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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

I remember talking with a friend some fifty years ago about the problems faced by India and the Indians.  There had been some discussion in the newspapers about the hunger and the health of the people there.  I mentioned that India was potentially a wealthy country with good soil and probably great mineral resources unexploited.

“What they need most,”  I ventured, “Is the technology to farm economically and to dig for minerals.  They need factories to manufacture their own machines.”
“But, don’t you see,” my friend replied, “That the very last thing India needs is more advanced technology.”
“Why so?” I asked.
“Because the one thing that India is undoubtedly rich in is people.  By merely introducing more powerful technology, you will deprive the people of useful work to do.”

Also, his case was that the use of technology to increase the food supply would surely lead to an explosion in the population ; and even the new technology would be unable to satisfy the people’s needs. So, one way or another, powerful technology would lead to a growing number of unemployed people ; and that would lead to trouble.  “Better,” he said, “To find more efficient ways of employing people to do the hard work.”

We discussed the matter to some length, and I had to admit that his arguments made good sense.  I had to admit that my youthful enthusiasm for clever machinery began to wane a little at that moment.  I came to realize that technology is not an unalloyed benefit to civilised people.  A country where a large proportion of the people are effectively paid to be unemployed, while machines do the work, is heading for trouble.  The Devil really does make work for idle hands.  And there would be all kinds of unintended consequences.

Over the years I have also come to realize that the technology problem is not just India’s ; it applies to many developing countries.  And it doesn’t just apply to developing countries, it also applies to us.  How many unemployed and under-educated young men and women do we have?  How many of the jobs, that they might be doing, have been made redundant by technology?  Does the Devil find work for at least some of those idle hands? (metaphorically speaking, of course).

So, when we look for idle hands seeking something to do, we do not have to confine our gaze to places like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain ; we could look farther afield.  And we could even look under our own noses.

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Having been in engineering for most of my life, I have also found the attractions of science to be almost irresistible.  There is something neat about it.  The scientist begins by making an observation and proceeds to ascertain the causes of it.  After many such investigations, and when sufficient data has been accumulated, he then feels confident enough to propose a law which will account for his observations.  And, using that law, he then feels able to make some predictions of a more general nature.

Let me say at once that I see nothing wrong with this method.  It is, after all, the foundation a good deal of our technology ; and that technology can be seen to work.  The weakness of science does not lie in its method but in attitudes towards it.  The method has proved so successful that it has seduced many into believing that it is the only valid method of describing the natural world.  So successful has it been that many, perhaps the majority, of people pour scorn on any attempt to devise another.  This is especially true, I think, of the people of the West.  But there are objections to it, and there are many of them, so they will need to be severely summarised.

In the first place, science investigates the causes of natural events ; but there is no mention of purposes.  A scientist will perhaps tell us what happens, but is silent on why a thing happens.  A scientist will tell us of a natural physical law, but offers no opinion on why the law exists.  Also there is the question of what is observed.  Out of all the events occurring in an experimental condition, only certain of them are selected for observation.  Thus science deals with abstractions, with simplicities ; and by its nature is partial in the data it considers worthy of investigation.

So, all in all, science as it is done now is successful in what it attempts to do ; but its methods are limiting and, therefore, it cannot offer more than an abstract view of the world.  Therefore it cannot provide complete knowledge of nature, however hard it tries.

The physicist, AN Whitehead offered this insight : science is the application of commonsense to an idealised world.  But the world is not ideal ; it is not a laboratory ; and there is much going on in nature that science knows nothing of.

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A short while ago, there was a great debate going on about the stupendously expensive CERN experiment, which was about to take a serious turn at that time.  Much was said about many things in the public debate ; but one item that caught my attention was a remark apparently made by Prof. Stephen Hawking.  The Daily Telegraph reported him as saying that the CERN experiment is “vital if the human race is not to stultify and eventually die out.”

In its wisdom, the Daily Telegraph did not quote Hawking’s reasons for this extraordinary statement, but we can imagine what they might be.  For embedded in that statement we will surely find the sentiment that it is important that the human race survive.  But what does he mean by survive?  For a century?  for ten thousand years?  for ever?

Also we might address the question of why the race ought to survive?  The notion of ‘ought’ is appealing to some high standard of judgement – but this standard is unstated.  Why ‘ought’ we to survive?  Who says?  If we take nature as our higher authority, then what we know about extinct species suggests that she doesn’t give a tinker’s cuss about which species survive.  If we take ourselves as the higher authority, then we see that Hawking is merely indulging a kind of quirky selfish wish.

I would have thought that if we were to show a genuine concern for the future of the human race, we could start a lot closer to home than with a £5 billion boys’ toy under the magic Swiss mountain.  We could, for example, stop polluting the earth ; we could make a resolution to leave our children a finer educational legacy : we could build better buildings – ones that have some merit.  There are a thousand things we could do other than waste resources on atomic ping-pong.

And then we could turn attention to the fruits of the Great Con CERN.  Hawking fondly imagines that the outcome will be some really powerful technology.  And this technology will be all for the good.  In other words, it will be morally different from any technology that went before.  There will be no downsides to it.

One can only admire the Professor’s optimism.  Those who do not study and understand history are condemned to repeat it.  Most of the world’s new environmental problems are caused by technology ; the more powerful the techniques, then generally the graver the problem.  Why ought the fruits of CERN be any different?

It seems to me that we have quite enough technology in the world already.  I am not against technology, but rational people are able to discern when enough is enough.

On the other hand, I may be unfair to Hawking and the CERN enthusiasts.  It might be the case that they are thinking of humanity in a new way ; they might perhaps be thinking of a new kind of science and a new kind of technology.  In which case I might well agree with them.  But there was nothing in the Telegraph report to suggest these things.

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The way people think about the world has changed since the scientific/technological revolution began.  And the change has not only altered our perception of the material world, but also of ourselves.

The modern perception of the material world has brought considerable benefits in the form of technology, and that is because we tend overwhelmingly to see Nature as a machine ;  the galaxies, the stars and planets, the Earth and all the things in it are seen as mechanical.  That is to say, nature ‘works’ by objects acting upon other objects.  The essence of this working is that a change in the state of anything is brought about by external means.  And our technology is modelled on this ; our invented machines mimic natural machines.

As one eighteenth century scientist observed, “What is a cow but a machine for turning grass into milk?”.  His idea was to make this machine, the cow, as efficient as possible.  Now there is no doubt that living creatures can be perceived as machines.  To settle any doubts, one has only to consider surgery and dentistry ; and medicine, too, is largely the application of external influences to the body/machine.

But has our fixation on science and technology led us to believe that people themselves are nothing but machines?  Certainly medical science makes that assertion.  It is not overstating things to say that going to the doctor’s nowadays is like going to the garage to have one’s car fixed.  The entirely physical diagnosis is made, and the treatment (the fix) is decided on solely on that basis.  And that treatment is physical.  From the beginning to the end, the patient is treated as a machine.

Very well.  But the question still remains ; is a person nothing but a machine?  The answer to that question has some notable consequences.  For example, if governments were to perceive people as mere machines, then what objection can be raised to their implementing far-reaching social engineering programmes?  Such programmes would, of course, be devized by the best experts on the human machine – politicians, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, police officers, social workers and so forth.

Does this sound far fetched?  Well, just look at what is happening around you now.

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