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
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.
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.