When Technology Rules, People Lose

By Charles J. Guenther, Jr. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 6, 1995 | Go to article overview
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When Technology Rules, People Lose


Charles J. Guenther, Jr., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, claimed credit for hastening the surrender of Japan in August 1945. However, the project and the resultant destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have been possible without an earlier American surrender. This was the surrender of citizen control of technology to narrowly focused experts within bureaucracies in government and private industry.

In the effort to fragment the atom, the Manhattan Project was itself carefully fragmented into small tasks scattered across the nation so that only a few top officials knew of the overall plan. The secret development, testing and use of the atomic bomb led to a general sense of citizen impotence with respect to science and technology. This impotence has become firmly entrenched during the past 50 years, and one of its manifestations is the popular belief that technology is a natural phenomenon that is somehow out of human control.

Only a few years after the surrender of Japan, U.S. school children crouched under desks in "duck and cover" civil defense exercises, symbolizing utter helplessness in ritual genuflection to atomic power. Today, when we, the grown atomic children, contemplate some of the legacies of technology such as nuclear and chemical waste, or high-tech warfare, it is too easy for us to "duck and cover" and pretend that we can do nothing.

Our problem is more fundamental than a mere deficit of technical skills. It is not simply that we have trouble programming our VCRs or navigating the Internet. The problem is that we see ourselves merely as consumers or practitioners of technology, without feeling responsible for it. Beginning with the Manhattan Project, we opted out of involvement in critical decisions, leaving the experts (scientists, engineers and managers) in charge. Just as the scientists who witnessed the first atomic blast wore dark goggles to protect themselves from their ghastly invention, we too donned goggles to protect us from our share of responsibility.

Unfortunately, our sense of powerlessness is reinforced by some of our attempts to take charge of technology. For example, assessments by politicians and others typically consider the "impacts" of some given project on a community. Technology is too often viewed in such terms, so that it appears to be launched toward society from the domain of the experts, leaving ordinary citizens only to measure (and feel) its "impacts."

Langdon Winner of Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., has said: "After the bulldozer has rolled over us, we can pick ourselves up and carefully measure the treadmarks. Such is the impotent mission of technological `impact' analysis.

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