6 Technological Fundamentalism

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The implied objective of “progress” is—not exactly perhaps,

the brain in the bottle, but at any rate some frightful subhuman

depth of softness and helplessness.

—George Orwell

Scene 1: Entry to a classroom building. With a deafening noise he

revved up the two-cycle engine on a blower preparing to clean the

leaves, paper, and cigarette butts that had accumulated in the entryway.

He made considerable progress herding the debris away from the

building and down the sidewalk until cigarette butts lodged in the

seams in the concrete. Turning, he blasted the miscreant trash at right

angles, but this only blew the debris onto the grass, posing still greater

difficulties. Moving cigarette butts and bits of paper in an orderly

fashion through grass is a challenge, even for a machine capable of

generating gale-force winds. Then the apparatus stalled out—“down

time,” it’s called. In that moment of sweet silence, I walked over and

inquired whether he thought a broom or rake might do as well.

“What’d you say?” he responded. “Can’t hear anything, my ears are

still ringing!” I repeated the question. “S’pose so,” he said, “but they

think I’m more productive with this piece of *&!@.”

Perhaps he is more productive. I do not know how experts calculate

efficiency in complex cases like this. If, however, the goal is to disrupt

public serenity, burn scarce fossil fuels, create a large amount of

blue smoke, damage lung tissue, purchase expensive and failureprone

equipment, frazzle nerves, interrupt conversations, and improve

the market for hearing aids, rakes and brooms cannot compete.

When the technology and the task at hand are poorly matched, however,

there is no real efficiency. In such cases the result, in Amory

Lovins’s telling phrase, is rather like “cutting butter with a chain saw.”

Scene 2: Committee meeting. I once served on what is called

with some extravagance the Educational Plans and Policies Committee.

It is a committee to which one is elected, or sentenced, depending

on your view. In one meeting we were casually asked to pronounce

our blessing on a plan to link the entire campus so that everyone

would be able to communicate with everyone else via computer, 24

hours a day, without leaving dormitory rooms or offices. This, we

were told,was what our competitor colleges were doing.We were assured

that this was the future. Information, we were informed, is doubling

every six months. Electronic networking was judged to be an adequate

response to that condition of information overload. Curious, I

inquired what was known about the effects of computers on what we

and our students think about or how well we can think about it.

In other words, are there some things worth thinking about for which

computers are ill suited? Can computers teach us to be properly

skeptical of computers? Would people so wired and networked still

want to talk to each other face to face? Would they remember how?

Would they be sane? Or civil? Would they still know a tree from a

bird? And after all the hype, what is the relation between information,

knowledge, and wisdom? My fellow committee members,

thoughtful persons all, stirred impatiently. After an awkward pause,

one said, “We’ve been through this before and don’t need to rehash

the subject.” I asked,“When?” Another awkward pause. No one could

recall when that momentous conversation had occurred.“Well, it’s all

in the literature,” said another. I asked for citations. None were forthcoming.

What I had read on the subject by Joseph Weizenbaum

 (1976), Theodore Roszak (1986), Neil Postman (1992), and C. A.

Bowers (1993, 2000) would suggest to the curriculum committees of

the world good reasons for caution. But these books had not been discussed

by the committee, and no others were suggested.

Scene 3: Washington, D.C. A high public official is describing

plans for the creation of a national information superhighway. The

speech is full of high-tech words and “mega” this and that. Soberlooking

public officials, corporate executives, and technicians glance

at each other and nod approvingly. Members of the press dutifully

scribble notes. TV cameras record the event. The questions that follow

are mostly of the “gee whiz” kind. From the answers given, one

might infer that the rationale for a superhighway is: (1) it will make

the American economy more “competitive” because lack of information

is what ails us; and (2) it’s inevitable and can’t be stopped

anyway.

I am neither for nor against leaf blowers, computers, networks, or

the information age, for that matter. My target is fundamentalism,

which is not something that happens just to religious zealots. It can

happen to well-educated people who fail to ask hard questions about

why we do what we do, how we do it, or how these things affect our

long-term prospects. We, leaf blowers and computer jockeys alike,

have tended to become technological fundamentalists, unwilling, perhaps

unable, to question our basic assumptions about how our tools

relate to our larger purposes and prospects.

