Engineering 5101

The Idols of Technology


Francis Bacon promised his readers that sound reason
and true religion would guide the modern age.
So they stepped across the threshold to a new world . . .

Standing at the threshold of modern times, Francis Bacon saw in experimental science and technological innovation the keys to humanity's future. Human history to that point, he thought, was an endlessly repeated cycle of despair and false hopes. The false hopes were fed by the old illusion that a few cheap tricks and the right magical formulas would unlock nature's treasury where unlimited wealth and power lay. The despair arose from humanity's seeming inability to escape from subjection to the natural forces that periodically visited famine, disease, pestilence, and destruction upon it. And that despair was perpetuated by established religion, with its fondness for handing out apparently endless punishments to Adam's descendants for the crimes committed in Paradise so long ago. The theologians of the day regarded these sinners as having already at their disposal quite sufficient means for doing mischief, and so viewed as alarming and inadvisable the prospect of an enlarged human technological capacity.

And there was another source of despair: the routines of society and politics. To Bacon, society offered the depressing spectacle of equally undeserving sycophants competing for the available insignia of honour and preferment, along with the right to squander frivolously their disproportionate shares of the far too limited stock of material wealth. Politics was for him what we call today a "zero-sum game," where any person's success in advancing to greater power and influence inevitably was in direct proportion to his or her capacity to ruin someone else's fortunes in equal measure. These wastrels and experts in bureaucratic maneuvering were so attentive to the business of enhancing their own shares of the available spoils at the expense of others that they had no time to devote to enlarging society's economic product as a whole.

Bacon was obsessed with the idea that all this could be changed, and so simply, if only society's rulers could be persuaded to champion his project for the conquest of nature by promoting the mechanical arts. He despised the condescending attitude toward the experimental sciences that pervaded the intellectual establishment of his day, and he tried to shock his contemporaries out of their complacency by insisting that the human mind, as well as human hands, required adequate technological "instruments and machinery" for its work.(1) These comments introduced his great book, The New Organon; or, True Directions concerning the Interpretation of Nature (1620), in which Bacon tried to identify the obstacles that blocked the way to a scientific approach to the understanding of nature.

Bacon's Idols

Those obstacles were epitomized in four types of "idols." For Bacon, the idols are "false notions which are now in possession of the human understanding, and have taken deep root therein," which work actively against a true understanding of scientific method a remarkable anticipation of the later concept of ideology (2). The "idols of the tribe" stem from the inherent, universal structure of the human mind, such as the limited range of our senses, the tendency to draw conclusions from insufficient evidence, and a search for certainty in areas where there is no reasonable basis for it. The "idols of the cave," on the other hand, arise from particular forms of culture and education, which frame the outlooks of individuals and are expressed in particular prejudices; these cultural "blinders" strongly influence our perceptions of events and channel our understanding of the world in ways designed to reinforce the hegemony of approved traditions.

The "idols of the marketplace are the most troublesome of all," Bacon says. These errors, hidden in our languages themselves, come from the conventional usages of words as they evolve over time. Habitual modes of expression, which reflect the past experiences of generations, are applied to new situations, and people using those expressions cannot see that the words they are using do not really describe the events to which they are being applied. Finally, the "idols of the theatre" are the false notions that are perpetuated by the great systems of thought, especially religion and philosophy, that happen to become predominant in particular cultures and spawn dogmas that resist questioning and attempted refutation.

In his utopian fantasy, The New Atlantis, Bacon imagined a setting in which the obstacles to his program existing in his times would be swept away completely. But even Bacon would have been astonished and made a little uneasy, I think, at the prospect that within a few centuries Western society would be driven by purely secular ambitions and would elevate experimental science and technological innovation to so privileged a position in its pantheon of public values. The great triumphs of science and technology are among the most cherished accomplishments of the modern age; and in ironic reversal, they are also the sources of some of our new idols.

