Chapter 8
The Technological Fix

A society dominated by scientism is a society that looks first, and sometimes only, for a technological fix for every challenge that confronts it.

8.1  Science and technology

As we've seen, science is intimately related to technology in the first place because science is precisely the kind of knowledge that gives rise to technology. Technology requires that the world respond to the application of controlling and manipulating influences in a reproducible way. The basis of technology is just this reliable response. And technology is the most convincing demonstration of the reality of scientific knowledge. Science is persuasive in the modern world not because of some theoretical argument that shows it to have particular methods or approaches that are guaranteed to yield objective knowledge, but because it gives rise to understanding that works. Nothing so convincingly demonstrates human understanding of compressible fluid dynamics as to fly in a Boeing 747. A laser pointer that can shine with exquisite focus for hundreds of meters is a palpable demonstration that we really understand light, and the quantum mechanics that governs its emission. There is no more convincing proof of our understanding of bacterial diseases than to experience the dramatic cure by penicillin of an otherwise fatal infection. No intellectual argument has anything like the impact of useful technology.
The intimate relationship between science and technology has existed since the scientific revolution. Before it, the technologies, `Arts' as they were called, existed primarily in the craft guilds who practiced and made their livelihoods from technical skills that were passed on largely by apprenticeship and inheritance. Although we today might think of their knowledge as a kind of science - and it was frequently systematic and reliable by the standards of the day - it was generally not an intellectual enterprise. Bacon's vision of intellectual science as enabling the relief of man's estate helped to justify the rejection of the sterile arm-chair philosophizing of the schoolmen. And it helped to bring together the intellectuals and the craftsmen.
The relationship is not, and has never been, a one-way street. Science gives rise to technology, but just as importantly technology has always been an enabler as well as a motivater of science. Galileo made his name as a scientist and made the case for the Copernican solar system not by his world-leading understanding of dynamics, but by being an early-adopter of the latest technology: the telescope. He did not invent it. But he did construct telescopes that outstripped the power of any others of the day, and he was the first to turn them on the heavens and interpret what he saw in physical terms. The leading edge of today's astronomical and cosmological knowledge is likewise completely dependent upon technology, for example on the power of space flight to place in orbit, above the obscuring blanket of the atmosphere, telescopes that detect ultra-violet radiation, x-rays, and gamma rays, as well as light. Thus, even the least applied of subjects, such as astronomy, has always depended on technology for its progress.
The reciprocal dependence, of technology on science, though hardly requiring much argument to establish it today, was actually far less obvious until fairly recently. The inventors who brought profitable techniques to practical industry, and the philosophers whose aim was to understand the world of nature, were historically different breeds and different classes. In nineteenth century England, Michael Faraday, chemist and electrical scientist, was highly unusual in being from a working-class background. His public lectures at the Royal Institution made him more of an entertainer than a technologist, though he was consulted by the Admiralty about lighthouses. William Thompson, gentleman Professor at the University of Glasgow and a founding father of thermodynamics and the principle of conservation of energy in the mid nineteenth century, made handsome profits investing in transatlantic telegraph cables, for which his scientific expertise proved invaluable. But applications such as these were still almost incidental to scientists' activities, and the professionalization of science itself was only beginning to move it from the domain of the gifted amateur gentleman or professor to the focused professional. Engineering remained a discipline largely independent of natural science, and was held in a degree of disdain by the pure scientists, even in the early twentieth century.
A part of the self-image of science was disinterested objectivity, a picture that science was pure knowledge, free from commercial self-interest, based upon a virtuous commitment to rationality, whose content was purely factual, but whose applications might be good or bad. It maintained that image by portraying the application of science to industry, commerce and warfare, as a separate, subsequent step, in which clearly value-judgements were made, while science itself was morally neutral, simply opening up possibilities. During and after the Second World War, the power of science to bring to pass new technologies that could remake the world became more widely accepted. Governments adopted policies that explicitly supported scientific research precisely because it led to technological development. And academic engineering increasingly began to focus on Engineering-Science, technology based on science. That process has led now to the acceptance of a very intimate relationship between science and technology, which hardly recognizes the distinctions of an earlier age.

