4 Views of Technology and Progress

Dr. Harvey Brooks
Dr. Harvey Brooks

The following throwback article comes from the archives of Research Management, the precursor to IRI’s award-winning journal, Research-Technology Management (RTM), and appeared in the March 1971 issue.

What Can Technology Do About Technology?

By Harvey Brooks, Dean of Engineering & Applied Physics, Harvard University (1971)

There are currently four different viewpoints, or approaches, to curing the pathologies of our technological civilization. None represents a panacea, but all have contributions to make.

As the title of my paper may suggest I start with the assumption that technology is here to stay, and do not plan to waste your time defending technology against its critics, or describing some less technological and more idyllic past that either exists only in the imagination or was exemplified in the life style of only a tiny and privileged minority. Technology has brought more freedom, more rewarding jobs, and enhanced self-respect for most of the human race. And, unless that species is even more irrational than I think, I doubt that they will knowingly consent to rejection of the ways of life that technology has made possible, or of its sources.

In short, I start with the assumption that for the foreseeable future our gross national product will continue to grow at about the same rate as in the recent past, and that the only realistic remedy for the pathologies of our technological civilization is more, better, and more wisely managed technology.

By economic growth I do not mean only personal consumption and private investment. When I say that we will have continuing growth I do not mean growth of the same composition of the past. One of the reasons for our present troubles may be looked upon as the result of unbalanced growth, or, as it is put by Dr. Thorkill Christensen, former Secretary-General of OECD, lack of harmony in growth. The unbalance exists both in respect to composition of demand and in respect to productivity. We are today paying for the fact that we have neglected the infrastructure of our society for essentially 40 years—first, during the Great Depression when we failed to use our productive resources to the full; second, during World War II when we devoted most of our gross national product to the sinews of war; third, in the immediate postwar era when we devoted all our resources to filling long pent-up consumer demand; and finally, during the series of alarms and excursions of the Cold War, in which our gross national product and private investment were again disproportionately diverted to military and national prestige purposes. Throughout this period, it was not personal consumption, but the social infrastructure—local government, education, the medical care system, public transport, the judicial system—that was sacrificed to the requirements of the external challenge. We had guns and butter but not guns and hospitals. It is clear that if our society is to survive at all, more resources will have to go into this infrastructure in the future to cut into the large backlog of delayed maintenance in our society.

All this is not unrelated to technology. It is not only that the growth in private consumption must be accompanied by a concomitant growth in infrastructure. In the foreseeable future, the latter must grow considerably faster than personal consumption. As stated by Andrew Hacker in his recent challenging book, “The End of the American Era,”

“As personal income rises, the ways individuals spend their additional income tend to create social problems that did not hitherto exist. In other words, the disruption caused by the expenditure of every new private dollar is more severe than that brought about the last.”

In a sense, our failure to heed this fact over the last 40 years, and to spend increasing amounts to deal with the disruptions produced by private expenditure, has brought us to the present pass, in which many are questioning the very concept of economic growth. In consequence, our central task for the next two decades is well stated in a recent OECD report in the following terms:

“But the general problem of how to put the fruits of growth to meeting social wants, and how to mitigate the costs and nuisances created by growth, is common to most countries… For these reasons, a study of some of the central problems of longer-term growth in relation to resource allocation, technological advance, and social choice, and the development of the kind of national and international policy action needed to give better direction to the growth process, should be a major task for the future…”

Our problems are magnified by the fact that the very areas in which our economic and social growth have been most deficient are also areas in which rise of productivity has been very much slower than average. Because the general wage level in the economy has been set by those sectors with the fastest rate of productivity growth, there has been an escalation of costs in the lagging sectors, which has increased society’s resistance to putting money into them. Prime examples lie in education, medical care, environmental management, and municipal services, as well as governmental services generally. The services that have suffered most severely are those that depend on public funds—tax money or charity. Today, education, public health, waste disposal, urban transportation, public housing, social services, and environmental protection, are all disaster areas of first order, in part because a dollar buys less and less relative to its purchasing power in personal consumption.

Yet productivity in all these fields can be improved only through the imaginative application of technology, conceived in the broadest sense to include not only hardware but also new management techniques and new methods of organizing work. They are thus a challenge to technology in the next two decades, and it is for the most part a kind of technology different from the kind we have learned so well to develop and deploy in the postwar years—a kind of technology with a much higher component of software than hardware, in which social consensus and political consent may be more crucial than economic efficiency or technical elegance.

