Technological Improvement

Themes

Many people today assume automatically that technology is progress. Still, there
is some criticism of this view in America, partially because of 20th century
wars and arms races. Marx visited China in 1984, and it seemed as though the
Chinese were incredibly optimistic about western technology, and had little
sense any problems that technology might create. Where did this idea of
technology as progress come from, and where do the roots of distrust of
technology come from? Early Americans like Ben Franklin saw technology as a
means to achieving social and political liberation for the masses; it was part
of the revolt from authoritarianism. If some technology, especially the factory
system, would jeopardize these social and political goals, then that thing isn’t
worth its price in quality of life and should be rejected. As America became
more industrialized, the new industrialists who had both money and power came to
see the technology which they helped produce as an end in itself, or as a means
to more purely economic ends. The used phrases like “manifest destiny”
and “the conquest of nature” to help justify the increasing forces of
technology, even at the cost of the environment or Native Americans, all in the
name of “civilization.” Technological advancement is seen as
advancement, period, regardless of what social and political changes it might
bring. There was a great deal of optimism that if we continue to make scientific
innovations, the rest–quality of life, and social and political ideals–will
take care of itself automatically. The “technocratic” ideal, which
sees everything as parts of the machine, began to take control, and humanitarian
goals like justice, freedom, and self-fulfillment became secondary. Technology
was accepted unquestioningly, and efficiency and scientific progress were the
main goals. This is the stage that the Chinese seem to be at, says Marx.

However, there was some backlash from the technocratic view. Emerson, Thoreau,
and others questioned whether we were remaking America for the better, and
whether we were beginning to almost worship technology. They questioned whether
new inventions were “improved means to unimproved ends” (p. 12), and
whether we’re becoming “the tools of our tools” (p. 12). However, it
was hard to take this too seriously when rapid improvements were being made in
the material conditions of life. Today, as we’re becoming aware of some of the
unintended effects of technology, many people are starting to wonder if
technology is always a good thing. Is technology better used as a tool for
social and political progress, or is it instead an end in itself? Moreover, can
technology cure all of our social and political problems (for example, SDI)? The
early notion of progress which saw technology as a mere means to more important
ends provided natural limits, and a way of assessing particular pieces of
technology. If, however, we view technology as an end in itself, we’re not led
to ever question its value or place any limits on it. Marx thinks we need to
consider what we want our technologies to accomplish. Does technology mean
progress? Progress toward what, Marx asks. What are our goals? When we answer
that question, we can see that technology does not automatically mean progress
toward those goals
Philosophy

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