Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Book Review: Arnold Pacey, The Culture of Techology (MIT Press)

Arnold Pacey: "The culture of technology" (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1983), 179 pages, extensive chapter notes, index, select bibliography.

            Pacey's critique of technology's "culture" is witten by an insider. He is a proponent - and practictioner - of "appropriate" technology in 3rd world development programs. His basic thesis is simple. Technology consists of three components:

1- the technical aspect (equations, nuts and bolts),

2- an organizational aspect (administration, management, institutional support, government policy) and

3- a cultural aspect which includes the values and goals of the technologist on the one hand and the values and practices of the users of the technology on the other.

            Pacey identifies two major flaws in technological thinking and policy making which often render "development" projects problematical. First there is "technical viruosity": engineers naturally take pride in their work. This can definitely be a good thing. It generates enthusiasm, esprit de corps, a sense of mission. The downside comes from a fixation on the "sweet" or "sexy" technical fix when another, less expensive, organizational fix might be more appropriate to a given situation. Consider the use of nuclear reactors for power generation in equitorial third world countries where less energy is actually required - no winter heating bills! - and where solar energy is abundant. In such contexts, nukes are like using a pile driver to crack walnuts..

              Technical thinking is also, too often, affected by various forms of tunnel vision. The social context in which a technology is to be implemented is often ignored, for example. It is assumed that equivalent infrastructure suport will be available in the new operational setting as in the old. Sometimes this is an error: technologies may be put to new uses in new settings, uses for which the equipment was not designed. All of these situations can reduce the effectiveness of the new technology or simply render it inoperant in short order.
              To counter these problems, Pacey argues for maximized public participation in the conception of large scale projects such as dams, electrical generation stations or nuclear reactors. The idea is to mesh "user values" with "expert values" and, through dialogue or "dialectic" between the two  set of values, arrive at a truly optimized complementation. Today, "optimzation" is too often limited to bottom-line, purely economic considerations.

            One discussion I found particularly fruitful related to "linear" versus "innovative" perceptions of technical progress. Bureaucracies and large insitutions tend to view technical progress as an inevitable, inherently logical, quasi-mechanistic process. This is the "linear" perspective. Progress seems predictable, a machine-like unfolding of the possibliities laid bare by the scientific method. An alternative approach lays emphasis on the  startling innovations and quantum leaps technical progress so often shows in historical perspective. "Progress" is often not an up-sloping line as it is so often plotted on graphs but a series of steplike technical and organizational innovations. These "quantum leaps" or "paradigm shifts" sometimes interact to produce powerful and novel "emergents". Thus, the industrial revolution of the 1820s was, in reality, the outgrowth of an earlier reorganization of artinisal labor into the "factory system" based on fixed schedules of production. True, the Industrial Revolution increased the application of machinery to production but the machinery would have had no use had it not been for the previous reorganization of labor, the increasing urbanization of life and rising demand for industrial products. Several currents - labor organization, urbanization, machinery and novel energy sources- came together to create a Perfect Storm which we recognize as the Industrial Revolution of the 1820s.

"There is clearly no determinism about the experience of progress. A human, not a mechanistic process is at work, in which there is certainly an element of choice. But not the simple weighing of known options - it involves, rather, different ways of approaching the unknown. It is a decision between differents attitudes of mind. We may cultivate an exploaratory, open view of the world in which awareness can grow; or we can maintain a fixed, inflexible view in whcih new possibilities are not recognized.. The dominance more recently of linear views of progress which restrict expectations to narrow patterns of development, may be symptomatic of how that openess has been lost" (page 28-9).

             Indeed! Witness the contemporary shrinkage and castration of the word "freedom" to mean "freedom of choice" among consumer product brands! Or the neo-con idolatry of purportedly iron-clad "laws of the market" against which there can be no recourse. At several points in his text Pacey draws attention to the necessity of including humanistic values of caring, solidarity and participation in analyses of the impacts and benefits of proposed development projects.

             I suspect that one of the motivations behind this text was a desire to understand the negative blowback - unintended consequences - of technology. Thus, computers allow networking and decentralization but paradoxically also strengthen centralization and hierachcy in large organizations. Rather than a world of increased wealth spread more equitably, we see instead wider inequalities everywhere. Information flows faster and more freely but the internet also provides the opportunity for solopistic inbreeding of nihilistic ideologies. Witness internet communities promoting right wing or religious extremism such as jihadist terrorism or neonazi racism. Pacey seems to be pondering the question: why so MUCH blowback? What have we got wrong?

             Many, if not most, of the world's problems today either arose directly from poverty or are negatively impacted by poverty. Yet developers are obsessed with technical issues or measures of economic prerformance. I could even argue there is evidence of a positive correlation betwen economic performance and increased poverty since the opening of China to western trade. Over the last 40 years, relatively well paying American jobs have been shipped to overseas sweat shops to maximize corporate profits. While CEOs of internationals roll in money and "incentives packages", the actual wealth of the worker has declined. Witness the Great American Rust Belt..

              Pacey raises the point that in order to have good answers we need to ask the right qustions which, obviously, we are not doing or we would not be in the mess we are now (and which is worse than the mess Pacey was describing thirty years ago..) Thus our "experts" raise questions relating to maximizing bottom lines which in turn imply maximizing system "througput": production, consumption, and waste.

