Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2014
I would like to present the following questions as a structural prelude:
a) How and for what purpose technology is created?
b) How does technology serve humanity?
c) What does humanity expect from technology?
d) How are those relations regulated and by whom?
This mode of approach to 'searching for truth,' fortunately, begets more inquiries than any other. The issue of Identity in each case will become self-evident at every turn. So, we ask and search:
1. How do human organizations, as designed by humans, govern polities?
Current web-site analyses indicate that the medical-sites register the heaviest use. Humans are concerned with their health in a variety of iterations. If you will, it is the choice of the marketplace. But, humans must tend to the business of life. The humans live in communities, which necessarily choose definitions for their polities. Polities cannot exist without explicitly appointed and generally known socio-legal laws. In defining those rules, societies decide how they are going to be organized and ruled—either consciously or by default—and how the common functions of the community are going to be financed. Either the members of the polity take the matter in their hands, and write a charter, or, allow—by not taking any action, such as not revolting against an invading force—the overlord (open, or secret) to write the rules for them.
There is no polity that can live without taxing itself. Communal functions need financing just as individuals in their private lives. The only question is how that taxation is going to be arranged. That is, the flavor of governance defines how the communal spending decisions will be made in the polity. This taxation may be in the form of forced labor, part of crops raised, or in cash.
Earliest codifications of communal rules, such as Hammurabi's laws, Asoka's columns, Roman twelve tables, Solon's laws, Ten Commandments do not always openly address the issues of taxation. All those codifications are meant to, in the first instance, to secure a society living in relative peace and order, regulating interpersonal relations. Even though there certainly was taxation in all of the named polities, the matter of relations between public finance and securing harmony in that society were not directly linked. The American idea of "no taxation without representation" is perhaps the first time the case of polity governance and public finance was brought to the same platform.
The Magna Carta of 1215, signed between the Barons of the English polity and the King was also an attempt to restore harmony at a higher level, among and within the governing strata rather than directed strictly at the public good. Napoleonic codes, to a certain extent—whether influenced by the American declarations or not—(not forgetting the Swedish example), followed the thought that it was necessary for the government to spend part of the tax income toward constructing state infrastructure such as roads, ports, and so on. This construction of the infrastructure was meant to stimulate the economy, so that more income would yield greater tax receipts, as well as organizing the polity for future wars. It was recognized, by experience, that the increasing cost of fighting wars, defensive or offensive, required maximum use of all available resources. And, the state—or the ruling strata— could not accomplish that task alone; participation of the members of the polity was imperative, with or without their consent.
Thus, the nature of governance determines the nature of public finance. "No taxation without representation" model gives the taxpayer a say in the tax rates, and how and for what those receipts are to be spent. If the governance turns out to be authoritarian, then the state or the designated agencies thereof will dictate terms to the populace. In an authoritarian polity, a very small percentage of individuals who manage to appoint themselves as the guardians of public good will decide what is good or permissible. The remainder, the majority, will often have no choice but to obey, until they "rebel," because they do not posses any meaningful input into the process. And, it is undeniably their resources that are being spent.
2. Inherent conflicts between authoritarianism and pluralism
Authoritarianism and pluralism have always been polar opposites and formed the 'outside boundaries' of human governance modes from the earliest times. The primary motive for organizing a governance system within the polity was survival; either against the forces of nature, or as a defense against armed neighbors (immediate, meaning, next door; or long-distance, across the border). It is intended to make life easier for the polity. Likewise, in any sub-community, such as settlements, individuals usually seek means to make their lives easier for themselves. What is now known as technology is no more than methods and techniques developed by able individuals to perform a task with greater alacrity and efficiency. The tendency has been to replace human (or biological) effort—muscle power—with mechanical operation. We gather, initially it was the humans what pulled the plough to till the soil. Then, oxen or horses replaced the humans; later steam-powered tractors called locomobile, took over. All were supplanted, in time, with machinery powered with an internal combustion engine.