Scene 1 is an obvious case of technological overkill in which

means and ends are not well matched. The deeper problem, noted by

all critics of technology, from Mary Shelley and Herman Melville on,

is that industrial societies are long on means but short on ends. Unable

to separate can do from should do, we suffer a kind of technological

immune deficiency syndrome that renders us vulnerable to whatever

can be done and too weak to question what it is that we should do.

In scene 2, the committee did not know how computers affect

what we pay attention to and how this, in turn, affects our long-term

ecological prospects. Not knowing these things and being unwilling to

admit them as honest, even important, questions, we did not know

whether all of this technology could be used for good or not. Assuming

that it could be used to good effect, we did not know how to do so.

Seduced by convenience, dazzled by cleverness, armed with no adequate

philosophy of technology, and not wanting to appear to our

T E C H N O L O G I C A L F U N D A M E N T A L I S M 63

peers as premodern, we were at the mercy of those selling “progress”

to us without a whisper about where it will ultimately take us.

In scene 3, much of the same is true on a larger scale as we approach

the entry ramp of the information superhighway. Smart and

well-meaning people believe this to be the cat’s meow. But by what

standard should we judge this enterprise? Will it, on balance, help us

preserve biotic potential? Will it help to make us a more sane, civil,

and sustainable culture? In this regard it is enlightening to know that

a substantial part of the traffic now appearing on the superhighway so

far built has to do with the distribution of pornography. Furthermore,

the phrase “information superhighway” invites comparison to the interstate

highways built in the United States between 1956 and the

present. Any fair accounting of the real costs of that national commitment

would include the contributions of the interstate system to the

following problems:

• damage to urban neighborhoods and communities

• highway deaths

• loss of biological diversity

• damage to fragile landscapes

• urban sprawl

• polluted air

• acid rain

• noise pollution

• global warming

• destruction of an extensive national railway system

• distortion of American political life by an automobile

lobby

• the foreign policy consequences of dependence on imported

oil.

We, the children of the people who made or acquiesced in that decision,

might prefer that these costs had been forthrightly discussed in

1956. Years from now, what might our children and grandchildren

wish we had thought about before we built an information superhighway?

We cannot know for certain, but we might guess that they

would want us to have asked some of the following questions.

First, they might wish that we had been clearer about the purposes

of the information superhighway. What problem was it in-

tended to solve? What was the master idea behind it, and how might

it support or undermine other master ideas in Western culture having

to do with justice, fairness, tolerance, religious freedom, and democracy

(Roszak 1986, 91–95)? Looking back, the rationale behind the

interstate highway system was never much debated. To the contrary,

it was presented as a combination of “national security” and “economic

competitiveness,” phrases that for nearly 50 years have been

used to foreclose debate and conceal motives that should have been

publicly examined.

Second, our descendants may wonder why we were so mesmerized

by the capacity to move massive amounts of information at the

speed of light. What kind of information for what purposes needs to

be moved in such great quantities at that speed? At what velocity and

volume does information become knowledge? Or wisdom? Is it possible

that sometimes wisdom works inversely to velocity and volume?

The bottleneck in this system will always be the space between our

two ears. At what rate can we process information, or sift through the

daily tidal wave of information to find that which is important or

even correct? It would seem sensible to move the smallest possible

amount of information consonant with the largest possible ends at a

speed no faster than the mind can assimilate it and use it to good purpose.

This speed is probably less than that of light. As discussed in

chapter 3, the most valuable information relative to our long-term

ecological prospects may prove to be that which is accumulated

slowly and patiently—the kind of information that is mulled over and

sometimes agonized over and with the passage of time may become

cultural wisdom.

Third, future generations may wish that we had asked about the

distribution of costs and benefits from the information superhighway.

