Acute Analysis, Flawed Prescriptions


Blaming Technology, by Samuel Florman, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981, 207 pp., $12.95/$6.95.

Antitechnology sentiment surfaced with a vengeance in the 1970s as modern Luddites began criticizing what was perceived as an uncontrollable march of dehumanizing technology. In Blaming Technology (just released in paperback), engineer and writer Samuel Florman scores these antitechnologists, proclaiming that technology is neither messiah nor archfiend. Despite warnings to the contrary by antitechnologists, the human spirit remains at center stage with technology firmly under people's control.

When discussing technology per se, Florman's analysis is excellent. He first sets out to disprove the antitechnologist's claim that technocratic elites hold the reins of power. Armed with statistics, he shows that technocrats (if that means engineers) hold preeminent places in neither government nor business.

His assumption that real power rests at the top of organizational hierarchies no doubt might be challenged. Real power, the argument sometimes goes, lies with those who possess the information and knowledge with which to make decisions or advise others. Florman himself partially acknowledges this in his discussion of feminism, noting that "for better or for worse, technology lies at the heart of our contemporary culture, and the technologist is akin to a priest who knows the secrets of the temple.…Until women share in the understanding and creation of our technology…they will suffer from a cultural orientation that ordinary power cannot cure.…The ultimate feminist dream will never be realized as long as women would rather supervise the world (as lawyers, managers, etc.) than help build it."

What Florman recognizes in relationship to feminism, however, he seems entirely to overlook in his quest to disprove the existence of a technocratic elite. Still, he does manage to dispel some myths about the pervasiveness of control by so-called technocrats.

Unfortunately, Florman's analysis goes completely astray when he turns to public policy discussion and political theorizing. First, he attempts to vindicate the Army Corps of Engineers, which he claims to be especially subject to abuse by antitechnologists. He contends that if "the sine qua non for irresponsive bureaucracy is an established, independent, and relatively invulnerable fiefdom," the Army Corps of Engineers is nothing of the sort. The corps, he says, plays a key role in pork-barrel politics, making it especially subject to the whims of Congress. From this, Florman concludes that the corps is "an instrument exquisitely tuned to work the will of the people."

To argue that pork-barrel politics and congressional oversight diminish the corps's independence is at least plausible (though even here, many who have written of the iron triangle of agencies, subcommittees, and lobbyists provide reason to believe the contrary). But to equate the results of pork-barrel politics with the "will of the people" is simply absurd.

Florman goes from bad to worse when he leaves aside the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss government regulation. Commenting on an Exxon ad showing the Statue of Liberty entangled in red tape, he retorts, "the Statue of Liberty is not tied up in red tape…she is held together by red tape." Because he considers government regulation so essential, Florman fears that regulatory excesses of the 1970s may unleash a backlash in which not only the "unnecessary" regulations but the "good" regulations are undone as well.

It is astonishing that Florman can at one point recount the highly successful voluntary efforts to set standards for American manufacturing yet ignore potentials for nonregulatory institutions to handle safety, health, and other problems that he blithely assumes require regulation. Also astounding is his faith that regulatory decisionmakers faced with political constraints can be relied upon to "rationalize" regulations.

Florman's attack on the popular "small is beautiful" credo best reveals his sharp understanding of what technology is—but also his woeful ignorance of politics in theory and practice. He demolishes, rightly, the contention that all technology should be "small." Rather, "when engineers are confronted with a problem of design, in which the objective is to satisfy certain human needs or desires…engineers are certainly trying to evaluate the appropriate scale for their designs." But scale alone should not dictate the solution.

When Florman moves on to confront the political implications of the "small is beautiful" theme, he seems to succumb to his own criticism of that theme by advocating bigness as an inherently positive characteristic. "Diversity and freedom in the U.S.," Florman asserts, "are protected and encouraged by strong central institutions—the personal freedoms that we hold so dear are achieved through big government, big business, big labor unions, big political parties, and big voluntary organizations—our protection comes not from petty insurrections, but from that biggest of all organizations, the federal government. And when big government itself is at fault, the remedy can only be shake-ups and more sensible procedures, not elimination of the bureaucracy that is a crucial element of our democracy."

If Florman had been content to refute the myth of the technological imperative, Blaming Technology would have been a terse, forceful, sometimes even brilliant book. Instead, he ventured into political theory and public policy prescription. And, from the superficiality, inconsistency, and ignorance revealed, that was a mistake.

Lynn Scarlett is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and REASON's book review editor.