The question naturally arises as to what sorts of instrumentalities and institutions are likely to deal with these problems. Let me review a few themes that one finds floating around these days.

Social Responsibility of Industry

There is no question that some of our problems may be ascribed to the too short time horizons of industrial planning. Like all institutions and professions in our society, industry has tended to blind itself to impacts and implications of its activities that extend beyond its mission as currently conceived. This is a natural consequence of the fact that the impact of industrial decisions becomes ever wider as society becomes more complex and interdependent, and that perception of responsibility on the part of individuals and institutions lags considerably behind this widening impact. Just as the medical profession regarded its job as the cure of patients rather than the protection of the public health, so industry regarded its responsibility as the satisfaction of its customers and the reward of its employees and investors, with less concern for the effects of its actions and policies on more diffuse public concerns, such as pollution, or statistical safety, or population movement, or the disappearance of uneconomic but socially valuable services such as urban public transportation.

While industry, and especially big industry, has shown a commendable increase in concern with these matters in recent years, I do not think that industry, as industry, can make more than a small dent in such problems. The alleviation of these problems requires cooperative actions, and any organization or institution that departs too far from the norms of its competitors will be penalized, first by reduced earnings and growth and eventually by total disappearance.

Even if social responsibility may be shown to pay in the long run, this run may be too long for any industry to afford. Or, to paraphrase an old saw, in the long run we’ll all be out of a job or the president will be fired, or perhaps the division manager. Only if all competitors in an industry must meet the same standards and bear the same costs can the ingenuity and initiative of industry be brought fully to bear on problems of general public concern.

But society has to set the standards and the competitive ground rules. Industry can help significantly by cooperating and even taking the initiative in the formulation of the rules, rather than resisting them automatically and thoughtlessly as an invasion of the inviolable prerogatives of management. But I believe it is a dangerous myth that industry, by voluntary action alone and without other social intervention, can be expected to deal with the disruptions produced by economic growth.

In essence, industry can only participate effectively to the degree that it is rewarded for doing so, and the industries that do the best job—for example, in non-polluting production—reap the largest rewards. Even here we have to proceed with caution. We have already seen how changes in standards for sulfur dioxide emissions have disrupted the market for low-sulphur [sic] fuels and produced all sorts of secondary consequences. Even in responding to rules made in the public interest, the separate actions of individual corporations can lead to unexpected and undesirable consequences. It is not only technology that has unforeseen by-products. The regulation of technology may have equally important and unforeseen consequences.

Industry and Development of the Social Infrastructure

Another theme, more heard a few years ago than today, is that industry would solve our infrastructure problems if government would provide it with sufficient resources. We have the case of the four aerospace studies in California, the RAND Corporation for New York, the boom and bust of the “education biz,” and many highly touted applications of systems analysis to local and state government problems. We also saw the private development of totally planned new towns, using the resources of modern technology and modern social science and the operation of Job Corps centers and ghetto industries by private corporations.

None of this was without value. It may even have been worth the money spent on it, although we have precious little way of judging. But one thing is clear: It was no panacea for the ills of modern society, and unfortunately, the damage done by the arousing of unrealistic expectations may have exceeded the good done by the modest concrete accomplishments. The systems analysis movement collapsed almost as soon as it began. It foundered on a number of stubborn facts—the most important being the stubborn irrationality of human nature, and the impossibility of managing conflicting values, interests, and self-images in the same way one managed trade-offs between cost, performance, and reliability in a new weapons system.

Let me not be too negative. There is much that is still hopeful in the discriminating application of systems-type thinking, once we have scaled down our expectations to match the difficulty of the problems, once we recognize the meagerness of the resources we have so far been willing to divert from personal consumption, and once we find ways to enlist the talents of the qualified people in competition with more satisfying jobs in industry, government, universities, or the mass media.

In sum, there is a role for industry here, and an important one. But industry will require more than money to deal with the problems, and a degree of coordinated effort that can be planned, measured, and rewarded only through a high degree of competence, dedication, and sophistication in the public sector. It will not be done with myriads of small and loosely coordinated study contracts to industry dispensed by an overworked, understaffed, and, above all, rapidly turning-over bureaucracy in Washington. We are still in the Project Vanguard stage of involving industry in social problems through direct government purchase, and I am persuaded this itself will never be the answer. It involves too much intervention in the bureaucracies and professional guilds that control and dispense many of the public services whose lack of productivity in comparison with manufacturing is a major source of our crisis.