8.2  Technological critiques

Critiques of science and technology have progressed through a long development. They first began with the industrial revolution, as protest against its displacement of workers from agricultural to urban employment, and from individual craftsmanship to factory production. The critics of the industrial revolution included not only the Romantics, who regretted the alienation from `nature' that it brought and who represented an anti-scientistic viewpoint; but they also included those who were thoroughly scientistic. Marx, for example, thought his social science could identify the oppressive capitalistic traits of those who controlled the means of production, and point the way toward a full liberation of the workers in a future communist organization of society. The Luddite movement, of 1811 onward, was more directly aimed at technology. In this case, the mechanization of the textile industry was the target, and the Luddites broke into factories and destroyed their machines. Actually, the mechanization had been taking place for at least half a century prior to that time, but the increasing introduction of power looms and similar technology provoked impoverished workers to fear further degradation of their working and living conditions. The popular movement was quelled only by harsh laws that made the destruction of textile machinery a capital offense.
The Luddites lent their name, of course, to the supposed irrational rejection of technology. It is uncertain the extent to which their hardship can really be attributed to the technological changes, and it is certain that there were many other important influences, such as the economic exhaustions of the Napoleonic Wars. Unfortunately the charge of irrationality became entrenched in all arguments about the adoption of technology, even till today.
The twentieth century saw increasing reaction against not merely the displacement of the poor, but the dehumanization of all of society. However, it was accompanied by an even more wide-spread countervailing enthusiasm for technology, as shiny new labor-saving machinery appeared in the household as well as in the factory.
Perhaps the epitome of the critique of technology came in Jacques Ellul's La Technique published in French in 1954, whose English translation appeared as The Technological Society in 1964. As John Wilkinson wrote in his translator's introduction "The Technological Society is a description of the way in which an autonomous technology is in process of taking over the traditional values of every society without exception, subverting and suppressing these values to produce at last a monolithic world culture in which all nontechnological difference and variety is mere appearance."159
Ellul attributes the emergence of the full-scale industrial revolution to the joint occurrence of five factors
(1) a very long technical maturation or incubation without decisive checks before the final flowering; (2) population growth; (3) a suitable economic milieu; (4) the almost complete plasticity of a society malleable and open to the propagation of technique; (5) a clear technical intention, which combines the other factors and directs them toward the pursuit of the technical objective.160
The subsequent development has led to a new overwhelming culture of technique that possesses five characteristics. The first, Ellul dubs automatism, by which he means the "technical movement becomes self-directing" towards the most efficient methods. "The human being is no longer in any sense the agent of choice." "... everything that is not technique is being eliminated. The challenge to a country, an individual, or a system is solely a technical challenge."161 The second characteristic is self-augmentation, with the result that "1. In a given civilization, technical progress is irreversible. 2. Technical progress tends to act, not according to an arithmetic, but according to a geometric progression." and then "technique, in its development, poses primarily technical problems which consequently can be resolved only by technique."162 The third characteristic is translated monism, by which he means that "it ought never to be said: on the one side, technique; on the other the abuse of it." "... all techniques are inseparably united". Technique does not evolve with an end in view of human good. "It evolves in a purely causal way: the combination of previous elements furnishes the new technical elements. There is no purpose or plan that is being progressively realised."163 Self-augmentation and monism combine to provide the fourth characteristic, the necessary linking together of techniques, by which organizational technique of necessity emerges from prior techniques and comes to dominate economics, commerce, society, and the state through military, police, administration, and politics. Finally we arrive at the fifth characteristic, technical universalism, whereby technology spreads to all geographic regions and subverts all cultures until it has "taken over the whole of civilization"164
Together this leads to a self-sufficiency of technique that constitutes the usurpation of humankind's highest aspirations. "Since [technique] has put itself beyond good and evil, it need fear no limitation whatever. It was long claimed that technique was neutral. Today this is no longer a useful distinction. The power and autonomy of technique are so well secured that it, in its turn, has become the judge of what is moral, the creator of a new morality."165 In our technical age "Everything today seems to happen as though ends disappear, as a result of the magnitude of the very means at our disposal." And though "Comprehending that the proliferation of means brings about the disappearance of ends, we have become preoccupied with rediscovering a purpose or a goal", this is "merely a pious hope with no chance whatsoever of influencing technical evolution."166 Jacques Ellul, remarkably for a theologian, offers no solution, nor any hope for one.