A Modern Idolatry

Our idols of technology are the false notions that have grown up around modern society's fervent commitment to technological progress. In the first place, the sustained successes in technological innovation throughout modern times have given rise to characteristic systems of thought in which are embedded our own "idols of the theatre." In such thinking we are given the impression that modern conditions compel us to bring our values and institutions into conformity with the nature of those technologies themselves. We encounter statements to this effect all too frequently, for example, in discussions about the coming of the so-called "information society." One Canadian federal government report on this subject states with a flourish that "the advent of microelectronics is rapidly and irreversibly leading to a major and fundamental transformation of western society."(3) This is a good example of what may be called "technological hyperbole," which is the systematic and unwarranted exaggeration of the general social effects that may be expected from introducing new technologies. It is often matched by "technological fetishism," which consists in making far too much of the specific characteristics of new technologies themselves, as if they could be expected to wreak magical transformations in our lives.

Second, there is the notion that our commitment to science and technology itself marks a qualitative break within all previous human history, which beguiles us into thinking we are now immune from the "superstitions" that ruled older civilizations. What misleads us here is that our everyday language has become so saturated with technical jargon and scientific pronouncements that we pay too little attention to the autochthonous drives, expressed in the fear and hatred of peoples and customs different from our own, still humming deep within us. So the attempt to devise one of the very latest and most complex technologies imaginable, the so-called "strategic defense initiative" (better known as "star wars"), which if it could work as planned would be a triumph of human ingenuity, was announced by the same political leader whose discourse at that time also told of his implacable determination to overcome the forces of an "evil empire." This deceptive quality of our everyday language expresses well our own set of the "idols of the marketplace."

Third, there is the idea that every technological breakthrough is a triumph for humanity in general, and thus that we do not have to worry about the actual distribution of costs and benefits that attend its utilization. Those who are actually affected by the introduction of new technologies traditionally have not been called to give evidence on its consequences, and we hear only about general increases in economic productivity and social welfare. This is especially true when, because of the structure of international trade, the benefits are confined largely to the innovating country and major negative impacts are felt among nameless regions abroad. In this pervasive dissociation of the intrinsic characteristics of techniques themselves, on the one hand, and the actual short-term social impacts that result from their uses under existing institutional arrangements on the other, is found our own set of the "idols of the cave."

And fourth, the undeniable achievements of our modern science and technology, and their clear superiority over every earlier human approach to the investigation of natural forces, soon gave rise to an attitude of arrogant superiority toward all other ways of interpreting the human experience of the surrounding world. Beginning in the seventeenth century this "scientism" first set about stamping out its competitors among other systems of natural philosophy, and already by the nineteenth century it had turned its scorn on traditional religious, social, and ethical paradigms: the "scientific method" would suffice, it was claimed, as the sole "rational" approach to any and every question of values, social justice, and ultimate meaning. Scientism remains a lively and forceful part of our intellectual landscape, and the various modes of its expression represent our own set of "idols of the tribe."

Through the idols of technology we are led to believe that, if we hope to extract the collective benefits from new technologies, we shall have to make certain changes in the way we behave, changes that we might not wish to carry out did we not feel compelled to do so. This vague sense of subjection to forces beyond our control is indeed the combined, overall effect of the four types of contemporary idols of technology. Since the promised benefits from technological progress can be substantial indeed, we are left with the impression that we are under technology's thumb, so to speak.

The belief that we are under pressure from the technological imperative cannot be just dismissed as a simple-minded mistake. The scope and pace of technological change has been and remains a looming presence among us, its relentless march throwing up new problems while the older ones are still being apprehended and long before they have been addressed at all adequately; and our awareness of this pressure is compounded by our realization that no individual industrialized nation can insulate its existing share of economic wealth against continued challenge from innovating forces elsewhere on the globe. The common mistake is not in thinking that such pressure exists, or in believing that it is heavy (for it is), but in holding that our institutional responses to it are somehow predetermined and thus cannot be guided by choices grounded in enduring values. The history of the modern era may be taken as a case study about our collective fascination with the products of scientific and technological innovation and about our inability to exorcise our persistent anxiety over whether those products can lead us into the promised land of universal abundance and contentment. We have dreamt of how complete mastery over the environment will spring from our science and its instruments, with all matter and energy harnessed to our desires, and finally with the capacity to engineer life itself, putting the evolutionary fate of all existing species, as well as new ones designed to our specifications, at our disposal.

