Let me begin then by defining the stimulus of each for this blog. These definitions are, admittedly, simplistic and do not cover the full gamut of the two disciplines.
Science can be said to be seeking to understand the way in which the world works. Technology, on the other hand, can be thought of as seeking to shape (or manipulate) the world to the way in which we (humans) want it to work. The rest of this blog will be based upon this rudimentary difference.
That we want to shape the world according to how we want it to be is a highly dangerous vision. Certainly, it can be claimed, and is frequently asserted, technology has provided us with many benefits and comforts that we would not have had. Yet, our technological innovations and our techno-thinking have also brought us many threats and dangers to our lives and the lives of millions of other creatures that inhabit this planet with us. Today, we are living at a time when our technology threatens the very existence of life itself via the Sixth Mass Extinction.
There have been many who have alerted us to this danger over the years. The most famous is the 18th century weaver, Ned Ludd, who gave his name (Luddites) to those who seek to alert us to the dangers of technology.
The most pressing danger is not so much how we use technology, but more; that technology is so ingrained in our cultures, that we are now living technology. This is the assertion that the eco-psychologist, Chellis Glendinning, makes in her incisive critiques of technology and western civilisation.
Glendinning’s 1994 book – My Name Is Chellis & I’m In Recovery from Western Civilization1 – is an penetrating critique of our techno-addiction. Glendinning catalogues the many ills that technology has brought to the world – trauma, psychic numbing, constriction of feeling, powerlessness, arrested psycho-social development, narcissism, and thinking disorders amongst them.
When we honestly look around us, and peer into our own psyches, we can verify the veracity of Glendinning’s claims. Consider this for one moment. What happens to our anxiety levels when: the car won’t start, the lights go out, the mobile phone network is down, we can’t access the internet?
Furthermore, what happens to the anxiety levels of a whole society when: an oil tanker spills millions of litres of oil into the ocean, when a nuclear reactor begins to melt down and/or leak radioactive gases, when insecticides poison the local water supply, when a mining company destroys a sacred site?
This is trauma.2
An Axe in the Hand of a Pathological Criminal
The most incisive and damning critique of technological progress comes from one of the world’s foremost scientists – Albert Einstein.
In December 1917 Einstein wrote to his friend, Heinrich Zangger (Professor of forensic medicine at Zurich University) that:
“All of our exalted technological progress, civilization for that matter, is comparable to an axe in the hand of a pathological criminal.”3
Yet even Einstein, with this insight, was unable to escape the consequences of the technological use of his scientific discoveries. It was his famous equation that set the foundation for the development of the most terrifying technology the world has yet seen – the atomic bomb.
Expanding upon Einstein’s metaphor we can recognise that more and more axes are being produced, and most of us are swinging them.
Sadly, large swathes of society seem to delight in becoming more adept at the use of the axe. Nevertheless, no matter how proficient we become in new technologies, it remains that the axes are destroying our lives and the planet.
Yet, we fail to recognise this. Failing to recognise the harm of technology, we deny the harm. And that, says Glendinning and others, is a hallmark of addiction.
A Return to Science?
This blog began with a distinction between science and technology. The rapid development of technology over the past couple of centuries has widened the distinction that was made at the beginning of this piece.
Today it is more difficult for us to pursue a curiosity about how the world works, because our technology has so shaped, controlled, and manipulated the world that the world no longer works naturally.
What is left to be curious about?
1. Glendinning, Chellis, My Name Is Chellis & I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization, Shambhala Publications, Boston, Massachusetts, 1994.
2. Ibid. p 82. Glendinning refers to the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders where trauma is defined as: ‘an event that is outside the range of usual human experience and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone.’
3. Zangger himself went on to write (in 1924) the book Poisoning, the first book to point out the dangers of poisoning arising from technological development.