Consumer Sovereignty and Participatory Democracy

Another panacea has come to the fore recently. I might term it the universal application of consumer sovereignty. If you are a “conservative” economist like Milton Friedman, you call it the free market. If you are a “radical” like Paul Goodman, you call it participatory democracy. But I have been struck by the amount of coincidence between the ideologies of the two groups. Both want to put power in the hands of the consumer, whether in the form of the transfer of discretionary income through taxation or in the form of decentralization of educational or medical bureaucracies and their accountability to democratic pluralities of their beneficiaries.

Now, this is a very natural and understandable development—a revolt against the paternalistic philosophy that has dominated liberal thinking since New Deal days. Give educational coupons to parents and let them choose their own schools. Put ghetto residents in charge of their local health centers. Replace welfare by a negative income tax. Put students on curriculum committees. Extend the possibilities for class actions and damage claims in environmental cases. Greatly extend the judicial liability of the producer for the secondary effects of his products.

There are many ideological currents mixed up here. One is a fascination with the automatic self-regulation of the market. Modern economists—even some of the most liberal—have rediscovered Adam Smith and the invisible hand, rejuvenated by modern econometrics and feedback theory imported from electrical engineering. Another component is what I would call the perennial liberal illusion—that is, faith in the superior wisdom and altruism of the dispossessed and underprivileged. A third component is a universal disillusionment with bureaucracies and guilds, and their ineluctable tendency to substitute rationalization of their institutional or professional status for service to their clients. I have a great deal of sympathy with all of this, but I do not think it is more than a very partial answer at best. The downtrodden of yesterday soon become the hard hats of today. Bureaucracies and guilds have their foibles.

But expert knowledge is essential and we cannot run a society as interdependent as ours if, as Hacker says, “Most people estimate their (own) opinions too highly to adhere to any consensus, let alone one involving common goals.” In one direction, consumer sovereignty leads to bombing buildings and war on American society. In another it leads to the “tragedy of the commons,” that is, to people acting in their own apparent self-interest, but to the collective disadvantage—witness auto traffic, or slums and suburbs.

Where mutual or collective interest runs counter to immediate individual self-interest it is hard to see how consumer sovereignty can lead to socially better results, or even how democratic group consensus can arrive at a superior collective wisdom. I will admit that guilds need some outside accountability, perhaps more than they have now in education and medicine. Bureaucracies also need to be called to account whether they be in industry, government, or education. But how much, how often, by whom, and by what standards and criteria?

Industry has developed one marvelous universal measure of accountability—namely profit. It is objective and impersonal and hard to argue with. But, as we know, it has its limitations. There are some socially important things it does not measure, and it may even reward anti-social behavior in some instances. But we do badly need similar objective and impersonal measures of performance in the non-business sector. Program, Planning and Budgeting (PPB) was a rather feeble effort in that direction. Technology assessment is, in part, groping for the same thing, as is the social-indicators movement.

What we are in fact talking about is a technology in itself—a technology for measuring and monitoring the social performance of many of our institutions—that will command widespread acceptance and is relatively free of suspicion of manipulation in the interest of the producers and, at the same time, does not subject the producing institutions to capricious and damaging political pressures. Only to the degree to which we can develop such objective standards—which might be thought of as the social equivalent of profit—can we successfully extend the principle of consumer sovereignty in the public sector.

The Ecological Viewpoint

Another frequently mentioned panacea is a “revolution in values” in our society, usually identified with “adoption of an ecological point of view.” This is, of course, a favorite of the young, with their revolt against what they see as a society preoccupied with material goods and powered by material rewards. Man must learn to live in harmony with nature, they say, not to exploit or conquer nature. They even blame the Judeo-Christian tradition for what they see as its fundamentally exploitative view of nature, as exemplified in the biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply.”

There is both a salutatory and a ridiculous element in this viewpoint. One could argue that man really only lived in harmony with nature in early hunting and gathering societies. Some such societies exist today that apparently have social mechanisms for controlling their numbers at well below the level at which they dangerously exploit the resources of their environment. Anthropologists have studied one tribe of African Bushmen that lives well above the subsistence level by working only three days out of seven, controlling its numbers by infanticide and abortion. These people are said to be marvelous physical specimens—healthy, happy, and relatively peaceful. This society seems to me to be the only logical outcome of the pursuit of ecology or environmental harmony as an ideology. There is really no logical stopping-point in the reversal of technology prior to that.