Neil Postman, almost forty years later, in Technopoly, the surrender of culture to technology echoes many of the same substantive charges, although with a very different style. His neologism `Technopoly' has gathered even less currency as a popular term for the excesses of technology than scientism has in respect of science. But, in short, his meaning and the distinction with the more familiar word `technocracy' is as follows. Culture was in the state of technocracy when "two opposing world-views - the technological and the traditional - coexisted in uneasy tension." But "With the rise of Technopoly, one of those thought-worlds disappears. Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself..." "It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant. And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technology."167 This description parallels in the technical realm what I have been calling scientism. But Postman and Ellul both perceive a degree of compulsion in Technopoly that goes beyond the intellectual, and beyond science.
For both these commentators, and many others, a key feature of the critique of technology revolves around what is often called (elsewhere) the technological imperative: "The idea that if something could be done, it should be done" or perhaps, from Ellul's perspective of the automatism of technology: if something can be done, it will be done.
I have emphasized the fact that the traffic between science and technology has always been both ways. Each has enabled and, to a degree, motivated and justified the other. It would be a mistake, historically and even logically, to identify one as the progenitor and the other as the progeny. For much the same reason, I refrain from identifying scientism as either the parent or the child of Technopoly. A more accurate metaphor might be to regard them as mutually supportive siblings. Postman and Ellul, from their stance as critics of Technopoly, speak of scientism as a facet of Technopoly. Without wishing to contradict their perspective, in this study of scientism, I treat Technopoly instead as a facet of scientism. Postman summarizes his view of scientism, a word he uses mostly in the same way as Hayek, thus
It is not merely the misapplication of techniques such as quantification to questions where numbers have nothing to say; not merely the confusion of the material and social realms of human experience; not merely the claim of social researchers to be applying the aims and procedures of natural science to the human world. Scientism is all of these, but something profoundly more. It is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called "science" can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like "What is life, and when, and why?"168 ...
Although I recognize the moral dimension of scientism, which Postman is at pains to point out. I see scientism as the broad intellectual foundation of Technopoly. If from the perspective of Postman and Ellul, scientism is theoretical Technopoly, then from my perspective, Technopoly is applied scientism. My discussion is aimed more at examining and understanding the theoretical underpinning of the technological domination of modern society, rather than setting forth the empirical results. It may seem now that Technique is in practice sufficiently automatic, sufficiently self-propelled, that it needs no theoretical justification. Yet theories have consequences, and if we understand scientism, we have the intellectual equipment to contradict and undermine Technopoly's foundations.
Unlike Ellul, Postman is willing, however tentatively, given the immensity of the task, to offer suggestions for solutions. These are of two types. The first, for the individual, is to be a loving resistance fighter. The second, for society, is to reform education.
