called the praxis philosophy, according to which practical activity of humans serves as the ultimate source of their technology and science.
Karl Marx, the first to incorporate technology philosophically into a world outlook, never explicitly identifies the philosophy of technology in what came to be known as his materialist conception of history. In Marx's scheme, the primary motor of societal evolution is the development of the productive forces, by which he means natural resources, raw materials, implements and tools, and human labor. Implied, although not mentioned explicitly, is the technological and scientific knowledge associated with productive processes. Technological development, that is, the development of the productive forces, proceeds under more or less stable relations of production, which Marx equates with the dominant form of property relations associated with the use of the productive forces. He then projects that an incompatibility ultimately arises between the productive forces and the property relations so that property relations cannot be kept stable. Social revolution, to Marx, is simply the resolution of this incompatibility through a relatively rapid change in the dominant property relations. Thus, Marx (1987) explains the evolution of society from its early forms of communal property through slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and ultimately communism. A critical point of Marx's theoretical position is that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” The technological implications of this are profound, because production relations are not limited to property relations. People engaged in production also have technological relations of production to the tools and the object of production and to one another when several people work together. It is therefore the productive activity of human beings that ultimately shapes their understanding of their relations to the material world around them and of the entire complex of social relations that they have to one another.
Such a view of the relationship between existence and consciousness leads Leonard Goldstein to attribute the changes in the way the Renaissance artists viewed space to the need to understand the spatial relationships for the design and use of large machines driven by natural power and for manufacturing processes involving the coordinated labor of a group of workers. Goldstein notes that linear perspective depicts the view grasped by the eye of an individual observer. He identifies the source of this one-point view as a reflection of the individualism that is necessarily shaped by vigorous activity of the ownership of a successful enterprise (Goldstein, 1988).
A propensity to mechanical innovation has sometimes been seen as a character trait common in some nations; Marx, however, would look rather to the conditions motivating people to engage in production as the stimulus for innovation. One source of motivation is production to meet one's own needs for direct consumption; another is the production of commodities for exchange for other commodities for direct consumption. Still another, and this is the principal characteristic of the capitalist economy, is the production of commodities for exchange at a profit on a continuing basis. Since the goal is accumulation, not consumption, the appetite for profit is insatiable and technological improvements will help feed it. Marx regards technological development as intrinsically neutral, but leading to property relationships that provide the social dynamic. “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist” (Marx, 1935, p. 355). Fundamentally, Marx was not a critic of the application of technology or of the various types of social inequality that he associated with given levels of technological development. His radicalism was associated with his conviction that the level of the productive capacity under capitalism had reached a point where the market relations produced a conflict between distribution and consumption that manifested itself in periodic economic crises, that these crises would become deeper and deeper, and that public ownership, as distinct from private ownership, of capital resources was the next stage of the socioeconomic evolutionary process that began with the appearance of the surplus product. He is often incorrectly characterized as a technological determinist. If this were the case, he would not have had to assume the role of a political radical. He did so because he rejected Laplacian determinism in regard to the human spirit, so that he did not consider that the radical social consciousness necessary to bring about this next social transformation would emerge spontaneously, but required a political movement to bring it about, even if history was on its side.
In 1877, the term philosophy of technology appears first in the title of a German work, Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik by Ernst Kapp, who was strongly influenced by Hegel's concept of history being the realization of the Idea. He wrote that human beings using their first tools, their hands, in producing their first works became historical human beings progressing toward self-consciousness (Kapp, 1877, p. 39).
The goal of technology as a field of human endeavor is, like science, not the same for all its practitioners. For some, the “tinkerers,” it can be an end in itself, just as mathematicians will sometimes say that they are interested only in the beauty of the logic and do not care if their work has any practical use. On the other hand, it is rare for successful tinkerers to neglect patenting the results of their tinkering.