Looking back, the interstate highway system was a great boon to the

heavy construction industry, car makers, oil companies, insurance

companies, and tire makers. It was less useful to those unable to afford

cars, who once relied on trains or buses. It was decidedly not beneficial

to those whose communities were bulldozed or bisected to make way

for multiple-lane expressways. Nor was it useful to those who had to

spend a significant part of their lives driving to their newly dispersed

workplaces. Accordingly, our descendants might wish us to ask

whether access to the information superhighway will be fair? Will it

be equally open to the poor? Will it be used to make society more or

T E C H N O L O G I C A L F U N D A M E N T A L I S M 65

less equitable? Or more sustainable? Or will it be said of the information

superhighway that it, like the “computer, as presently used by the

technological elite, is . . . an instrument pressed into the service of rationalizing,

supporting, and sustaining the most conservative, indeed

reactionary, ideological components of the current Zeitgeist”

(Weizenbaum 1976, 250)?

Our descendants will also wish that we had asked who will pay

for the information superhighway. By one estimate, automobiles receive

about $300 billion in various public subsidies each year (Nadis

& MacKenzie 1993). They are supported by public road-building

revenues, various taxes and tax loopholes, and by Defense Department

expenditures to prepare for and fight wars to guarantee our access

to oil. Might the same be true of the costs of the information

superhighway?

Fourth, our descendants may wish that we had asked whether the

standardization and uniformity imposed by information technology

will homogenize our thoughts and language as well. For comparison,

automobiles, interstate highways, and their consequences have served

to homogenize American culture. Because of the scale of our automobility,

our economy is less diverse and less resilient than it otherwise

might have been. Our landscape has been rendered more uniform

and standard to accommodate 200 million cars and trucks.

Highways and automobiles have exacted a sizable toll on wildlife and

biological diversity. Automobiles destroyed other and slower means

of mobility including walking and bicycling. Will the imperatives of

the information superhighway have analogous effects on our mindscapes?

Will standardization and uniformity, shaped to fit information

technology, homogenize our thoughts and language as well? Can cultural

differences or cultural diversity survive technological homogenization?

Will the vernacular information of indigenous cultures survive

the information superhighway? Can increasingly uniform and

standardized societies protect cultural diversity? And if they cannot,

can they protect biological diversity?

The twentieth century is littered with failed technologies, once

believed to be good in their time and promoted by smart and wellmeaning

people. The purveyors of automobiles, H-bombs, chlorinated

fluorocarbons, toxic chemicals, and television all promised

great things. These failed in large part because they succeeded too

well. They became too numerous, or too efficient at doing one thing,

or intruded too fully in places where they were inappropriate. A

world with 100 million automobiles, for example, is probably okay.

One with 500 million cars has more problems than I can list and

fewer options for solving them than one might wish. Moreover, each

of these technologies has caused unforeseen ecological and social

problems that we wrongly call “side effects.” There are, however, no

such things as side effects, for the same reason that many technological

accidents, as sociologist Charles Perrow (1984) once pointed out,

are “normal accidents.” Given human errors and acts of God, all such

happenings are predictable events. What some call side effects of

technology are the fine print of the deal when we think we are buying

only convenience, speed, security, and affluence.

For a technological society, Garrett Hardin’s (1968) query “what

then?” is the ultimate heresy. But, standing, as we do, before such

technological choices as nanotechnologies, genetic engineering, virtual

reality machines, and information superhighways, no previous society

needed its heretics more than ours. Information superhighways:

What then? Ultimately, minds and perceptions so modified have different

ecological prospects. Stripped of all the hype, the information

superhighway is only a more complex, extensive, and expensive way

to converse. But conversations conducted on that highway must ultimately

be judged, as all conversations must be judged, not on the

amount of talk or its speed, but by their intelligence, wisdom, and by

what they inspire us to do.

T E C H N O L O G I C A L F U N D A M E N T A L I S M 67

7

Ideasclerosis

Let us first worry about whether man is becoming more stupid,

more credulous, more weak-minded, whether there is a

crisis in comprehension or imagination.

