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March / April 2003

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Transforming Technology

Illustration by Michael Mardosa

Transforming Technology
Research by historian Howard Segal shows that the future is not — nor has it ever been — shaped by technological advances alone

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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 harness it.

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 biotechnology.

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 decisions.

"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
March-April, 2003

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