Technology and the Role of Scientists and Engineers in Society

Earth as seen from orbit by Apollo 11 in 1969

Earth as seen from orbit by Apollo 11 in 1969

W.J. Astore

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote the following paper for a class in the history of technology.  Back then, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and acid rain as well as global warming were issues highlighting the drawbacks of technology.  CFCs were damaging the ozone layer, acid rain was poisoning our lakes and streams and damaging trees, with the buildup of greenhouse gases looming as a future threat.  The future is now, of course, since we’ve done virtually nothing to address global warming.  If anything, the debate in 1989 was far more sober, since back then there were no “climate change deniers.”

Written at the tail end of the Cold War, my paper from 1989 is colored by the threat of nuclear annihilation, another threat (like acid rain and CFCs) that has abated in the last two decades.  Reason for hope, perhaps?

Yet in those 25 years, technology has only proliferated even as compassion for those less fortunate has declined.  I wrote this paper before there was an Internet and World Wide Web, before cell phones and smart phones became ubiquitous, before we had so much conclusive evidence of the dangers of man-accelerated global warming.  I was attempting to argue that scientists and engineers had an obligation to consider the larger impact of their work, to include the moral implications of their research.

I’ve made one major change to this paper as written 25 years ago.  Back then, I concluded with the idea that an ethics based on Christianity needed to inform the work of scientists and engineers.  Today, this argument seems far too parochial and limiting, so I have removed it.

Technology and the Role of Scientists and Engineers in Modern Society (1989)

What is the proper role of scientists and engineers in modern society?  This question is especially relevant today, as can readily be confirmed by opening the September 1989 special issue of Scientific American entitled “Managing Planet Earth.”  Technology, it seems, has spawned many monsters: chlorofluorocarbons that tear holes in our protective ozone shield, factory smoke that turns our rain acidic, carbon dioxide that threatens to convert our planet into one big greenhouse.  The contributors to Scientific American assert that humanity must regain control over technology before its monsters inflict irreparable damage to the earth.

Defenders of technology, not surprisingly, advance the opposite thesis.  Samuel Florman, an engineer and the author of Blaming Technology, counters that “technology is still very much under society’s control, that it is in fact an expression of our very human desires, fancies, and fears.”  In Florman’s opinion, engineers should dedicate themselves to doing works for the good of society, but they should not try to define what is good for society.  Their mission, Florman holds, is to achieve rather than to set society’s goals.

Florman does not exonerate engineers from all responsibility, however.  He asserts that engineers must be guided by their individual consciences, but he also suggests that society should not expect any “special compassion” from its engineers.  In fact he implies that society must resign itself to emotionally-detached engineers: “If we accept the single-minded dedication of ballet dancers and other artists,” Florman analogizes, “we should be able to accept, however regretfully, the same characteristic in a number of scientists and engineers.”

But a serious flaw lies at the heart of Florman’s plea for the sanctity of the engineering profession.   He disregards the vastly different societal roles of artists versus scientists and engineers, as well as the serious dangers of a powerful technical elite.  The philosopher Hannah Arendt noted these dangers in the context of atomic experimentation:

     The simple fact that physicists split the atom without any hesitations … although they realized full well the enormous destructive potentialities … demonstrates that the scientist qua scientist does not even care about the survival of the human race on earth or, for that matter, about the survival of the planet itself.

Arendt makes an important point here.  Scientists and engineers sometimes pursue their interests even when they threaten the survival of humanity (or themselves for that matter).  Evidence from the Manhattan Project lends credibility to this argument.  Most scientists who worked on the project were too caught up in the technical challenges of building the atomic bomb to entertain moral qualms about the bomb’s purpose.  Robert R.  Wilson, the leader of the cyclotron group during the Project, observed that he never considered quitting:

We were the heroes of our epic, and there was no turning back.  We were working on a problem to which we were completely committed; there was little time to re-examine our moral position from day to day.

