Can technological progress be brought to a halt? Despairing technological determinists like philosopher Jacques Ellul feared that technology had escaped the bonds of human control and was now, in some sense, an autonomous force. In The Technological Society (1964), Ellul declared, "Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity." So in his view technological progress is, alas, inevitable. But is that so?
Northwestern University economist Joel Mokyr has written a remarkably interesting history of Western technological progress over the past two centuries, called The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (2002). Gifts masterfully analyzes how the growth of scientific and technological knowledge has underpinned 200 years of amazing economic growth in the West.
But why the West? "[T]he true key to the timing of the Industrial Revolution has to be sought in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the Enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century. The key to the Industrial Revolution was technology, technology is knowledge," writes Mokyr. "The rate of technological development has been deeply affected by the fact that people who studied nature and those who were active in economic production have been, through most of history, by and large disjoint social groups."
The 18th century saw the rise of institutions in Europe that established firm linkages between scientific and economic actors. These included scientific societies like the British Royal Society and the convention that scientific knowledge be made public rather than kept secret. Eighteenth century Europe also fractured into many independent sovereignties at the conclusion of the religious wars that had wracked continent for the previous two centuries. This political diversity promoted greater freedom of thought among merchants, scientists, and other thinkers, who would often simply pick and up leave if the government of one place displeased them.
Useful knowledge, according to Mokyr, comes in two varieties. The first is propositional knowledge about natural phenomena and their regularities, e.g., the law of gravity and the germ theory of disease. Propositional knowledge can then be used to create instructional or prescriptive knowledge; that is, to develop such techniques as disinfectants to control germs. The new propositional knowledge was widely disseminated through a growing network of scientific and engineering journals and encyclopedias. These publications gave inventors cheap access to information, enabling them to develop new technologies such as steam engines, locomotives, canning, anesthesia, electric motors and lighting, and the production of nitrogen fertilizer.
History, according to Mokyr, shows that "technological progress in a society is by and large a temporary and vulnerable process, with many powerful enemies with a vested interest in the status quo or an aversion to change continuously threatening it. The net result is that changes in technology, the mainspring of economic progress, have been rare relative to what we now know human creativity is capable of, and that stasis or change at very slow rates has been the rule rather than the exception. It is our own age, and especially the rapid technological change in the Western world, that is the historical aberration."
Rapid technological and economic growth is indeed an aberration. It took nearly 1,800 years for per capita incomes in Western Europe to triple, from about $450 in 0 A.D. to $1,269 in 1820 A.D., according to economic historian Angus Maddison. But then the scientific and technological revolution hit, boosting West European incomes with unprecedented rapidity, up 13-fold to $17,456 in less than 200 years. That adds up to a mere 39-fold increase over the average income in the Roman Empire, almost all of it in the last two centuries.
But given all the benefits that modern scientific and technological enterprise has bestowed upon humanity, why would anyone want to vote "no"? "Technological progress inevitably involves losers, and these losers...tend to be concentrated and usually find it easy to organize," notes Mokyr. "Sooner or later in any society the progress of technology will grind to a halt because the forces that used to support innovation become vested interests. In a purely dialectical fashion, technological progress creates the very forces that eventually destroy it."
Candle makers, after all, cannot be expected to hail the invention of the electric light bulb, nor hostlers the advent of automobiles, nor canal-boat owners the building of railways, nor TV broadcasters the laying down of cable systems.
Mokyr notes that, historically, "technological progress has a better chance in the long run in free self-organizing market societies than in command economies." However, this is exactly what dismays technology critics like Ellul. If technological decisions are left to people freely acting in markets, those who favor a new technology can vote "yes" by buying it or switching to it. Those who oppose it can refuse to buy or use a new technology; but, as Mokyr notes, they "have no control over what others do even if they feel it might affect them. In markets it is difficult to express a no vote."
Thus it is no surprise that opponents of technological progress often want decisions about new technologies to be made in political arenas. Opponents of a given new technology believe that they will have more luck by lobbying their local congressperson or member of parliament to vote to prohibit its development. The European Union's effort to slow the introduction of genetically enhanced crops is a contemporary example of this process at work.
The defining political conflict of the 21st century is shaping up to be the battle over the future of technology. Fortunately, technological progress doesn't just have opponents; it also has boosters. The rise of neo-Luddism is calling forth self-conscious defenders of technological progress. Growing numbers of extropians, transhumanists, futurists and others are entering the intellectual fray to do battle against the neo-Luddite activists who oppose biotechnology, nanotechnology, and new intelligence technologies.
One such pro-technology group, the Institute for Accelerating Change in Los Angeles, would give Jacques Ellul nightmares. The IAC doesn't just favor technological progress; it promotes accelerating technological progress exponentially.
"Activists, bureaucrats, and lawyers are hampering promising research and making it more costly," writes Mokyr. "But the achievements made possible by new useful knowledge in terms of economic well-being and human capabilities have been unlike anything experienced before by the human race. The question remains, can this advance be sustained?"
That is indeed THE question for the 21st century.