We also have recurring nightmares about those instruments, nightmares in which inexplicably we lose control over the process of technological change, in which our instruments appear to take on a life of their own and lead us to a place where things are not at all as we expected, or desired, and moreover where there are no markers showing us the way back. I understand these fantasies about autonomous technology to be metaphoric, deriving from the paradox of control with respect to the relation between humanity and nature. The instrumentalities furnished by modern science and technology, which finally appeared to realize humanity's long sought mastery over its external environment, turn the species' own lack of self-control into the means for an orgy of environmental degradation and intraspecies violence that threatens its own viability.

Bacon's Wager

Francis Bacon urged his contemporaries to take a chance on the immense benefits sustained technological innovation would bring to society as a whole. He acknowledged there was a risk that the enlarged human powers won through artful control over natural forces could be used for destructive or mischievous ends. But, he argued, the scale of the risk paled in comparison with the immensity of the promised benefits, and thus it was a risk well worth taking. Besides, there was a good way to manage the risk: in a famous passage in The New Organon, he reassured his readers that "sound reason and true religion" would guarantee that the exercise of human power over nature would be carried out responsibly.(4)

Over the ensuing centuries established religions were displaced in industrialized societies as guarantors of responsible behaviour in such matters. Instead the effort to manage the risks stemming from technological applications has been internalized within the interactions between science and society. In a number of important senses, managing the process of technological innovation in modern industrial societies is nothing but the assessment, communication, and management of risks. Through an understanding of the nature and consequences of risks, governments, businesses, and the public seek to monitor and control those industrial products and practices that are potentially harmful to human health, the well-being of other species, and ecosystem functions. These attempts are classified under a variety of headings, the most commonly used being risk assessment or risk analysis, risk perception and acceptable risk, risk communication, and risk management.

Managing the risks associated with technological innovations in practice means both government and individuals making difficult choices on highly complex matters. Industries, regulatory authorities, and citizens must determine levels of acceptable risk for environmental and health hazards for instance, those caused by toxic chemicals. They do so through such operations as choosing appropriate extrapolation models to estimate human health risks on the basis of animal test data. All these parties must also make choices about how to balance estimated health and environmental risks against the estimated economic and social benefits to be derived from using toxic chemicals, in full knowledge of the likelihood that new information accumulated in the future will show that certain earlier choices were incorrect.

For members of the public, managing the process of technological innovation means making choices about the truly bewildering array of risks present in industrial societies, both voluntary (such as smoking or skiing) and involuntary (such as airborne lead or occupational hazards). Some entailments, among many others, are deciding how to regulate one's exposure to voluntary risks, how to rank risks in relation to each other, and deciding how much governments should regulate hazardous products and processes and should spend on reducing risks associated with them.

During the first few months of 1989, for example, there were significant public controversies in North America about a variety of health and environmental risks. There were widespread reports of contamination of food supplies by pesticide residues, leading to estimates in the daily press of a significant number of additional deaths from cancer for the population as a whole. There was a controversy over a chemical (alar) used as a growth regulator for apples, even more animated because the focus of debate was on the possibility that children were especially at risk because of their heavy consumption of apple juice. And the massive Alaskan oil spill highlighted the risks of catastrophic environmental damage to animal species and economic losses to fisheries industries.

The Century of Environmental Crisis

As the twentieth century draws to a close, the endemic struggle for political domination among land-based empires, which reached truly global dimensions in the Second World War, appears to have run its course, having been stymied by the very technologies of destruction it brought into being. The entertainments afforded to military bureaucracies by localized conflicts remain, but only the most sanguine warmongers among us believe that there will be anything left salvaging after general nuclear weapons exchanges.