               But Pacey, as an extremely intelligent field worker in 3rd world appropriate technology development, soon observed that such an approach very often produces suboptimal results with much negative blowback in the social and environmental spheres. Often people benefit more from disease prevention programs and an improved capacity to maintain existing assets (such as ecosystem services) than they do from the introduction of gadgets (which they can't maintain due to lack of infrastructure) or high tech projects (which benefit only a few). Third world governements, though, are usually keen on showy, sexy projects which provide them photo ops, international prestige and increased access to foreign funds for still more high tech projects.

              We need to readjust our priorities to fit the real world. Such adjustment is not hopeless idealism, as shown by Kerala province, India and the island of Sri Lanka where substantial improvements in public health and social welfare did not depend upon high consumption rates or expensive foreign "aid" programs. In these cases, the secret seemed to lie in female literacy and the political empowerment of local populations. In Kerala, "sanitation is good because people are educated", even where modern hygienic facilities do not exist. In Kerala, life expectancy was 10 years longer than for the rest of India at the time of Pacey's writing.

             These improvements in living standard were not, however, the result of some neo-con inspired "trickle down" economic growth at the top. The improvements arose from and were driven from the grassroots of society, the little people, not the rich. If fact, the improvements in social standards of health sometimes impeded economic growth. Thus human wellbeing and economic growth may be decoupled, yet our "experts" still claim that wellbeing and growth are identical. We are defintely not asking the right questions yet; neither 30 years ago when Pacey wrote his book, nor today..

             Related examples of the conflict between economic and human needs are found in Africa where international organizations like the WMO and IMF encourage governments to promote cash crops for international sale. Subsistance farming, in the meanwhile, languishes and dies. The mantra, of course, is the always the same: enriching the bourgeoisie will trickle down to the masses. But the actual, concrete result: decling per capita food production - now, THAT's progress! Ideology over reality; mind over matter one might say..

             "The culture of technology" is a remarkable book for its intelligence and lateral thinking. It's always a pleasure to read a book by someone who can really think things out from their basic premises to their logical conclusions. The author quickly sketches out potential future lines of inquiry in the social sciences and development policy. One interesting suggestion is a possible linkage between contemporary Western anomie (lack of sense of meaning or purpose in life, existential emptiness) and the technician's exaggerated quest for "technical virtuosity" - for those "sweet", oh so "sexy" expensive technological fixes. Perhaps because the technician lacks any real social purpose, he seeks surrogate (and ultimately phony) satisfaction in displays of technical virtuosity. But, of course, the drive for virtuosity may, in part, be an innate urge, stronger in some, depending upon one's life experience or genetic factors..

              In sum, what we need, says Pacey, is a saner balance between competing values and value systems: user values versus expert values, basic human needs versus technical virtuosity and economic value.

              A number of approaches are suggested for achieving a better balance: more public participation in technological policy development, better public science education, broader - less specialized - education for scientists and engineers, more delgation of authority and managerial control to smaller administrative units (more autonomy at the regional / municipal level), promoting female literacy, more functional participatory democracy at the local level. Perhas his most realizable and immediately beneficial suggestion is encouraging "interactive innovation" over the "linear innovation" of large bureaucracies and industries which emphasizes continuity, inevitability, determinism, ideology and abstract / mathematically modelling. Interactive innovation could, and has, been utilized by NGO's in 3rd world settings with resounding success. Interactive innovation requires a continuing "dialectical" give and take between participating foreign experts and recipient communities with their local set of "user values" and (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. This dialectic needs to continue till a consensus is arrived at: WHAT really needs to be done and WHY and HOW.. Such mutual adaptation seems to result in projects with deeper roots. Locals become participants,  managers and fine tuners of a system which they helped design, understand and own. This results in better maintenance and may even lead to the creation of local interactive innovation circles to deal with a variety of problems.

                   With its virtuosity of thought, this is an appealing book. Untimately, though, Pacey recognizes that technology alone will not save us. Our problems arise mostly from human values and until these truly change we should expect no better from technology than what we get today.

                   Looking back over the last 30 years since "The culture of technology" was written, one could easily be discouraged, as I was at times reading it. What have we learned in 30 thirty years? Pacey, at the time of the writing, was an exceedingly bright young man. How much of what he understood then have we put into practice since?

                     Not much. If anything, we regress. Western nations provide aid from national producers rather than buying commodities in the aided community and environs. "Aid" is more driven by ideology and short term economic gain than human need or long term perspectives. Yes, one could easily be pessimistic. However, I prefer to see the Big Pic as Pacey himself recommends. Today, 30 years after the publication of "The culture of technology", the malfunctioning "System" he describes is breaking down from its own collpasing weight and internal contradictions. This imposes the need for change: necessity is the mother of invention! In this growing need - and its growing recognition - lies hope.

                    I like this book. It was intellectually challenging, fascinating in its insights at times, generally well written. A good book, a very good book even: it is the "System" Pacey describes that is depressing. Grudgingly, perhaps, I'll tip my hat and give a 9 on 10.

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