The empiricist view of John Stuart Mill was further refined by the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach and, subsequently, further developed by a group of scientists and philosophers known as the Vienna Circle into what became the most influential school of philosophy of science in the first half of the twentieth century, logical positivism. According to this view, in its application to physics, “quantities such as the charge, temperature, mass, and length of a body are defined as the objective results of certain prescribed operations that can be carried out in the laboratory. . . . This operational viewpoint is the basis of this philosophy.” Further, “physical laws are relationships between operationally defined quantities that always occur when certain experiments are performed” (Halliday, 1955, pp. 4–5).
In the logical positivist view, the question of the source of our sense impressions or observations is meaningless, since there is no operational way of establishing existence of objects external to us. The attractiveness of logical positivism to the scientist is its apparent rejection of speculative activity. The practical task of scientific theory is to provide correlations between observational data.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the logical problems connected with operational definitions began to lead to their demise. One objection, for example, was that an operational definition of a field would require an infinite set of measurements. Another objection was that no two instruments are identical and no two measurements by the same instrument of infinite precision would be identical; therefore each act of measurement would produce its own unique operational definition. It can be argued that operational definitions are means for standardizing scales of measurement of physical properties, the meaning of which arise from the laws that embrace them.
With the collapse of logical positivism, scientific realism rose to the fore. Realism itself is not one particular philosophical current but a category of approaches to what is often called the mind-body problem. Realism, in general, recognizes the relative independence of our ideas from that which exists outside our minds. At the same time, realism does not necessarily exclude the dependence of one on the other. Some realist philosophies may give primacy to the world of ideas in the sense that it is ideas that ultimately engender the world outside our minds, while others can argue that it is the world outside our minds that ultimately gives rise to our ideas, allowing for various degrees of this dependence.
According to Don Ihde, philosophy of science has been historically linked to the three prejudices that he associates with a theory bias that affects the attitude toward technology. The first goes back to Greek antiquity, according to which “the aim of highest humanity was, in effect to achieve the deepest knowledge and, once attained, meditate upon it.” The second is more recent and holds that modern technology is both essentially different from all ancient or traditional technologies, and therefore in some fundamental sense, “better.” The third prejudice is the belief that modern technology differs from all previous technology in that it is derived from modern science (Ihde, 1993, p. 20). Ihde cites the Platonic view, reflected by Aristotle, which holds that anything associated with the body and the material is inferior to the realm of ideas and forms, the latter being associated with the mind or soul.
Philosophical attention to technological concerns grew slowly during the first half of the twentieth century. Among the important commentators on the question were Friedrich Dessauer (1927), Ernst Jünger (1932), and José Ortega y Gasset (1941). Renewed interest developed after World War II, stimulated at first by the social, political, and economic concerns resulting from nuclear weapons. Simultaneous with the introduction of nuclear technology was the beginning of the computer age, large-scale application of electronic computers having begun during World War II in connection with coupling artillery (naval and land) to radar.
One work that attracted immediate attention was an essay by Martin Heidegger (1953), “The Question Concerning Technology.” Heidegger begins his discussion of technology by pointing to the inadequacies today of the earlier instrumental and anthropological definitions of technology, the instrumental definition being the means to achieve particular ends, while the anthropological definition refers to the human activities employing these means. He thinks that it is necessary to go beyond these definitions to arrive at a deeper understanding of the relationship between humans and the technology they employ. This is because as humans attempt to control technology and bring it spiritually within their power, it continually slips through their fingers no matter how hard they try. It is necessary, above all, to distinguish modern technology from past technologies. What is fundamentally different in modern technology is that it views both nature and human labor as a continually available and extendible standing reserve whose possibilities confront humanity as a challenge for further disclosure or uncovering. Modern technology challenges and stockpiles the sun's warmth stored in coal “for heat, which in turn is ordered to deliver steam whose pressure turns the wheels that keep a factory running” (Heidegger, 1977, p. 15). The windmill of classical technology is of a different character. “Its sails do indeed turn in the wind; they are left entirely to the wind's blowing. But the windmill does not unlock energy from the air currents in order to store it” (1977, p. 14). “The gathering together of that setting-upon that sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing reserve” is the way of revealing “which holds sway in the essence of modern technology and which is itself nothing technological” (p. 20).