—Paul Valery

The time between innovations in technology and new products introduced

into markets has steadily declined so that what had once taken

decades has been reduced to months or a few weeks. As a result, we

now have less time than ever to consider the effects of various innovations

or systems of technologies on any number of other things, including

our longer-term prospects. Contrast this pace, driven by the

frenetic search for profit or power, with the rate of innovation in those

things that would accrue to our long-term ecological health. This difference

captures an important dimension of the problem of human

survival in the twenty-first century. While we introduce new computing

equipment every few months, we still farm in ignorance of

Charles Darwin and Albert Howard. Land-use thinking has barely

begun to reckon with the thought of Aldo Leopold. After hundreds

of studies on the potential for energy efficiency, our use of fossil energy,

if somewhat more efficient, continues unabated. In short, innovations

that produce fast wealth, whatever their ecological or human

effects or impact on long-term prosperity, move ever more quickly

from inception to market, while those having to do with human survival

move at a glacial pace if they move at all. Why?

One possibility is that we are buried in an avalanche of information

and can no longer separate the critically important from that

which is trivial or perhaps even dangerous. This is certainly true, but

it still does not explain why some kinds of ideas move quickly while

others are ignored. Exhausted by consumption and saturated by entertainment,

perhaps we have become merely “a nation of nitwits”

(Herbert 1995) no longer willing or able to do the hard work of

thinking about serious things. “The American citizen,” Daniel Boorstin

once wrote, “lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality”

(Boorstin [1961] 1978, 37). A casual survey of talk radio, television

programs, and World Wrestling Federation events would lead

one to believe this to be true as well. But, again, it does not explain

why ecologically important ideas fail to excite us as much as contrived

ones. Maybe the problem lies in the political arena, now dominated

by wealthy corporations. Only those ideas that reinforce the

power and wealth of the already powerful and rich succeed; all others

are consigned to oblivion. This, too, is transparently obvious, but fails

to explain why we are so easily entrapped by those with bad ideas.

Maybe the problem is simply public cynicism, of which there is much

evidence. Or perhaps we have simply created a very clever but ecologically

stupid civilization. Indeed, as Kenneth Boulding once noted,

it is difficult to overestimate stupidity in human affairs and its acceleration

in recent decades. But that, too, merely begs the question.

Possibly the flow of ecologically sound ideas is blocked by the social

equivalent of a logjam in a river. Again, there is plausible evidence

for this possibility. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, for

example, the industrial age spawned gargantuan organizations with

simple goals, roughly analogous to the body/brain ratio of the dinosaur.

Industrial behemoths such General Motors, similarly, lacked

the wherewithal to think much beyond business equivalents of ingestion

and procreation. Consequently, the ideas that flourished in

I D E A S C L E R O S I S 69

organizations with great mass and single focus were the sort that increased

either the scale or velocity of one thing or another in order to

better serve the purposes of pecuniary accumulation, convenience,

and power. The monomania of big organizations drove out thought

for the morrow,warped lives, disfigured much of the world, and dominated

the intellectual landscape. As a result, some of us live more

conveniently, but the world is more toxic, dangerous, and far less

lovely than it might otherwise be. Nonetheless, that model shaped

our thinking about the proper organization of human affairs. Industrial-

era organizations and industrialized societies lacked reliable

means of appraising the collateral effects of their actions, what is

called “feedback.” And as Donella Meadows has noted, systems lacking

feedback are by definition dumb. At a large enough scale, they are

also dangerous.

But in societies dominated by large organizations, some kinds of

ideas still spread like wildfire. Later generations will be hard pressed

to explain the ferocious spread of nazism, communism, and various

kinds of militant fundamentalism in the twentieth century (Conquest

1999). For such deranged ideas humans slaughtered each other by the

millions. Our descendants, if not intellectually and morally impaired,

will study the virulence of our ideologies much as we now study the

etiology of disease. They will be astonished by our devotion to any

number of other bad ideas such as the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.

Most likely they will come to view our violence and political

cupidity as a form of criminal insanity.

