Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats
VTR Date: September 13, 1982
Guest: Florman, Sam
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Sam Florman
Title: Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Since I began this series in 1956, one of the wonderfully joyous and rewarding aspects of presenting THE OPEN MIND has been the opportunity to explore their ideas with a whole range of extraordinary people. Frequently they write extraordinary books too, like Samuel Florman’s controversial analysis of our contemporary thrust towards what he calls Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats. In it he expresses his concern. Concern with the irrationality that everywhere seems to dominate our discussion of technology. As he writes, “Technology threatens to become in the 1980s what communism was in the 1950s, or even what witchcraft was in Salem in the 1690s. A word so steeped in emotional implication that its very mention drowns out the voice of reason”. I don’t agree with much of it, but in fact, the only real drawback to Blaming Technology, this provocative insight in to the life of the mind, is that I don’t quite know where to begin discussing them. Perhaps then, the best thing to do is to begin with their author, Samuel Florman, a practicing engineer, a practical scholar, a profoundly wise and accomplished writer and humanist.
Thanks for joining me today, Mr. Florman. And let me begin by, well, actually I’m going to read a question, because it became so convoluted as I read your book that I didn’t want to trust myself to just delivering it. In a sense, I take exception to your title, for I wonder, does a person have to be irrational and in search of scapegoats to observe that with all the good will in the world and with much of the available wisdom in the world, technology nevertheless has presented the best of our value system with very real threats that our humanistic resources and skills have not yet mastered? Do you really have to be such a crank that you’re a Luddite to be concerned with what technology is doing?
FLORMAN: Well, I don’t want to argue with people who are legitimately concerned about specific problems caused by certain technologies, most of which, incidentally, have technological solutions. I’m concerned about the generalized obsession with an abstraction – technology with a capital “T”, you might say – that some people feel has gotten out of control. I talk about the myth of the technocratic elite. People feel that technologists, engineers, scientists, people with special training are somehow in control of things, and other people have no say. There is another myth I think of as the myth that technology is – you might call it the myth of the technological imperative – that technology is a force, an abstraction, that somehow is taking us, we know not where, but is moving us in spite of ourselves in certain directions. These are almost phobias. And this feeling that we have lost control because of technology is what particularly disturbs me.
HEFFNER: Are you suggesting then that if one were to abandon the more phobic approach to technology and were to be irrational in one’s criticism not of individuals who are technologically oriented, but of the whole process of what technology has done to our lives, that you would find yourself in agreement with some of the results of what technology has brought us in the 20th, 21st century?
FLORMAN: Well, I’m very much in favor of technological regulation, for example.
HEFFNER: You mean the regulation of technology?
FLORMAN: Yes, technological regulation of technology. Because you can’t regulate technology by simply saying, “Let’s all go back to the farm”. It’s too late for that. Even if you want to, even if you approve of it, which I don’t, you can’t take millions of people who are living in the cities, for example, and say, “Well, now we’re going to grow gardens on our rooftops and get all our energy from some solar magical machine”. We have technology. We have come a certain way. And we can only cope with our technological problems by applying technology sensibly. Clearing up our air, our water, and anything that you please, any objective that we have. Technology is a manifestation of what we are and what we want. And this is why I talk about scapegoats. It seems to me that people are seeing to escape responsibility by talking about technology as an abstraction.
HEFFNER: What do you mean “escaping responsibility”? Responsibility to do what? Responsibility for what?
FLORMAN: Well, we in this country wanted a wealthy society, we wanted to foster trade, we wanted to foster growth. We built dams, for example, to have power and to have water transport to improve our standard of living. We filled in swamps, we built power plants. All of these things we wanted to do as a nation. It wasn’t engineers, it wasn’t scientists who had these ideas. They were ordered, you might say, demanded, wanted by society as a whole.
HEFFNER: But Sam, isn’t it possible then for us to reach a point at which we say, “Enough already”, at which we look at the consequences of this desire, that the serpent in the garden has proven to be a rather dangerous one indeed, that we want the power but that perhaps nuclear power may present us with a threat that we’re not longer willing to accept? Isn’t that possible that we’ve taken these steps and you can say, “Well, we have all done it, but must we continue to go along the same lines”, as you suggest, it seems to me?