Modern and classical technology are both ways of disclosure (or uncovering), but only in modern technology are humans challenged to this uncovering. This already occurred with the development of physics as an exact science, on which modern technology is based (p. 21). Heidegger, however, does not see science as the primary stimulant of technology. He points out that modern physics involves experiment and is therefore dependent on the development and application of technical apparatus. Since the essence of technology lies in the uncovering process that constitutes technological activity, technology must be seen as applying natural science, rather than being considered as applied natural science (1977, p. 14).
Heidegger sees the main danger from modern technology not so much in the threats of environmental disasters resulting from its applications but in human beings surrendering themselves to what is technologically revealed and being absorbed into the revealed technology all the while believing that they are the masters and in full control of the earth. This is the illusion generated by looking at the technological world merely as a collection of objects and means to be set in motion by human activity, and it is this viewpoint that threatens to reduce humans themselves to a mere standing reserve. It is not enough to acquaint oneself with external objects and the relations among them, including their relationships to humans themselves. It is necessary to be conscious of how our own being is grounded in the complex of relationships among ourselves and the objects around us. An airplane is not merely an object of a given shape and construction. When revealed, it is a standing reserve for the transportation of people and goods, and to fulfill this role, it must be fully appropriate in structure and readied for flight. It needs airports from which to take off and land, and these airports must be planned for and constructed by persons who do not necessarily travel in the planes, etc. Heidegger argues that this type of understanding is necessary before we can do anything to dispel the illusion that humans are the masters of the world, and uncover the paths to reverse the domination that technology maintains.
By his repeated stress on the concept of uncovering, Heidegger in essence projects an a priori character onto that which can be uncovered. Moreover, he regards continual involvement in technological uncovering as human destiny, but not in a deterministic way. The danger of technology that he sees is therefore that people see themselves challenged to uncover technology in a one-sided way, a way that contributes to their virtual enslavement by technology and obliterates any free will. He sees human destiny to be the confrontation of the challenge for technological uncovering and thus has to reject the possibility of abandoning technological development. Rather he calls for the implementation of human free will to proceed along a path of technological uncovering “that in no way confines us to a stultified compulsion to push on blindly with technology or, what comes to the same thing, to rebel hopelessly against it and curse it as the work of the devil” (1977, p. 26). Heidegger does not, however, see this enactment of human “free claim” as a purely human undertaking. That which is there to be uncovered was not put there by human beings. This last point underscores the essentially mystical character of Heidegger's philosophy, since the human response to an objectively existing situation will be indifferent to the process by which this objective situation arose if no knowledge of its supposed purpose, assuming there was one, is available.
Heidegger's a priori concept of technology was disputed by Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man (1964). “The technological a priori is a political a priori inasmuch as the transformation of nature involves that of man, and inasmuch as the ‘man-made creations' issue from and re-enter a society ensemble” (p. 154). Marcuse saw the inherent rationality of modern technology as a source of human enslavement. “Scientific management and scientific division of labor vastly increased the productivity of the economic, political, and cultural enterprise. Result: the higher standard of living. At the same time and on the same ground, this rational enterprise produced a pattern of mind and behavior that justified and absolved even the most destructive and oppressive features of the enterprise. Scientific-technical rationality and manipulation are welded together into new forms of social control” (1964, p. 146). Marcuse criticizes the harm done by relying on positivist criteria in assessing technological performance. What is quantitatively measurable is profit and efficiency, not the toll in human suffering.
