The Technological Blind Spot

Can Progress Exist Without Technology
While most would argue progress cannot exist without technology and point towards obvious anecdotes such as longer life expectancy, higher standard of living, and greater freedom to endeavor, all due in large part to the industrial revolution[1 34], it would be without regard for the innumerable human and environmental suffering sustained. The original aspirations society holds for technology at its roots; to free man from himself and nature, does it justice for a time as is evident by the advancements in medicine, information, and the freedoms afforded to pursue personal goals of Western society; the forebears of technological revolution. What is fundamentally different in the West today, however, is that these lofty goals have been supplanted with a hegemonic notion of technocracy as the self perpetuating means to progress [1 37]. Moreover, the complexity and breath of technology as Karl Marx observed [2], creates an inability to comprehend, let alone act upon the technology, resulting in what Heidegger more recently called the “technological blind spot” [3 21] which limits a society’s ability to fully understand the risks and benefits of the science at hand.

One simply has to ask similar questions our enlightened forefathers did to remedy this short sightedness. In the modern context, the question of longevity for example: If society relied less on the trappings of the modern world, instead sought holistic and spiritual anecdotes, or held a higher regard for natural systems, could we live just as long and be healthier? Perhaps a cleaner way of life, free from the stresses of a modern world holds the key to our health, happiness, and our progress. Nonetheless, it is big carrot to avoid when the medical community makes claims that we are decades away from cheating death altogether.

Similar questions, although not new [1 40], are once again becoming the focus of social debate, which call into question the impact of technology on society and the progress it more frequently suffers from. Perhaps a step back before we take two steps forward is a pragmatic view the technocrats are slowly learning [1 41] from its detractors.

The Role of Society
The will formed by economic, political, religious, and other social groups influence the role science and technology play in society. By the same token, the dissemination of science and the technology that follows, transforms social structures, behaviors, attitudes, and so on. “Conceived by man, technology eludes his control only in so far as he wants it to” [5]. In this sense, society defines technology by which inventions it chooses to use and develop in preference to others. Society is in essence the moral compass of technological progress. It is through the opinions and attitudes formed by society that technology finds it’s course. However, as the wheels of progress gain momentum and the complexity of the technology at hand increases exponentially[4 15], society may find it increasing difficult to affect meaningful change other than reacting to unanticipated calamities brought about as a consequence.

Another wrinkle in the fabric of technology is the opposing views of knowledge. The positivist see knowledge as objective and falsifiable, while social constructivists see it as subjective and open to human interpretation [4 18]. As a consequence, our attitudes towards technology are often times viewed from different perspectives. To gain a full understanding of the technology, Pool argues, we must “marry the positivist and social constructionist perspectives” [4 20] as the consequences of said technologies carry with it both the engineering and social attitudes.

History is replete with examples of technological progress and innovations breeding unanticipated or unwanted side effects, however, as we have seen we are too often powerless to affect them. The Industrial Revolution, while reducing manual labor, had and still has many negative consequences such as environmental degradation, stress related illness, and an inability to effectively realize better alternatives. Einstein observed that the splitting of the atom had changed everything, except mans way of thinking, whence we are destined to catastrophe. But mankind still has the ability to change their actions if not their thoughts. The challenge remains for society in its abilities to harness technology for the present while looking to the past for a rationalization and balancing its needs for the future if we are to progress. Is society progressing because of technology? Most likely, but do the machines we create push us in the direction of progress or is the human race simply becoming a more important part of the machine?

[1] Marx, Leo. Does Improved Technology Mean Progress. Technology Review. 1997.
[2] Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1848), The Communist Manifesto
[3] Ronell, Avital. David, Diane. The ƜberReader. University of Illinois,2007
[4] Pool, Robert. How Society Shapes Technology. Oxford University Press,1997.
[5] Salomon, Jean-Jacques. The uncertain quest: science, technology, and development. New York: United Nations University Press,1994.

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