In one way or another, the dominant ideas of the twentieth century

fit a pattern that political scientist James C. Scott calls “highmodernist

ideology,” which is “best conceived as a strong, one might

even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific

and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction

of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature),

and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate

with the scientific understanding of natural laws” (1998: 4). Taken to

its extreme, devotees of high modernism, in Scott’s words, “were

guilty of hubris, of forgetting that they were mortals” (ibid., 342).

Whether in forestry, agriculture, urban planning, or economics, the

practice of high modernism meant excluding qualitative and subtle

aspects of rural places, natural systems, cities, and people in order to

maximize efficiency, control, and economic expansion. The acolytes

of the faith steadfastly hold to a vision of humankind become godlike,

transcending all limitations including death. When it is all said and

done I doubt that, on balance, high modernism will have eliminated

much suffering. But it will have served to anesthetize our higher sensibilities

and drastically deflect human nature or eliminate humans altogether.

Indeed, the latter is the stated goal of all of those intrepid pioneers

in the brave new sciences of virtual reality and artificial

intelligence, who regard the displacement of humans by superior and

self-replicating devices as an evolutionary mandate.

Given the present momentum of research, twenty-first-century

technologies, notably genetics, nanotechnologies, and robotics, will

change what it means to be human. They may well threaten human

survival. In the words of software engineer Bill Joy (2000, 242), “we

are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil.” We are

driven “by our habits, our desires, our economic system, and our competitive

need to know,” but we have “no plan, no control, no brakes”

(ibid., 256). Joy believes that the “last chance to assert control . . . is

rapidly approaching” (ibid.). Others such as Ray Kurzweil, author of

The Age of Spiritual Machines, counsel resignation because these

changes are “inexorable” and “inevitable” (1999, 253).

Looking ahead, as best we are able, what can be said about the

trajectory of human intelligence? Is it possible to harness intelligence

to purposes that demean it? Is it possible to create conditions that are

hostile to sober reflection, decency, and foresight? We have good reasons

to think that the conditions that nurture ecologically solvent

ideas and wisdom are mutable, fragile, and increasingly threatened by

the march of mere cleverness and the avalanche of artifice and sensation

on the human psyche. And we now know that it may well be possible

to destroy human intelligence altogether by creating a form of

superior intelligence that could well regard us as a nuisance to be

removed.

It is against the intoxication of high modernism which conservation

biologists and their allies struggle. In the blizzard of technological

possibilities, how do we cultivate what Aldo Leopold once called a

“refined taste in natural objects” or a “striving for harmony with land”

(1953, 150, 155)? How do we create the intellectual and moral capital

for a “society decently respectful of its own and all other life, capable

of inhabiting the Earth without defiling it” (Leopold 1999,

I D E A S C L E R O S I S 71

318–319)? What ecologically grounded alternative to high modernism

do we offer? How do we quickly capture the imagination of

the general public for the slow things that accrue to the health of the

entire land mechanism?

It is far easier to describe the general content of such ideas than

how they might become powerful in a consumer culture. In one way

or another, the ideas we need would extend our sense of time to the

far horizon, broaden our sense of kinship to include all life forms, and

encourage an ethic of restraint. Not one of these can be hurried into

existence. This is not first and foremost a research challenge as much

as it is a kind of growing up. It is perhaps more like a remembering of

what Erwin Chargaff (1980, 47) once called “old and solid knowledge”

that has existed in those times and places where foresight and

compassion were cultivated. A culture permeated with old and solid

knowledge makes no fetish of novelty and so does not suffer the cultural

equivalent of amnesia. The perennial wisdom of humanity honors

mystery and acknowledges the need for caution and large margins.

It knows that human intelligence is always and everywhere woefully

inadequate and that we need large margins. Much of this old and ecologically

sound knowledge is embedded in scriptures, law, literature,

and ancient customs. But how is this to be made vivid for an entire

culture suffering from attention deficit disorder?

Broadly speaking, I think we have three general strategies. One is

to try to capture public imagination by dramatizing aspects of our situation.

The Clock of The Long Now Foundation, for example, intends

to create a 10,000-year clock that “ticks once a year, bongs once

a century, and [from which] the cuckoo comes out every millennium”

(Brand 1999, 3). To counter the hypernervousness of the nanosecond

culture, Stewart Brand and his colleagues intend to create something

comparable to the photograph of Earth from the Apollo spacecraft.