The views of another important writer on technology, Jacques Ellul, continue to be influential today. According to Ellul's summary of his own views (1983), first expressed in his book The Technological Society (1964), technology replaces nature by creating the specific milieu in which humans must exist. Technology thus becomes artificial, autonomous with respect to values, ideas, and the state, self-determining, growing in a process that is causal, but directed to ends. “It is incorrect to say that economics, politics, and the sphere of the cultural are influenced or modified by Technique; they are rather situated in it, a novel situation modifying all traditional social concepts. Politics, for example, is not modified by Technique as one factor among others that operate upon it; the political world is today defined through its relation to the technological society. Traditionally, politics formed a part of a larger social whole; at the present the converse is the case” (1983, p. 86). Ellul argues that technological progress is in itself neither good nor bad. “The fact is that, viewed objectively, technological progress produces values of unimpeachable merit, while simultaneously destroying values no less important. As a consequence it cannot be maintained that there is absolute progress or absolute regress” (p. 98). In summary, Ellul maintains that all technological progress exacts a price, raising more problems than it solves, pernicious and generally unforeseeable effects being inseparable from its favorable effects. The technological society cannot not be a humanist one. There is a contradiction between technological perfection and human development because technological perfection “is only to be achieved through quantitative development and necessarily aims exclusively at what is measurable. Human excellence, on the contrary, is of the domain of the qualitative and aims at what is not measurable” (p. 90). Ellul sees no escape from this situation. “There is no possibility of turning back, of annulling, or even arresting technical progress. What is done is done. It is our duty to find our place in our present situation and in no other” (p. 91).
The most widely read contemporary philosopher of technology is Landon Winner (1977, 1986), who also focuses on the theme of the autonomous character of technology, viewing it as self-moving and self-evolving according to its own laws. Megatechnical systems like the electric power system dominate humanity by exerting demands for their own maintenance. Humans can monitor and guard the system against destruction and deterioration or introduce innovations to improve its efficiency, but are unable to replace it by another. “We indeed ‘use' telephones, automobiles, electric lights, and computers in the conventional sense of picking them up and putting them down. But our world soon becomes one in which telephony, automobility, electric lighting, and computing are forms of life in the most powerful sense: life would scarcely be thinkable without them” (1986, p. 11).
In the 1950s and 1960s, the environmental hazards associated with the unrestricted development of nuclear and chemical technologies became evident. Problems also arose in connection with the disposal of nuclear and toxic chemical waste. The growing quantity of nonbiodegradable plastic waste created additional problems. The growing integration of electric power systems into national and even international networks generated the threat of a national and international catastrophe from a major breakdown in the electrical grid. With the development of supertankers, ecological disasters produced by oil spills became a reality. Standing above all other threats facing humanity was that of nuclear war. These developments stimulated a number of philosophers to focus their attention on the scientific and societal implications of contemporary technological development. Philosophy of technology, which hitherto was generally limited to sporadic study by philosophers primarily interested in other areas, emerged as a field of specialization within philosophy, with international organizations and publications.
One set of strategies put forward, according to Ihde (1993, pp. 119–27), to deal with environmental issues involves returning to some previous lower level of technology or to minimalist technologies. Ihde argues that such a strategy would produce social disruption as well as an immediate drastic worldwide decline in population comparable to times of vast warfare and plagues.
An ameliorationist set of strategies accepts high-technology developments, but turns them into regional and decentralized modes for such activities as food and energy production. Ihde believes that such strategies can only have limited success, since the rate of technological change outpaces the possibilities of such alternative strategies.
The third set of strategies Ihde calls hi-tech reformist. Solutions to the problems of continued technological development are to be provided by miniaturization, clean-up technologies, and alternate energy production. These strategies require a centralized administration and planning on an international scale and continual technological development of “clean” solutions. Efforts to deal with global problems must be approached with a multicultural perspective and, according to Ihde, a holistic view of the interconnections of technology, environment, and nature.
Modern technology is now capable of eradicating human life on earth through a number of separate paths. The most obvious has been through nuclear war. Although the principal sources of political tension that posed this threat were removed at the beginning of the 1990s, production and maintenance of nuclear weapons continues. New sources of political tension may emerge and pose the threat of nuclear war once again. Further development of chemical and biological weapons may bring them to the point that they pose the same scale of danger to human existence as nuclear weapons.
