Research by historian Howard Segal shows that the future is not —
nor has it ever been — shaped by technological advances alone
For historian Howard Segal, claims by
today's high-tech gurus and political pundits that technology is
transforming the world like never before are based on a lack of
understanding of what the world was like before.
Segal has specialized in the history of technology and the history of
science for more than 20 years. That perspective gives him insights into
how today's technologies, such as the Web and computers, are affecting
society in ways that are not so very different from the way railroads,
telephones, electricity and assembly lines, for example, changed the
world in earlier generations. However, he says, people today
increasingly think of technology as more of a mixed blessing than, as in
the past, a panacea for all of society's ills.
"If one believes countless newspapers and magazines, television and
radio programs, and Web sites and Internet discussions, not only are
endless high-tech advances all the rage, but those advances are rapidly
transforming American society, and generally for the better. As these
sources repeatedly insist, Americans have never seen so much
technological change in so short a time and have rarely been so
optimistic about the future. These repeated assertions are simply
wrong," says Segal, the Adelaide and Alan Bird Professor of History at
the University of Maine.
In addition, Segal says, these optimistic assertions are obscuring the
need for reasoned debate about the type of technology that he believes
is unprecedented in history: biotechnology.
Biotechnology encompasses a wide range of developments, from stem cell
research and genetically modified foods to gene therapy and cloning.
What distinguishes biotechnology from all prior technologies is that, at
least in theory, it could literally change human nature. All prior
technological advances, and all utopian visions based upon them,
presumed the need to create effective means of improving — or tempering
— human nature, which was generally conceded to be imperfect and
incapable of eventual perfection (however defined).
"If you eventually have people being created in other than conventional
means, it clearly raises all sorts of questions about morality and
responsibility — along with possibly redefining gender roles in
reproduction," Segal says.
In his research, Segal considers technological advances and their
consequences for society, as well as people's attitudes about
technology. Reasonably accurate public opinion polls did not exist
before the 1940s, but Segal finds evidence about people's attitudes
about technology in newspaper and magazine stories, editorials and
letters to editors, speeches, sermons, worker and labor union
publications, and historical, literary and travel writing. Particularly
rich sources for Americans' hopes and fears about technology are utopian
and science fiction literature.
Segal has published widely on these topics, including the books
Technological Utopianism in American Culture; Future Imperfect: The
Mixed Blessings of Technology in America, Technology in America: A Brief
History (with Alan Marcus of Iowa State University); and the forthcoming
Recasting the Machine Age: Henry Ford's Village Industries. He is
currently working on The Wave of the Future: High-Tech Utopias.
"I'm not denying that the technological advances that are supposedly
transforming the world are important. But shaping the world is a more
complicated process than can be accounted for by these technologies
alone," he says. "Pre-existing values, cultures, economies, social
structures and political systems create the conditions for acceptance or
rejection of new technologies. Moreover, the contemporary
computerization of the world may have profound effects, but it is
questionable whether the older transportation and communications
advances — from canals to airplanes, telegraphs to electricity — were
any less crucial in their day than these. Indeed, the recollections of
countless Americans who lived through these earlier technological
developments invariably emphasize the sense of momentous change in their
lives and their communities over a mere decade or two."
However, Segal says, earlier generations' attitudes about technology
were more likely to be uncritically positive than they are today.
Historically, most Americans assumed that technological advance equaled
social progress and, ultimately, a better world. With great fanfare,
Americans marked the anniversaries of events such as the building of the
transcontinental railroad, the linking of the telephone from the East to
West coasts, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the production
of the first Ford Model T.
The high watermark of American faith in technology was the landing of a
man on the moon, Segal says.
"When Kennedy in 1961 committed the United States to landing an American
on the moon, there was a pervasive national sense that it would be worth
it, whatever the cost. There were a lot of simple assertions that this
event would transform the world, bringing peoples and nations together.
But once Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin landed on the
moon, and the world wasn't transformed in the years after, there was a
predictable sense of ‘where do we go from here?'"
"It's instructive to consider the celebrations of the 25th anniversary
of the moon landing. They were much more subdued than those earlier
celebrations of other technological achievements, and there was almost
an indifference, or disappointment, that it wasn't the transformative
event it was supposed to have been," Segal says.
Major factors that have contributed to Americans' growing skepticism
about technology are technology-related environmental crises, repeated
disappointments over nuclear power and other alleged technological
panaceas, and distrust of both public officials and technical experts
growing out of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, Segal says.
But the increasing mistrust doesn't mean that people have never had
their doubts about technology, or, more specifically, the ability to
For Segal, these concerns are reflected in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
(1818). While scholars have often interpreted the book as a wholesale
condemnation of the advance of science, Segal argues that it is rather a
cautionary tale against pursuing scientific objectives without regard
for their moral consequences. As such, the book's message is ever more
timely today as society confronts the moral dilemmas posed by
In an article in a recent issue of the international journal Nature,
Segal writes that "what actually troubles Shelley about the scientist
Victor Frankenstein is not so much his quest to discover the cause of
‘generation and life' but rather the secretive, self-centered and
finally self-destructive manner in which he pursues this primitive form
of physiological engineering. . . . As Shelley understood, a truly mad
scientist might escape moral responsibility for his actions."
Today, when the prospect of creating human life in the laboratory has
moved from the realm of fantasy to that of possibility or even
probability, it's more important than ever to keep scientific and
technological experiments open to external scrutiny.
"The big issue is who makes the decisions about the way biotechnology
advances. The people, or elected officials, may not have the expertise
to make informed decisions. And the experts may have biases, depending
on their sources for funding," Segal says.
According to Segal, it's up to us to recognize how complex and difficult
a relationship technology has with society, and to seek to understand
its consequences — both good and bad — instead of waiting to be
delivered by technology.
"Simple-minded assertions that technology is transforming the world give
a false assurance that we can look into a technological crystal ball and
everything in the future will be all right. In the case of
biotechnology, it's such a difficult issue that it could be tempting for
people to seek easy answers, and let others take the burden and make the
"People should try and stay in touch with the developments in
biotechnology, know what's going on, and communicate with their elected
officials, if necessary," Segal says. Thanks to the Internet and the
much-vaunted unprecedented access to knowledge, this is hardly as
challenging as it otherwise might have been.
Americans' increasing skepticism about all forms of technology could
provide a solid foundation for building the safeguards that would keep
biotechnology in check. Segal says that those skeptical attitudes were
reinforced after Sept. 11, 2001.
"Notwithstanding the inevitable post-Sept. 11 stress on developing new
technological devices for combating terrorism, one has not seen the
grassroots love affair with high-tech weapons that was so apparent as
recently as the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Investigations after that war
into the actual performance of military technology eventually
demonstrated a gap between rhetoric and reality. In the case of Sept.
11, conflicting ideologies, not technology — be it primitive knives and
box cutters or modern airplanes — would eventually be deemed the
principal culprit," Segal says.
Genuine progress is linked not to the latest technology, but to
Americans' more nuanced conceptions of technology's value and
limitations, he says. "Those Americans who are not seduced by
questionable prophecies and shallow sound bites are beginning to
understand that there's a profound difference between technology as a
means to an end and an end in itself. It's not stark pessimism, but
rather a healthy skepticism about unadulterated technological advance."
by Gladys Ganiel
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.