As far as the landowner was concerned, the mechanical replacement of human power was beneficial to the users; it reduced overall costs. But, this replacement began a new stratification in the society. Only those with the necessarily large land holdings could afford the mechanical contraptions, which, in turn, increased the crop yield and accrued greater disposable incomes. To combat the disparities in income between the small-holders and large farm owners, some polities instituted, at various times and localities, "state farms." These institutions ostensibly worked for the benefit of all members of their society. Yet, at the same time, the state or communal farms transferred the mode of production from private to public means. Now, some governments were controlling the food production directly. That led to the direct political control of the populations by the governing strata.
Transfer of resources from private hands to public also had additional repercussions. Rather than individuals creating new technology (means of labor saving), governmental bureaucracies obtained the funds from tax receipts to conduct research and development work. The matter is further compounded, when the government pouring public money into technology development happens to have an authoritarian flavor.
The production of technology in such an authoritarian society will also be within the monopoly of the state. Any and all access to knowledge—including education and developmental laboratories—will be tightly controlled according the perceptions and goals of a central administrative apparatus. And, the uses of technology will also be dictated by those high bureaucrats. Even though the process involved is the classical "guns-or-butter" issue, as defined by Paul Samuelson, in authoritarian polities it is not the general public but the bureaucracy decides the percentage.
When the polity decides that it will instead have a governance system we term as "pluralistic," then the decisions may be made accordingly. Pluralism will allow for much more individuality, provided decisions made by a single individual does not curtail the rights of others. Rather than governmental agencies or bureaucrats, persons with ideas and energy will begin the process of harnessing innovative technology. The aim of the creative individual here, of course, is to make and accumulate personal wealth—as opposed to increasing the direct power of the state. This, the creative individuals may choose to effect by means of Mercantilist Monopoly. In that case, all the applicable identity issues and approaches will be identical to that of the authoritarian state.
3. Role of technology in the human conflict between authoritarianism and pluralism
A short overview of authoritarianism and pluralism may be beneficial:
Authoritarian governance system comes in several flavors, and can be organized around a belief system (Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, et al); a social order (communism, socialism, mercantilism); military leadership (juntas of various degrees and social orientations); philosophical strain (utopianism, stoicism, realpolitik, opportunism); or, commercial interests (mercantilism, capitalism, 'mixed' economy). The ruling strata of an authoritarian society is usually very small, and seldom allows participation of any kind from the masses it controls. It is generally inflexible and doctrinaire, seeks to impose a particular set of rules on the society no matter what the cost.
Pluralism, on the other hand, has rarely achieved a wide-spread application in the practical sense. Republicanism and democracy came closest, but not entirely. True pluralism would allow for all the voices in a polity equal hearing. This aspect makes pluralism a highly contentious system, requiring moderation by a category of individuals we might term opinion leaders comprised of various specialties. Anyone may aspire to join the governing process, and make a contribution. It can also be noted that pluralism provides the most flexible approach to problem solving, but it is also the most expensive (and, some say, the noisiest) means of governance. It takes a long time to make policy and mobilize large resources for the good of all. However, the pluralistic governance best harnesses the energies of a society or polity.
The allergy or dislike some societies have for pluralism stems from the fact that it takes a long time to find and apply solutions to problems facing the polity; no one sub-group is allowed to dominate; the cost of decision-making is the largest; the end product rarely satisfies everyone. Essentially, every participant is required to compromise at some point. Yet, the process facilitates living together—provided compromises are spread among all participants according to their population proportions and the general living conditions.
Either authoritarianism or pluralism may emerge from any of the above enumerated belief, social or military, philosophical or commercial systems. That is an outcome of particular conditions in the life of the spawning polity in the given time-frame. Technology, amidst this tug-of-war, may serve to consolidate the rule of one system over the other. The outcome of this competition between two diametrically opposed systems depends on the ability of the polity to balance the ensuing partisanship. "Nationalism," often in extreme forms, under whatever guise or terminology, emerges under such conditions, to redress imbalances—either real or imagined.
4. Strains between the interests of the technologists and society
In considering the relations between society and technology, we must remind ourselves of the inherent natures of both. The governance methods (authoritarianism or pluralism—or anything in between those) are well-defined. There are only so many types of governance systems, all evolved to their present stages since humans appeared on earth. For all practical purposes, general governance methods are unchanging. Almost everything about them is known—at least for those who care to pursue that knowledge. Therefore, governance becomes personal, in that authoritarianism or pluralism may acquire and display the face of a single individual, symbol or token.
