Is Technology a Threat to Liberal Society?

By Kristol, Irving | The Public Interest, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Is Technology a Threat to Liberal Society?


Kristol, Irving, The Public Interest


To say that I know nothing about science would be the understatement of the century. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, but unhappily, I didn't go to Brooklyn Poly. I went to City College instead. I don't know why, just a family tradition. It is true, I did start out as a physics major, but after one year of studying physics, I discovered that physics was very hard. So I decided to be an intellectual instead. In those days, one could spend four years in City College becoming an intellectual. It was very pleasant, because you didn't have to go to class. I suppose my function here today is to be a kind of kibitzer-intellectual. An intellectual has been defined as a man with a great many opinions on a great many subjects about which he knows precious little. But he nevertheless fulfills a useful function--sometimes.

What I want to talk about today is the question of the place of science and technology in a liberal democracy in the decades ahead. I think that is not a matter about which one can be smug. I think we must anticipate some very serious problems involving the place of science and technology in our society. These are problems we are going to have to face up to, although they may not be problems we like to face.

Progress and perfection

There is a very interesting historical controversy concerning why the Greeks and the Chinese did not develop the technology that their theoretical science evidently made possible. There are different hypotheses for why this ocurred. The major one is the "institutional" one--namely, that there was slavery, or that labor was depreciated, not held in high esteem; and therefore, though pure science developed to a considerable degree in the ancient world, applied science and technology did not. There is another theory for why pure science developed while applied technology did not--namely, that the ancient Greeks and the Chinese were very wise people. They knew that although science is beautiful when contemplated in its theoretical aspects, when it is transformed into technology it becomes a form of power. And power is the power for good and for evil. The theory goes on to say that the ancients decided that this was not a power they cared to entrust men with, and therefore deliberately, systematically discouraged the application of pure theory to the development of technology.

This notion is preserved for us in our literature, in the myth of Doctor Faustus, for instance. The idea that there is something diabolical about science, the idea that the power that science gives you over the world is a power that comes not from God but from the devil--this idea was certainly very strong until around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At that point, we saw the emergence of the modern idea of science and technology, that not only is pure science good but the development of all the inherent potentialities of science and technology is also good.

For this change of perception and this change of perspective to take place, certain basic assumptions had to be changed as well. Two new grand intellectual ideas emerged to legitimate the modern scientific enterprise. One was that man could be trusted with this power, that man was not a creature of original sin, that man was not a creature of innate perversity--and that he was, if not perfectible in the literal sense, then perfectible enough to permit one to entrust to humanity the power that science, when converted into technology, gives us. The second basic idea that the Greeks did not have was that history was progressive, consisting of a series of stages whereby humanity perfected itself. Therefore, since the future would be better than the past and human beings in the future would be better than they had been in the past, there really was no great cause for concern in giving humanity this new and great power.

These two ideas, when conformed, give us the essence of what we call in our textbooks the Enlightenment-meaning that it's a good thing to get as much knowledge as possible and to make it as widely available as possible. …

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