Scientists in the United States are divided over the question of nuclear power, although a majority of physicists probably believe that current technologies carry an unacceptable risk of nuclear disaster. The potential danger from commercial application of genetic engineering, which began on a significant scale in the 1980s, is twofold. Unanticipated effects of scale may occur—that is, harmful effects appearing only when artificially created genetic strains are available in much larger quantities and concentrations than in the research and development stage. The second danger is of accidental release of harmful organisms. Richard Leakey has pointed out how fortunate it is for humanity that the AIDS virus is not transmitted through sneezing. What if an accidental release occurred of some potentially lethal experimental microorganism capable of such rapid transmission?
The most commonly acknowledged threat to human existence at present is from industrial chemicals. International agreements designed to halt the release of chemical agents that destroy ozone in the upper atmosphere are now in effect. No international agency, however, has the authority to act independently to meet other dangers as they arise; each hazard requires a separate international agreement. Differences in the assessment of dangers arising among different countries, based on political and economic pressures rather than scientific considerations, may prevent averting the ultimate disaster.
Between 1700 and the end of World War II, industrialized countries pursued economic policies denying the export of technology. The breakup of the colonial systems, increasing resistance in the Third World to such imperialistic policies, and export of capital seeking lower wage scales are now bringing technological development to previously underdeveloped regions. Global resource and environmental crises loom, such as the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests. As the peoples of these countries aspire to the level of commodity consumption that they see in the industrialized countries, the potential for international conflicts is obvious.
An area of crisis limited to the industrialized countries is the growth of unemployment as a result of automation, robotization, and computerization of industrial and office work. The still-growing replacement of metal and wood by the less labor-intensive polymers in manufacturing and construction exacerbates this problem. In the early 1990s, over a period that is not usually characterized as a time of deep economic crisis, unemployment in the industrialized countries of Europe was often above ten percent, while in the United States (with less strict statistical measures for unemployment), unemployment held at about six percent. While the financial consequences of this unemployment can be offset in part by social insurance and social welfare programs, the shifting of skilled labor into unskilled labor at lower pay as well as threatened future displacement for those not yet affected has spread insecurity among employees in all income levels.
The source of these problems lies outside of technology itself, in the driving force behind the application of technology. The application of technology to production is not stimulated directly by the need for products, but by the profit that can be made from the sale of products that satisfy real or imagined needs. The “unseen hand” that classical laissez-faire economics saw balancing economic life seems no longer to function. Various degrees of economic regulation and intervention by the state have been introduced into otherwise free-market economies. Marx suggested that such measures would not eliminate the business cycle with its growing swings of prosperity and depression and that the solution would lie in replacing production for profit by production for need, displacing private ownership of the capital resources by public ownership and planned utilization of these resources. The effort to establish such a system on a wide scale beginning in the U.S.S.R. in 1917, extending to Eastern Europe and China and some other countries in the 1940s and later, collapsed completely in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. It has survived in modified form in the less-industrialized countries of China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba, where various mixtures of market and planned economies are being tried. Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban leaders attribute the European collapse to the extreme bureaucratization of political and economic life and excessive centralization of the economic planning mechanisms. Whether they can produce different results is still to be seen.
As long as economies function within a capitalist framework, technological development must proceed, for the inanimate corporation or its animate principal stockholders cannot consume all profits from a successful year of activity, but must continually reinvest them on an expanding scale. Global environmental and resource problems must ultimately be solved by limiting reinvestments in material production to levels that can be technologically tolerated. Expansion of economic activity in directions that minimally absorb material resources offers at present a partial solution to the problem. Commodities and services that take largely nonmaterial forms, such as computer software and artistic production, are of this character. Perhaps the welfare of humanity in the immediate future lies in the expansion of the range of such activities.
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