FLORMAN: No, no. It seems that we can, if we’re willing to pay, if we’re willing to reconsider, revise, revamp, reschedule, realign the course that we’ve taken. I don’t think we want to do away with power. I don’t think you want to do away with the lights that we have in the studio, with your cameras, with television as a medium, with the grand opera, with the high civilization that we’ve developed. All right. We’re concerned about safety, we’re concerned about degradation of the environment. Again, that is a technological problem, and we can approach it, resolve it, using technology and joining together and deciding what our objectives really are.
HEFFNER: Do you feel that it is totally naïve or irrational to assume that quantitative changes eventually lead to qualitative changes, and that if we pursue the path that we’re on now it’s written somewhere that we’re not going to find things having reached a point where we can no longer really turn back? Can we turn back now? If you answer yes, why shouldn’t we turn back now?
FLORMAN: Some people want to turn back. I think we all want to draw back, and in a sense we are certainly doing that. We have new laws. We have new agencies. We have an Environmental Protection Agency in the federal, state, and many city levels. We are spending money that otherwise, let’s say, we would be spending on other things, to clean up our air, to clean up our water, and to protect the environment that previously we were very casual about. Now, you could say that that is a change of emphasis, a change of direction. Some people, looking at the cities, looking at high civilization, looking even at high culture, say, “Well, this is not for me. I want to go back to a farm, small town, the woods”. It’s interesting, I think, that only within a civilization that is nourished by high technology are you able to make these choices. People are still able, if they’re willing to live as our forebears lived, people are still able to go back to the woods, to the north woods, to the swamps, and live a hard life close to nature. Without technology you don’t have that choice. You lived where you were born, and you lived that hard life. And you didn’t have the opportunity, you didn’t have the opportunity to make the choice to come to the city to be a dancer, to be an opera singer, or to be on television or all the things that we now have available to us as choices.
HEFFNER: But of course you’re talking about how we live. You’re talking about the quality of life. Suppose we would begin to begin to focus on whether we live, on the length of life, and to deal with the product of, obviously not of technology, but of those who have used technology to create instruments of destruction that now make the question of whether we survive at all a question indeed.
FLORMAN: I’m happier being where I am and facing the risks that I do than I think I would be as a peasant several hundred years ago, perhaps thinking I was in control of my own life, but just over the hill Genghis Khan could have been coming with a few hundred thousand murderous swordsmen to cut down everybody in his way. Locusts could have been coming. Floods. People then didn’t have control over their lives. They faced great dangers. They were wiped out. The plague wiped out, what, a third of Western Europe. So yes, there is a certain tragic reality. Technology is not a panacea. Technology will not carry us to Shangri La. And perhaps some of the earliest apologists for technology oversold the product, so to speak.
HEFFNER: You know, it seems to me though, that you say in this truly wonderful book, as I indicated before, when I tuned to the back and all the red-penned markings of pages, and of course there are so many of those pages with words of wisdom that, so many of them, as I said at the beginning of the program, I didn’t know where to begin. But running through it all seems to be the notion that you can’t stop it. I grant that you can’t stop the world because you want to get off. But there seems to be the notion that we no longer have control – which I’ve believed always was the engineer’s, the technologist’s, the scientist’s, the practical scientist’s great characteristic, his control – that you seem to feel we no longer have control. We’re no longer able to say, “Thus far, but no further”. And if we do say, “Thus far”, then we’re being Luddites, that we are rejecting the benefits of technology. Can’t we accept come and reject the rest?
FLORMAN: We can. It’s not technology that’s out of control. If anything is out of control, it’s the human will, the human desire to move to new frontiers, human curiosity. Used to be a song around the time of World War I, “How You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?” Well, most of the people in the world have seen some version of Paree, and they want to move toward the vision that they have. They want more comfortable standards of living. They wan more education. They want to travel, to experience cultural events. This is not technology that’s out of control. You might say, yes, human ambition, human dreams have no limits. And we find when everybody in the world wants more than the world has to provide, the world provides us with limits, and then we have to draw back and reconsider and see well, what can we do about this?