The atomic bomb was the grail for these knights of science; they focused on their pursuit and little else.  Perhaps they believed they could wash their hands clean of the stains of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for they neither made the decision to drop the bombs nor did they pilot the planes.  Yet they could not deny that it was their expertise that brought humanity to the brink of its own destruction during the Cold War.

So what does our nuclear heritage teach us?  It teaches us that humanity needs a more humane technology and more humane engineers.  In sum, we need a new purpose for technology, one that is inspired by social and humanitarian concerns.

Jules Verne captured the risk of failing to do so.  “If men go on inventing machinery, they’ll end by being swallowed up by their own inventions,” Verne prophesized.  There are still some people, however, who continue to believe that technological advances themselves will eliminate technology’s harms.   Charles F. Kettering, a remarkably inventive General Motor’s executive and a quintessential company man, captured this idea.  In Paul de Kruif’s words, Kettering felt that

You cannot put the brakes on any discovery … you’ve got to go on with it even if we’re all blown to hell with it.  What you should do is step up the study of human nature, you may even find a chemical, a vitamin, a hormone, a simple pill to take the devil out of human nature….

Here one cannot help but be reminded of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where another automotive engineer, Henry Ford, was god, morality was but a faint memory, and drugs were the panacea for human ills.

Elting Morison, in Men, Machines, and Modern Times (1984), suggests that since technology forces humanity into its categories, humanity has no choice but to create a new culture to accommodate it.  He proposes that a series of small experiments be performed world-wide, with “man as the great criterion” (or, perhaps more accurately, the great guinea pig).  Apparently, a successful experiment will be one in which humans thrive, while an unsuccessful one will be one where humans “break down.”  Rather oddly, Morison believes the military provides us with the paradigm of how to proceed.  In his words:

They [the military] have the nuclear weapon that has fulfilled the exaggerated extreme toward which the system always tends … But for practical purposes they have created around this extreme a whole arsenal of carefully graded instruments of limited destruction – old-fashioned armaments of lesser power and new weapons of modulated nuclear energy.

It’s shocking how Morison waxes nostalgic over those “old-fashioned” weapons, and his addition of “modulation” to atomic bombs makes them seem downright cozy.  As George Orwell observed in his famous 1946 essay entitled Politics and the English Language, “such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”   Thus cluster bombs that send shrieking hunks of shrapnel through the air, napalm that sears lungs and burns human skin, and atomic artillery shells that annihilate armies (but not cities, we hope) become, for Morison, “modest examples of how to begin to proceed.”

A more pessimistic prospectus for the future of technology is held by Arnold Pacey in The Maze of Ingenuity (1980).  For Pacey, history reveals that technology cannot “easily accommodate the broad aims and the mixture of human and technical factors which a socially-orientated direction of progress in technology … require[s].  Thus the efforts made to encourage a more directly social form of technical progress … have been relatively ineffective.”

Pacey attributes this failure to the dominance of the mechanical world view.  Beginning with Galileo, Pacey maintains, scientists and engineers restricted their own view of the world, blinding themselves to the larger purposes of technology.

Pacey does more than lament, though.  He offers several potential solutions, all of which seem flawed.  He assumes that new, less destructive, technologies are needed to meet human needs, or to ease poverty, yet the world currently has enough resources to end poverty, and present technology could doubtless be used more constructively.  Pacey also unconsciously undermines his argument by citing education and medical care as “examples of how continuous improvement is possible without any large accompanying drain on material resources.”  Unfortunately for Pacey, both education and medical care are currently (and rightly) under siege in this country.  Despite large sums of money spent and countless reform proposals, education remains mediocre, while medical care remains compassionless and costly.

No wonder Pacey despairs.  He half-heartedly mentions other potential balms, e.g. critical science, which pursues “careful, rigorous researches into the relationship between technical innovation, nature and society,” and general systems theory, yet it is unclear from reading Pacey how critical science differs from general systems theory.   In the end, Pacey supplies the reader with little in the way of hope, for he despondently observes that systems theory is corruptible.

