home > archive > 2012 > this article

Computers and society from the 1980s to today (Part Three)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted August 6, 2012

Computers and Society: Future Perspectives and Current Dilemmas of Technological Advance

(The essay below originally written in March/April 1986 – author's note.)

It might be noted that the concepts of science and technology are closely linked. This might offer one way to move towards discerning the societal impact and implications of technology, by looking at the societal impact and implications of science. Modern science, or the modern scientific method, which prevailed in the nineteenth century over other modes of thought (or can be seen to have prevailed) is certainly an invariable contributor to technological progress. The modern scientific approach to the world can be see as one that  excludes other approaches, and can therefore be seen as a sort of rarefied thought-system, which would seem to be able to co-exist (easily or uneasily) with other thought-systems or ideologies. Modern technology could be seen as the praxiological application of modern scientific method to social existence by the creation of tools / artifacts / physical objects which are made for the manipulation and control over the physical, and therefore, the social environment. According to Karl Popper, science is (or should be) an a posteriori, empirical, and non-axiological study of actual or possibly occurring (physical) states of affairs.  [10] There might be some question whether this strictly scientific method can justifiably be applied to the study of the realm of social environment and processes. One might also question whether any political theory or thought-system or ideology can be justified as "scientific". [11]

One could draw the distinction between a thought-system and an ideology here. A mode of thought or thought-system would be any defined / coherent world-view / approach to reality, e.g., William Blake's poetic cosmogony. Omitting certain areas of human existence from its concern is one way a thought-system deliberately focusses itself. An ideology would be a confluence of several related thought-systems which have been linked together into a socially significant construct in the minds of those persons who govern / rule /dominate the society, as well as among those who seek to replace them. [12]

The scientific/technological thought-system, expressed in ideological form, has had some impact. However, this influence is small compared to the impact of the idea of "science", and this, in turn, is dwarfed when compared to the impact of technology. Scientific positivism, expounded by Karl Popper and others, could be seen as an "ideology" of science. However, it far more often happens that Science is easily or uneasily joined to another ideological system in order to give it legitimacy in modern eyes. This would seem similar to the invoking of the Bible by both the Catholic Church and Martin Luther to prove opposite points. One should note that there are interpretations of Science which are far different from the conventional positivist one, which would allow its co-existence within various ideologies. [13]

It is often argued that the spirit of dynamic technological change lies at the heart of the modern world. It is plain to see that the amount of theoretical scientific knowledge is growing exponentially, as is the number of chemicals / substances / tools / devices which are being produced as a result of the growth of scientific theory. This process is also fuelled (mainly) by the market economies of North America, Western Europe, and the Pacific Rim. Today, the so-called fifth-generation computer emerges as one of the most advanced technological devices ever developed by man. The process of scientific, technical, and material progress cannot be denied.

Yet what, one may ask, is the End or telos of modern technological society? George Parkin Grant, a classical conservative and Canadian traditionalist-nationalist, reaches a starkly negative conclusion as to the future of technological society. He sees a near-identity between the "spirit of dynamic technique" and what he calls "corporate liberalism" which is expressed in the desire of mastery of "human and non-human nature" – the essence of modern society or modernity. [14]  A thoroughly secular society, possessing no real social or moral ethic, will become a technological hell. Hell, in this sense, means a society deprived of God and the spiritual and transcendent, however superficially materially comfortable. It corresponds largely to the "Brave New World" of Aldous Huxley, where Truth has been abolished and every orifice is incessantly satisfied in a never-ending, mindless hedonism. [15]  The development of computer technology would therefore be seen as part of a larger pattern which the computer may drive forward, but never counter-act.

Another bleak picture of the future occurs in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. This book shows the nightmare of the ultimately coercive state beside which even Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union pale in intensity. One of the book's brilliant aspects is the illustration of semantic control, exemplified in Newspeak, an artificial language developed for ultimate normative control. In fact, it is stressed that this control of language, of the meanings assigned to different words expressing political and social concepts, is the key to the maintenance of the whole system. The scientifically-directed torture, involving drugs, electric shocks, and special mechanisms, is an element of the novel disturbing in itself, suggesting the ultimate use of technology to enslave man. The telescreens, which are both a monitoring and broadcasting system which is ever-present and unavoidable, ensure continuous control. [16]

In view of these nightmarish views of the future, which are already partially realized in certain areas of the world --e.g., the mindless hedonism of Southern California or Sweden; the psycho-prisons of the Soviet Union (where belief in God is considered a "pathological delusion"); or the manipulation of language and music and images by the North American mass media – one hesitates to feel optimistic about the future.  [17] ESR

Notes (rendered continuously)

  1. This is the logical positivist view of science.
  1. Since values are, by definition, axiological.
  1. Note that the omission or ignoring of certain aspects of human existence could be seen as an almost natural process of most thought-systems. Nevertheless, there would be thought-systems which are more essentially true than others. The duty of the political philosopher is to discover the trans-societal, trans-experiential thought which lies behind the values of multiple human societies and to seek to elucidate it, as well as to properly describe current human societies.
  1. For example, Stanley L. Jaki argues there is no essential conflict between the Christian religion and science. Plato's conception of science was entirely different from Popper's.
  1. George Parkin Grant states his fundamental thesis in the short but influential book, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism – that Canada is doomed in the age of the universal, homogenous, world-state. The irony of his position (which Grant himself recognizes) is that while he sees technological (so-called) "progress" as determining the course of the future, he himself is bitterly opposed to this direction, which will end in the destruction of all that has ever had meaning.
  1. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was a bold, revolutionary work when it appeared in the Thirties. The prophetic extent of Huxley's vision in uncanny.  Huxley explicitly said that he wrote the work to warn of the abuses of a scientific, technicist viewpoint.  Brave New World is a material utopia which is nevertheless hell, because God, traditional religion, history, philosophy, real love, the family, and everything else of true value are no longer present in it. Some would say it represents the final result of modern liberalism.
  1. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is arguably the greatest English political novel, or perhaps the ultimate guide to social and political thought and control. It should be noted that all the worthwhile "eternal verities" absent from the Brave New World are doubly absent from the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Some would argue that Nineteen Eighty-Four was already partially realized in Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union, or even exists to some extent in the Soviet Union of today [1986].
  1. George Orwell has created an entirely new vocabulary of political words: doublethink, thoughtcrime, reality control, Thought Police, untruth, Big Brother, Ministry of Love, Newspeak, Orwellian, and so forth, which are used in different ways by different people in our society.

To be continued.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






Site Map

E-mail ESR



© 1996-2023, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.