Postman, who thinks that America is the only country so far to have succumbed to Technopoly, says that to be a loving freedom fighter "you must always keep close to your heart the narratives and symbols that once made the United States the hope of the world". And the resistance is expressed as aphoristic traits. The freedom fighters are those, for example, who "refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations", "refuse to allow psychology or any "social science" to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense", "take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth", "who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement"169. His curriculum reform would be configured around the theme of "The Ascent of Humanity", drawing inspiration from Jacob Bronowski's approach (but side-stepping the political-incorrectness of the title of his early 1970s TV series). Its content "must join art and science. But we must also join the past and the present" so that "all subjects are presented as a stage in humanity's historical development; in which the philosophies of science, of history, of language, of technology, and of religion are taught; and in which there is a strong emphasis on classical forms of artistic expression."170

8.3  Energy and environment

My physics research interests are motivated by the attempt to make fusion energy available on the human scale. Nuclear energy is a million times greater per unit mass than the electromagnetic chemical energy that we derive, for example, from hydrocarbons or sunlight. As a result, it offers the possibility of generating energy sustainable for many millennia, while generating only tiny amounts of waste. Present nuclear power is derived from fission, the breaking up of heavy nuclei like uranium, which releases energy that is used to drive electricity generators. The stars are powered instead by fusion, the combining together of light nuclei like hydrogen to form heavier ones, which also releases energy. Fusion reactions require very energetic collisions between the reacting nuclei, so as to overcome their mutual electrical repulsion. The high temperatures, fifty million degrees Celsius or so, required to cause such energetic interactions are present in the center of the sun and stars. But such temperatures require an immaterial form of containment. Any solid container would be immediately vaporized. Creation's remarkable fusion reactors, the stars, are based on gravitational confinement of the ionized atoms, the `plasma', that is their fuel. But gravity is such a weak force that it requires stars to be very large. To make a fusion reactor on the human scale calls for a different, stronger force of confinement. For this purpose we use magnetic fields to confine the plasma. Figure 8.1 illustrates the configuration we use. Fusion energy on the human scale has proven far more difficult than fission. The first fission reactor was operational just a few years after nuclear fission was discovered. Fusion research during the past 60 years has succeeded in releasing 16 megawatts of power for a second or so, but is only now on the threshold of a scientific demonstration of a controlled fusion reaction, and still many years from engineering practicality.
(a)Alcatorcutaway.png (b)fisheye_equil.png
Figure 8.1: Cut-away diagram of the `tokamak' plasma confinement device (a). The plasma is the light toroidal (doughnut-shaped) region surrounded by a vacuum chamber and various circular and rectangular magnetic coils. They are supported by a heavy steel structure to withstand the magnetic forces. In (b) a wide-angle video frame of the plasma itself is shown. Only the edge radiates in visible light. The center is too hot; it radiates predominantly x-rays. On the frame are superimposed a section through the magnetic surfaces which confine the plasma, one inside the other like the layers of an onion. This MIT experiment is relatively compact, having a radius of just 0.68m.
I mention my research interests as background to matters that have in recent years acquired increasing prominence in public concern and discussion - energy and the environment. In the west, everyone is now sensitized to the challenge that our modern technology has brought. What to do about the environmental impact of the technologies of modern society. The usage of fossil-fuel energy, the foundation of the industrial revolution and modern society, is, we now realize, causing the accumulation in the upper atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The prospect we now face is of global climate change with consequences that, while uncertain, may well be disastrous for life on earth. In a sense this is just one of many environmental impacts of our scientifically and technologically advanced and empowered society. But it is a particularly significant impact because, unlike the pollution of many industrial wastes, it is not local, but global. It afflicts the whole planet, not just the societies that caused the (perhaps unintended) pollution and enjoyed the (intended) technological benefits. So a question that faces industrialized societies is how to preserve the benefits that the availability of abundant energy has brought, without doing untold harm to the Earth.
For the vast majority in undeveloped nations, however, the emergency is different. For them, who subsist on a tiny fraction of the consumption characteristic of the developed world, who use as little as one hundredth of the energy per capita of the west, the challenge is how to obtain access to their basic needs: clean water, food, shelter, and a meager level of energy for cooking and light. For developing and industrializing nations, the issues are different again. They are how to obtain the capital to construct the technical infrastructure: roads, dams, electric power plants, and so on; and how to develop the human capital, in the form of education and social coherence, that will enable them to obtain the benefits of being a competitive part of a global technical economy. For the developing world, the environment is a concern, but they don't have the luxury of a detached policy debate about how to avoid global warming. Their overwhelming immediate priorities are different.
When most westerners think about energy and the environment, most often the question they are asking is something like "what technologies are going to contribute to solving this problem". In other words, they are looking for the technological fix. From my parochial perspective as a scientist in energy research, that's good for me. It means that one of the few unopposed priorities within recent policy debates has been government support of science and technology which holds promise for clean energy. But while I do think it is useful and appropriate to do research in energy, and I've done it most of my career, I am concerned about the unrealistic expectations that our society has for future technology.