HEFFNER: And yet you are critical of those in the Club of Rome and elsewhere who talk about outside limits. Why are you so critical of those who talk about practical limits and who don’t embrace this notion of an ever-expanding technology? As you say, technology will provide us the answers to the questions that technology raises.
FLORMAN: I’m not at all critical of people who point out limits. The Club of Rome report, the original Club of Rome report was run on computers by scientifically trained people. And when they point out limits in food supply and limits caused by growing population, this is a technological evaluation. And I am very much impressed by some of the work that they did. But other people in the Club of Rome are idealists. There’s nothing wrong with being an idealist, but they are, many of them, irrational idealists, and they think we will change human nature, and therein find our salvation. I look back on several thousand years of recorded history, and I don’t see any evidence that human nature is going to really be changed. I think people are…As a matter of fact, this country was founded by people who looked back on history, our Founding Fathers, and decided, “Well, human beings are imperfect. If they were angels we wouldn’t need government. And therefore we have to somehow confront the imperfection of the human being, the ambition of the human being, and somehow create a society that will roll with the punches, and do as much as we can to permit each person to pursue happiness”.
HEFFNER: But if we were to confront that aspect of our personalities that point toward growth, toward bigness…You pooh-pooh the notion that small is better. You like the grand vistas, even those of the urban areas. Our mutual friend Joseph Woodcrooch seems to you to be a person who abandoned reason to a certain extent as he became involved with a smaller life, a life alone, a life in the desert. Where is it written that we cannot, technologically or otherwise, reverse what has been this push toward bigness, which has been this push toward the development of complexity in our lives? If it should be that we find greater happiness in simplicity, must we continue to push and push and push long the lines of technological development?
FLORMAN: Not at all. I don’t believe that most people want simplicity. If they have too much hectic activity then they say, “Boy, I’d love to have a little simplicity”. But if they’re stuck on a farm somewhere or off in the woods, then they say, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great to be able to go and visit Paris or London or go to the opera? Wouldn’t it be great to go to the Metropolitan Museum of art? Wouldn’t it be great to visit a great university?” You can’t have a great culture, a high civilization without a high technology.
HEFFNER: Well then, this quest for simplicity really isn’t so irrational, is it? You seem to be saying, “If you live in a highly structured, industrialized city, if you live in a big society, you search out at times that small unit. And if you live on the farm, you look for the equivalent of “Paree”. You’re not then talking, are you, about irrationality? You’re talking about the nature of human nature.
FLORMAN: That’s true. That’s true. But in dealing with our inability to be satisfied – which is what we’re talking about – you can cope with that logically and say, “Gee, I can’t be satisfied. When I’m in the country, I wish I were in the city. And after I’m in the city for a long enough time, I wish I had a little peace and quiet. How am I going to make my cities more congenial? How am I going to make the country more comfortable? How am I going to make it possible for people to choose?” Or you can say, “This technological society of ours is just running away and ruining us, and we are headed for doom no matter what we do”. That’s why I try to differentiate between people who consider the tragic realities of life and the people who just refuse to face the ultimate problems and try to find their scapegoats wherever they may be. Technology is just one scapegoat. I’m an engineer, so it’s a scapegoat that arouses a certain tension or anger, resistance in me. There are a lot of people who say, “Well, the country would be great if it weren’t for television”. Maybe that arouses a certain resentment in you. It seems to me that…
HEFFNER: None whatsoever.
FLORMAN: (Laughter) Well, it seems to me that television is also a manifestation of what people are. And the choice of scapegoats is, as I said earlier, an escape from personal responsibility, and allows people to throw up their hands and refuse to participate in a democratic government.
HEFFNER: But look, moving on to a slightly different plane, technology gives us power. Our society in this country has built largely upon the notion that there is something in power itself that can very easily become destructive. It is basically dangerous. It is not just that power corrupts, it is that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. But hat the concentration of power that derives to a very great extent from technology has within it the seeds of destruction. And I don’t think we can move away from what technology in the hands of our counterparts has brought us to today. And I think again of nuclear power. Is it possible to have that kind of power without finding it ultimately, inordinately, potentially destructive? And is it being a Luddite really not to want to foster the continuing development of that power? Is it so irrational?