In the end, we’re left with today’s dehumanizing technological imperative, as noted by Carlo Cipolla, a noted historian of technology, in this passage:

Each new machine … creates new needs, besides satisfying existing ones, and breeds newer machines.  The new contrivances modify and shape our lives and our thoughts; they affect the arts and philosophy, and they intrude even into our spare time.

To prevent this dominance of the machine, science and technology need to serve social and humanitarian needs more directly.  In “Thinking about Human Extinction,” George Kateb holds that individuals must attach themselves first and foremost to existence.  This attachment “cannot be cultivated by way of a theology that bestows [from the outside] meaning or worth on existence,” and it must be able to withstand “all temptations to go along with policies that may lead to human and natural extinction.”

Existence is justified by a sense of beauty; specifically, Martin Heidegger’s wonderment at the very indefiniteness of existence.  For Kateb, “because there could have been earthly nothingness … one must finally attach oneself to earthly existence, whatever it is, and act to preserve it … [To this end] persons must be schooled in beauty to acquire the disposition to sustain wonder that there is earthly existence rather than none.”  In sum, we must learn to revel in the very fact of humanity’s existence against the longest of cosmic odds.

In a world that grows ever more fragile with each passing day, an appreciation for the fragility of our existence, as well as an abiding compassion for humanity, is exactly what we need from our scientists and engineers.


Sources in order of citation

Samuel C. Florman, Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981).

Hannah Arendt, “A Symposium on Space: Has Man’s Conquest of Space Increased or Diminished his Stature?”, The Great Ideas Today 1963 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1963).

Robert R. Wilson, “The Scientists who Made the Atom Bomb,” Science, Conflict and Society (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1969).

Jules Verne, Five Weeks in a Balloon (1862), quoted in James R. Newman, “The History and Present State of Science Fiction,” Science, Conflict and Society (San Francisco: W.H.  Freeman, 1969).

Paul de Kruif, Life Among the Doctors (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), p. 445, quoted in William Leslie, Boss Kettering (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

Elting E. Morison, Men, Machines, and Modern Times (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1966, 1984).

Arnold Pacey, The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology (New York: Holmes/Meier, 1974, 1980).

Carlo M. Cipolla, Clocks and Culture 1300-1700 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978).

George Kateb, “Thinking about Human Extinction: (I) Nietzsche and Heidegger,” Raritan (Fall 1986), pp. 1-28.

2 thoughts on “Technology and the Role of Scientists and Engineers in Society

  1. I see a great distinction between the application of science and technology to advance human understanding, and the application of science and technology to achieve a predetermined goal. This distinction was apparently realized by J. Robert Oppenheimer after reflecting upon his involvement in the Manhattan Project (i.e. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”).

    The advancement of human understanding should not be impeded. It should be given a completely independent and universal platform to conduct pure theoretical science.

    Projects designed to achieve specific technological goals should be thoroughly scrutinized from a societal perspective. Just because we can build something, doesn’t mean that we should build it.

    The real problem is seeing the difference. Our highly complex and competitive world blurs that distinction. We are so preoccupied with tangible achievement that we become detached from the larger perspective. This unwillingness to see the bigger picture, to think and plan collectively for the long-term, is a limiting factor in human evolution. It has, perhaps, served us well so far. However, our technology has progressed to the point where such short-term subjective behavior is now capable of destroying our civilization if not our species. I believe cognitive adaptation will soon become imperative for us.

    • Yes, I agree. It’s also worrisome to see technological agendas determined by concerns about market share and profit. Concerns about power and control are also in the mix. Much of technology today — at least as funded by the federal government — is focused on weaponry or surveillance, all in the name of defense, naturally. Our growing acceptance of invasions of privacy and various other mechanisms of control is something I didn’t see clearly in 1989. It empowers a tyranny of the minority who can afford access to powerful supercomputers and the like.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s