Technology, on the other hand, continually changes. What drives technology (of course, apart from a desire for personal advantage) is the discovery of the laws of nature by individuals. And the design of methods by which those laws can be applied to solve problems—be those problems fictive or natural. The laws of nature have always been there; but not necessarily known to humans. This is unlike laws of governance, which have always been available.
Technology, too, may thus present the face of an individual or institution to the world. For the purpose, there are even more "named awards" in the world of technology celebrating the accomplishments of individuals who manage to understand the laws of nature.
Here, we reach a paradox: It is a human that discovers a heretofore unknown law of nature, or designs a means of doing a task more efficiently. Some of those designers and discoverers become so attached to the results they have achieved, they begin to disregard the effect their product will have on their immediate polity, or the humanity at large.
At this juncture, the 1990s televised debate between three technologists and three humanists come to mind. All six were eminent in their fields; some even were household names. Over the course of an hour, the technologists insisted that, as they put it, "Technology is where it is at. It is the future." In return, the humanists shot back with the statement that "The technologists did not get it." Neither side could "see" the other's point of view. And none attempted to elaborate on their viewpoints. They parted without changing their own understanding in the least, let alone the public in general.
Upon reflection, one could observe that the technologists were referring to the way humans are living their daily lives, and the influence of technology on every activity of individuals in a given polity. But the humanists, mainly historians, were thinking slightly more broadly. They were envisioning that, an authoritarian government can easily monopolize all available technology. In doing so, that authoritarian government can restrict the rights and actions of its citizens. The examples abound. What is important is how humans govern themselves. If the governance system is not pluralistic, all technology becomes a hazard—not a benefit— to the community. It is not the technologists who decide the fate of polities, or construct the methods of governance. The technologist only becomes a tool or designer for either side; depending on the awareness or lack of the same by the affected polity. In the end, it is not the technology all by itself that tips the balance between authoritarianism and pluralism; it is the use of technology in the hands of the partisans of either side.
5. Possible resolution to the tensions
One might take a popular spectacle, say a science fiction yarn, as an example, and there are many of those available to the general public. In those presentations, the "empire," or a "government" uses technology to destroy the individuality of the so-called "rebels" who may happen to be pluralists wishing to live their chosen lives. And the technology constitutes the main support of the emperor or the "leader" in his quest to stay as emperor, by destroying the home worlds and societies of those who wished to have another means of governing themselves.
Of course, the subject matter is a movie, or several movies, by definition, a fiction. Or, is it? By admission of the writers of those movie scripts, the events forming the backbone of the stories were taken from the experiences of past societies, from real life past and present. Only the technology depicted on the screen was new. In fact, so new, it did not even exist. In actual historical societies, the invention of the iron smelting was a tremendous technological innovation. That new weapon gave the advantage to their owners and users. So was the cross-bow. But the struggle was still the same: what kind of a society were they going to have; authoritarian or pluralistic? Who shall govern: an emperor, or the members of the polity, through their representatives or votes? That there are variations of both the authoritarian and the pluralistic modes of governance, for example, mercantilism and capitalism; democracy and socialism, does not materially alter this equation.
The same issue was contested once again when the firearms were introduced by technologists. The cycle was repeated yet again, with the invention of the nuclear weapons, not to mention numerous others in between those. In the future, the contest will continue, with whatever new technological ways are invented.
The interactions among the society and technology are not limited to the nature of governance, the eternal struggle between authoritarianism and pluralism. There are tensions—essentially— between society and technology within a pluralistic society. Let us take the very recent case of genetically engineered foods and plants.
Genetically engineered plants provide higher yields, resist traditional (natural) maladies afflicting the non-modified varieties. As a result, the technology companies and the food-processors can earn higher returns on their products based on the genetically altered foodstuffs. But, what about the effects of those altered foods on the humans? What happens when the consumers decline to buy them? The European Union refused to allow US origin genetically engineered soybeans and fruits. That is their choice. Can the companies overcome the consumer resistance by insisting that there is no danger from genetically altered foods? Who decides, and how?