This is based on simple arithmetic applied to the global situation. Right now the average per-capita energy consumption of the world is less than one fifth of the US rate. So if a global population of six billion (optimistically) were to achieve the rate of consumption of the US, it would require five times as much global consumption as at present. Such a consumption would not be sustainable even if by some extraordinary (and unexpected) breakthrough we were able to replace all but 10% of the fossil fuels with non-emitting sources. Even the most ambitious and unrealistic of political hopes, to replace 80% of US fossil energy with sustainable forms by 2050, is not enough. It would not lead, of itself, to a sustainable global energy scenario compatible with the basic aspirations of the rest of humanity.
In this sense, there simply is no technological fix for energy.
But it is worse even than that. Every technological innovation of significant scope has foreseen or unforeseen consequences. The side-effects or even direct effects are themselves the cause of new challenges. It is not just that technology can be used for good or ill. It is that even the good effects themselves may lead to new challenges, and that they may be accompanied by unexpected consequences. Take as an example the health benefits that result from the understanding of the causes of disease. The demonstration by Louis Pasteur in the mid nineteenth century that a whole spectrum of diseases and decay arise from germs, not from spontaneous generation, led to new strategies of public health and disease prevention and treatment that eventually transformed the survival prospects of humans in the west. Mortality rates dropped dramatically, and much suffering was obviated. As a result of this and other technical and social developments, which resulted in increased food supplies, the population of England, for example, quadrupled during the nineteenth century. The population growth, and the growth of consumption that accompanies it, is the primary cause of the adverse environmental impacts in the form of urbanization, pollution, and deforestation. Thus the environmental challenges of today are a direct result of past technological development. And the problems arise not from the failures of unnecessary technologies, but from the successes of technologies devoted to basic human needs of food, sanitation, health, and so on. Every technological solution leads to new technological problems. Often the new problems appear to be greater than the older ones, and if this is so, then we have a vicious spiral in which ever greater technological resources are chasing ever growing technological problems, with the new solutions leading to even greater challenges. Each `fix' just winds the spiral higher into greater problems. Just as the successes of health technologies have led to greater problems, so the successes of energy technologies, of every kind, have provided the ability to affect the environment ever more powerfully, and ever more difficult challenges have arisen.
This pessimistic scenario is not pre-ordained. In terms of a mathematical analysis of the dynamics of the system, what I have described is an unstable `diverging' situation, with ever increasing demand. It is also possible that there might be a stable `converging' situation, where the new problems caused by each `fix' are smaller than the prior problems, in which case the system will soon stabilize and the perturbations die away. Unfortunately there is no sign that technological fixes lead to stable solutions for society as a whole. What's more, economists have spent a hundred years proclaiming that growth (the unstable case) is good; indeed their doctrine is that economic growth is the most important goal that government ought to promote.
In essence the problem of environmental sustainability is that the world has too many people wanting too much stuff. Technology cannot fix that. And more often than not it makes the problems worse because of the additional power that it provides. A sustainable world is one in which the reasonable aspirations are not for the life-styles of the rich and famous or indeed of the developed west, but for a globally `middle-class' economic level characterized by bicycles, buses, nourishing food, and adequate housing and communications. For the west, such a sustainable future will certainly mean reduced consumption, but it need not mean a less satisfying life. It will require a change of values away from the the consumer-driven culture. Values are not a matter of technology or science. The types of changes we are going to need to achieve sustainability are not technological.
I do not mean that there are no technological improvements, or that technological improvements are useless. Technological improvements can be very beneficial, and the science that enables them is worth-while. It is just that those technological benefits are insufficient in themselves and may serve as a distraction from more fundamental issues. It is that not all the important solutions are technological. Many of the most intractable challenges of society are not technical, they are human, and moral. Technology is of little use for those challenges. Just as it is an erroneous scientism which supposes that all the real knowledge is science, it is an erroneous technocentrism which supposes that all the efficacious solutions to our challenges are technological. But the one error leads to the other. The search for the technological fix follows from the scientistic world-view.