We stand at the threshold of a new era that will be marked by environmental crises on a global scale. Some of them will be a function of pressures on environmental resources from a larger human population in the so-called economically underdeveloped world; in China and elsewhere, they will face the bitter truth that they have no hope of escaping the age-old scourge of inadequate satisfaction for basic needs via the route mapped out by the richer nations, namely by squandering fossil fuel energy and dumping their wastes wherever they choose. Other crises will stem from the accumulated global residue of centuries of earlier industrial development and environmental degradation atmospheric pollution, toxic chemical wastes, climatic change, massive deforestation, loss of fertile soil, radioactive wastes, reduction of biotic diversity, ocean pollution, and contaminated freshwater supplies. These and other hazards will be the inescapable reality of everyday life in the twenty-first century. Moreover, many of these threats are on such a massive scale, and have such momentum driving them, that no action we take now, no matter how drastic, and no existing or foreseeable political or technological remedy, no matter how sophisticated, can forestall their irresistible magnification. Nothing can stop the destruction of tropical forests in the near future, and we shall be fortunate to preserve a few specimens here and there for tourist attractions. If by some miracle all manufacture and uses of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were halted today, the migration of CFC compounds already present at lower atmospheric levels to the upper atmosphere, and their destruction of ozone there, would continue for decades to come. Our existing technologies around the world are hooked on fossil fuel energy sources, and no amount of alarm about global warming can cause an appreciable reduction in fossil fuel use for many years.

In confronting such problems we will find that the risk assessment and risk management strategies we have in hand are, by and large, quite accomplished techniques for addressing very specific problems, one at a time, that are limited in scope. (For example, an estimate of the risks and benefits of a particular pesticide, considered all by itself, where reliable test data results have been obtained, and assuming that it will always be used in carefully controlled applications by persons who will take the required safety precautions.) Even here we must note that such risk estimates will always carry a measure of uncertainty, and that there may be later evidence of environmental or human health hazards that were unforeseen because of our incomplete knowledge.

But in the coming century of environmental crisis we will be faced with many problems that do not have such neatly structured dimensions. The solutions we possess or can devise are mostly for single problems, but there are undoubtedly a host of synergistic effects among toxic agents of which we are only dimly aware. We can do nothing about some of the dangers that are painfully obvious owing to the inherent momentum in current uses described above. Above all many of our incipient crises are spread across nations whose economic, social, and political situations diverge sharply, and there are few grounds for being optimistic about forging a common front against them. Bitter complaints about international inequities attend every international conference on global environmental issues.

At some point, I suspect, we shall be brought to the brink of collective despair about the trajectory of modern civilization and the paradox of control in the relation between humanity and nature that it set before us. The scientific and technical instruments themselves will be denounced, often and loudly, as the chief villains of the piece. There may be calls to begin the trek back across the historical threshold where Bacon stood and offered his wager.

If so, one must hope that wiser voices will prevail and be heard to say that only the hand that inflicts the wound can heal it (as I believe Hegel said). We shall need every ounce of technological ingenuity and scientific understanding to pull us back from the abyss of irremediable environmental disaster. But there is no hope of healing so long as the illusion persists that those instruments themselves can bring about the harmonization of human interests.


* Presented at the symposium, "Progress," Universite Laval, 6 June, 1989. This paper is drawn from the opening and concluding chapters of my book, Under Technology's Thumb (1990). Copyright: William Leiss, reprinted here with permission of the author.

1. J.M. Robertson, ed., The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon (London: Routledge, 1905), p. 257. See William Leiss, The Domination of Nature (New York: Braziller, 1972), chap. 3.

2. The four idols are set out in Sections 38-68 of The New Organon, in Philosophical Works. There is a contemporary parallel in the literature on "risk perception," in which various types of popular misunderstandings of the nature of current environmental risks have been categorized. For example, see the exposition and references in Vinccnt Covello, "Informing People about Risks from Chemicals, Radiation, and other Toxic Substances: A Review of Obstacles to Public Understanding and Effective Risk Communication," in W. Leiss, ed., Prospects and Problems in Risk Communication (Waterloo: University of Waterloo Press, 1989).

3. Arthur J. Cordell, The Uneasy Eighties: The Transition to an Information Economy, Background Study 53, Science Council of Canada (Ottawa: Ministry of Supply and Services, 1985), p. 133.

4. Francis Bacon, The New Organon, in Philosophical Works, p. 301.