The stated objectives of those genetic engineering companies may be read in their stock prospectuses. Of course, all were established legally for pecuniary interest. Yet, the products they develop already had influence on the society, usually without the knowledge and consent of the polity. When those companies develop tastier, longer lasting and suitable for packaging tomatoes, most consumers (and farmers; individual or corporate) benefit. When the product begins to interfere with nature's cycles, then the results must be audited by those who will be affected. For example: What happens when the lawn-grass genetically altered not to grow more than a few centimeters an entire year produces pollen that interferes with food crops? When crops fail, because the altered pollen of one species stunts the growth, who will answer? Who will pay for the cost of feeding the populace? And who will pay when that leads to the extinction and extermination of various species—be it plant of animal that earned, up to that point, a livelihood for individual farmers?
Examples abound, and are scarcely limited to genetic engineering. One can cite the present court cases involving two technology companies charged with predatory and monopolistic practices? One revolves around a company that copied an operating system and made it a monolith, and the other became dominant among charge cards by threatening to raise service fees and driving out competition (to raise the fees in earnest later, without competition).
We already discussed the inherent struggle between the authoritarian and pluralistic modes of governance. The basis of pluralistic governance is the ability of individuals to make choices without interference. But, those decisions cannot interfere with the rights and benefits of other members of the polity either; or, other polities. If there is such interference, then, that will form the bases of another conflict; usually technology will be involved.
The governance system of the polity will include provisions to make that right of choice available. But, nothing can be permanent, if the members of the polity do not defend their rights, their rights to right of choice. We, humans have seen, many a time, the transformation of a pluralistic (more or less) governance system turning authoritarian. We have observed republics becoming empires, choices being restricted, or altogether being eliminated.
Technology, therefore, is called upon by societies to solve the problems facing humans; not to create new ones, or aid the repression of societies by new means. This issue is valid not only for authoritarian societies, but also to the pluralistic ones. For example, does a company, a private entity, has the right to curtail the right of choice in a given society? Does the fact that companies may insist that they are not restricting the right to choice change that? The right to pursue the development and exploitation of technology does not mean having the right to restrict or eliminate the right to choice by the society. The aforementioned anti-monopoly cases must be viewed from that point of view as well. Returning to the case of debating technologists and humanists, we can now begin to place events, and issues, into larger and proper perspective. There is no question that technology will progress, as it is part of the human nature to be inquisitive. On the other hand, technology will have to be in aid of humanity, and not the other way around. Humans cannot allow technology to dictate terms, precisely because the technologists are humans, and must live in polities and societies. Therefore, it is incumbent upon all members of a society to engage in a continuous dialogue, without doctrinaire or inflexible approaches.
Humans are capable of learning, provided they wish to acquire the knowledge that will lead them to a life affording more and responsible choices. That betterment requires an intake rich in variety if it is to yield more choices. Just as a human body biologically requires a wide range of foods to sustain its metabolism, the human mind is also in need of multiple sources of stimulus to maintain its humanity. A single-source diet leads to defects. And in the case of the mind, a single-track approach will yield low returns. The remedy lies in acquainting the mind with sources from the collective experiences of humanity, without forgetting the cost of that wisdom.
The "Borg," another TV series, is the creation of human minds as well. That program, too, attempts to represent another facet of authoritarian governance system. Against which, humanists, the crew of a starship, even if they are technologically very advanced, are fighting to preserve the right to choose. The Starship crew also learned their humanity from the large body of humanistic literature available to them—and, yes, through technology, on-line.
*As can be readily inferred, the reference is to:
Tracts of Mr. Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury containing I. Behemoth, the history of the causes of the civil wars of England, from 1640 to 1660, printed from the author's own copy never printed (but with a thousand faults) before, II. An answer to Arch-bishop Bramhall's book called the catching of the Leviathan, never before printed, III. An historical narration of heresie and the punishment thereof, corrected by the true copy, IV. Philosophical problems dedicated to the King in 1662, but never printed before.
Thomas Hobbes, London, 1682 Printed for W. Crooke.