Some modern romantics seem to look to the small-town rural America of the early 1800’s as the model of a non-materialistic utopia in which the simple virtues were universally practiced and every man was his own master. Aside from the fact that I do not believe it, I would point out that the American economy of the early 1800’s was not a steady-state situation. It was only viable through the exploitation of large families in agriculture and through the continual rolling back of a frontier to which the misfits or the adventurous or enterprising could escape.

I suggested at a recent conference, not entirely facetiously, that perhaps our friends, the systems analysts, should devote some efforts to constructing simulation models of some of the utopias proposed by the humanists. Could you really construct an input-output matrix for a steady-state society, somewhat resembling America circa 1830? What kinds of values could it sustain? For example, what value on a human life? My colleague at Harvard, Harold Thomas, who made his reputation on simulating large-scale river basin systems, has actually constructed such a model for the Bushmen, and it works. That is, it works with the rather simple and plausible assumptions that it comes to equilibrium with the environment at about the Bushmen population. That may be a novel application of technological assessment.

More seriously, though, what sense can be extracted from the ecology movement? I guess I start from the technological preference I announced at the beginning of this text. Ecology makes sense to me only in human terms. I do not accept that man owes anything to nature beyond his own future well-being. The preservation and enhancement of the environment is something we owe to the future generations of man, not to the balance of nature. I thought this was self-evident until I got a letter from a dedicated conservationist denouncing my anthropocentric bias, to which I freely admit. I cannot agree that the preservation of every extant biological species is an absolute good to be set above any conceivable human benefit that might come as a by-product of its extinction. In the course of evolution, nature has destroyed far more species than man has, and will probably continue to do so.

This is not an argument for wanton destruction of our planet. Our ignorance of the ecosystem would, alone, argue for extreme caution in disturbing it, and for a tremendous effort to increase our capability of understanding and modeling such disturbances in advance of conducting real-life experiments, which many of the economic activities of man are. Man’s rape of his natural environment is not new, as the vanished forests of North Africa or the Scottish Highlands testify in different ways. But neither is modern man’s record all bad. Soil conservation and modern forestry practice show what can be done with foresight and planning based on scientific research and understanding of basic principles.

These efforts took time, and large commitments of public funds, but it helped make America the bread basket of the world and enabled us to conserve arable land for the future. One hears very little about soil erosion or played-out land or even of disappearing forests in America today. What was accomplished in these areas is clearly feasible over time in water and air pollution. And I suspect that, after an initial threshold, the cost may prove to be very small, or even negative if one considers the social costs eliminated.

More difficult, but still feasible, I think is a similar conservation approach to our human resources. We are beginning to know enough about human development to recognize that the vast majority, if not virtually all, human beings fail to realize their genetic potential in mental and moral capacity. Unfortunately intervention in this situation, we now know, is most effective during the period from about three months to five years, when a child achieves nearly 50 percent of his ultimate mental capacity. And this is the period of human development that is least subject to social control. I have always found it ironic that the alarmists continually bombard us with the alleged potential evils of genetic manipulation, while showing little concern with the effects before our eyes of indifference, ignorance, neglect, and laissez faire in the process of early human development.

That is clearly a very delicate and difficult problem. My purpose in bringing it in here is to suggest that we should be looking at the conservation of human resources with the same philosophy and rationale with which, in our most advanced thinking, we look at natural resources and the natural environment. My principal quarrel with the ecological point of view as often formulated is that it tends to set nature above humanity and I think this reflects a distorted sense of values.

In what I have said, I have discussed four currents of thought about our present situation. They are, in order (1) The voluntary social responsibility of industry; (2) The role of industry in the development of the social infrastructure, especially through the application of sophisticated industrial techniques such as systems analysis; (3) Consumer sovereignty and participatory democracy, which though from opposite ends of the political spectrum, represent a common theme; and (4) The ecological viewpoint. I indicated that there is an important contribution to be made through all these themes, but that none represents a panacea, and most cannot achieve much without a commitment of public resources at some sacrifice to growth in personal consumption and private investment.

Reference: Brooks, H. (1971). “What Can Technology Do About Technology?” Research Management, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 12-20.

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