The goal is to revolutionize our sense of time from the short term

(kairos) to the long term (chronos), from cleverness to wisdom (ibid.,

9). The actual experience of this device, whatever it might be, they

describe as “Whew, Time! And me in it . . . like coming upon the

Grand Canyon by surprise” (ibid., 49). Perhaps focusing on the longer

sweep of time would make more of us amenable to precautionary

steps to preserve those things essential to the long now and less susceptible

to the political, technological, and economic contagions of

the moment. On the other hand, people accustomed to being enter-

tained might regard it only as another theme park—a sort of Disneyland.

And some things, such as soil and biological diversity, cannot be

dramatized so easily.

A second strategy is aimed at changing how we see the world by

creating more accurate and telling metaphors and theories. Natural

Capitalism by Paul Hawkin, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins

(1999), for example, is a painstaking and compelling case for including

ecological capital in our economic accounting and business practices.

They propose to reconcile the economy to fit the realities of natural

systems by pointing out the logical inconsistencies in our current

modes of thinking. Indeed, a great deal of environmentalism is an attempt

to change mental models and perspectives to break the chains

of anthropomorphism. But changing minds and paradigms is a slow

business, proceeding, when it does, mostly funeral by funeral as one

generation gives way to the next. The powers of denial are everywhere

strong and deeply entrenched, but given time metaphors can

change and ideas do spread.

The third strategy, political change, has fallen into disrepute in

the age of hypercapitalism. In our pursuit of fast wealth, we allowed

ourselves to be bamboozled into believing that government was the

problem. As a result, the public sector, relative to multinational corporations,

has been weakened virtually everywhere. While capitalism

is triumphant, there is a deficit of political ideas and an atrophy of the

sense of common interests and community. At the very time we need

robust political ideas to confront unprecedented changes in technology,

increasing concentration of wealth, rising human needs, and serious

environmental threats, we find political confusion, vacillation,

and mendacity. The kind of political leadership we need has yet to

appear. But the ideas necessary for a solvent future are relatively

straightforward.We must create the same kind of separation between

money and politics that we once established between church and

state. And we must create the political capacity to protect the integrity

of earth systems and biodiversity and thereby the legitimate

interests of our descendants. This requires, in turn, the capacity to

exert farsighted public control over capital and economic power. It is

no easy thing to do, but doing it is far easier than not doing it.

The success of these strategies, in turn, hinges on whether the

public is educated and equipped to comprehend such things. But at

the time when we need a larger idea of education, our proudest

I D E A S C L E R O S I S 73

research universities, almost without exception, have aspired to become

the research and development wing of high modernism. The

Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 permitted universities to patent results of

federally funded research (Press and Washburn 2000, 41). Combined

with the decline of defense spending, the results have been dramatic.

The more prestigious institutions have become partners, and sometimes

accomplices, of major corporations in return for large contributions

and contracts. Many have established offices to foster and

administer the commercialization of research. Corporations increasingly

dictate the terms of research and its subsequent use, thereby

compromising the free flow of ideas and contaminating truth at the

source. Unsurprisingly, research is mostly directed to areas that hold

great financial promise, not to great human needs. There is seldom

much financial profit in ideas pertaining to preservation of biological

diversity, land health, sustainable resource management, and real

human improvement—precisely what we need most. And there is

virtually never quick profit in turning out merely well-educated,

thoughtful, and ecologically competent citizens.

It should be a matter of some embarrassment that the best ideas

about the challenge of sustainability and appropriate responses to it

have come disproportionately from people and organizations at the

periphery of power and influence not from those at the center. Small

nonprofit organizations are often the best source of ideas we have

about the preservation of species, soil, people, places, local culture,

and margins for error. It is time for institutions of higher education to

catch up. It is time to reinvent higher education by breaking down all

of those institutional and disciplinary impediments to the flow of

ideas on which we might build a durable and decent civilization.