FLORMAN: I think it’s irrational to blame technology alone. After all, we have education. If we didn’t have education people wouldn’t have ambitions, people wouldn’t be learned, people wouldn’t have desires. So you could blame everything on education. You could blame everything on the arts. You could blame everything on religion, which makes people want some ineffable something beyond their daily experience. I go back to human nature. Now, I do believe that the people in this country are – what are we, six percent of the world using thirty-odd percent of the resources – and because of this we are, we have a defense establishment to protect our happy or advanced position, you might say. Now, there are some people, and I tend to feel for them, who say, “Well, let’s draw back form this. Let’s not be a great power. Let’s not abuse our power. And let some, have other people have a chance, and we won’t need all our armaments and we won’t need to be looked at as villains”. But I don’t believe – although this position is held by some very sensitive and some very intelligent and well-meaning people – I don’t believe that that is the feeling of the majority of the people in this country. I think that most of the people are happy to have the edge on the rest of the world, and reluctant to give it up.
HEFFNER: Sam, I wasn’t talking about a nuclear freeze so much, literally wasn’t, although there would seem to be indications that in terms of majority opinion nuclear freeze, the notion of nuclear freeze is not so far removed from what most fearful people are concerned with. Actually, I was talking about the development perhaps of the peaceful used of nuclear energy, as an example. I don’t want to make it a scapegoat. But if one were to express the ideas that you have expressed in this wonderful book and sitting here, at the end of the last century, you would have been dealing with such death-dealing devices as the automobile. You would have been dealing wit the awful things that were happening in building the great cities, etcetera. And one can look back at that and pooh-pooh those things and say, “Would we really have given up, chosen, opted to give up the advantages of technology?” And the answer could be “no” for those things. But the answer could also be that today the genie is so far out, so far out in the open now that we’ve got to find some way to stuff it back in that bottle, because now we are confronted with not the automobile, not with television, but we’re confronted with a kind of power that is so absolute that we’re dealing with perhaps ultimate destruction. Do you have any feelings along those lines?
FLORMAN: Well, if you’re talking about nuclear power…
FLORMAN: …as opposed to nuclear weapons…
FLORMAN: I don’t consider that to be a genie out of a bottle.
HEFFNER: You don’t.
FLORMAN: It’s a dangerous technology. You might say it’s a touchy technology. But the burning of coal, statistically, is a much more dangerous technology. It’s more acceptable to people because it is less obvious more insidious. The burning of coal is statistically more dangerous, takes more lives than nuclear power. I don’t…Nuclear power is unique. It sort of gives you the willies. I’ve been in a nuclear plant, and it’s kind of creepy. And I like to think of nuclear power as a transition power between the burning of oil, which we can’t go on burning forever, and gas which we are finding in diminishing supply, and coal which we find is dangerous and expensive to burn. Perhaps nuclear power will just fill a certain niche until such time as we develop solar power and other sources. And the feelings of people about nuclear power, it seems to me, are very well integrated into what is happening, very well manifested. We haven’t ordered a new nuclear plant in several years. The cost of nuclear plants is going way, way up. The control of nuclear plants is getting more and more careful. And this all reflects the anxiety of people, just as the construction of the nuclear plants reflected the ambitions of people.
HEFFNER: Then I must have misread certain parts of your book, because you’re being so much more accepting now of the fact that nuclear, the development of nuclear plants has been slowed down, almost stopped. Your book didn’t make me feel that way.
FLORMAN: Well, when I’m talking to a reasonable person, I’m inclined to become reasonable. When I am talking to people who have lost control and who become angry and vicious and really throw on the issue of nuclear power all their personal frustrations and phobias…There are certain issues that really go beyond technology. It’s interesting…fluoridation, if you recall a number of years ago, was an issue that aroused people. Somehow people on the right, conservatives, resented the imposition of fluoridation by the government, whereas liberals were very much in favor of fluoridation. Now…
HEFFNER: They didn’t see it blowing up in their faces.
FLORMAN: Well, but they might have seen it as poisoning the entire nation, as certain conservatives did. They were both new technologies that were being brought into being and against, you might say, the wishes and the fears of certain portions of the population.
HEFFNER: Sam Florman, we’ve come to the end of the program. But I hope you’re right in equating the concern over fluoridation with the concern over nuclear power. Thanks so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.
FLORMAN: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.