TECHNOLOGICAL CULTURE AND ITS PROBLEMS



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TECHNOLOGICAL CULTURE AND ITS PROBLEMS



That humans have been designated Homo faber (man the maker, tool user) rather than Homo sapiens (man the wise, thinker) indicates the centrality of technology in the life of even those primitive communities which we classify on the basis of their stage of technological development - stone age, bronze age, iron age. But as the Prometheus myth reminds us, fire and the metal-based technology it confers, although essential to the development of human civilizations, was surrounded by ambivalent attitudes: it promises to confer god-like powers of control over nature, but it is not clear that mere mortals are sufficiently god-like to be able to wield this (stolen) power wisely. It is a power which can be used to destroy as well as to create: medicines developed to restore health become poisons when used negligently or maliciously; mass media invented to enlighten are used for propaganda; and computers which extend our knowledge exponentially can invade our privacy in ways unthinkable only a short time ago. Even the most benevolent technology carries with it the potential for harm; implicit in every ploughshare there is a sword.

Since World War II the pace of technological development has increased drama­tically, trailing in its wake problems of which our grandparents did not even dream. Waste disposal has always presented problems for settled human communities, but none remotely comparable to those presented by nuclear waste disposal, which, if not carried out properly, could contaminate portions of the earth virtually forever. But what are the proper methods of disposal? Here a public consensus is strikingly lacking. Genetic engineering opens up the possibility of manipulating hereditary material in such a way that species, including our own, can be significantly altered. Do we know enough about the development of organisms or about ecological balances to pursue this possibility prudently? Even granting that we have sufficient knowledge, should experiments of this kind be allowed, and on what species? Should experimentation on human genetic



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material be allowed? Computers have altered so extensively the way information is collected, interpreted and disseminated that it is appropriate to speak of an information revolution. Much of this development was prompted and funded by military interests. That generals have the latest computer-generated information seems desirable; that ’decisions’ to launch nuclear missiles may be made by computers rather than people, because people cannot respond quickly enough to (possible) enemy attacks, engenders terror and a feeling of helplessness.

Developments in First World countries generating dilemmas such as these have accentuated the divide between developed and developing nations. Can this gap be narrowed by a transfer of technology from developed to developing nations, and if so should developed nations give aid in this form? Not to do so may retard development to such an extent that the lives of hundreds of millions of people will remain materially and spiritually impoverished. Yet technology which may make perfect sense in a developed nation can be inappropriate when transferred to a developing nation. The use of chemical pesticides can bring benefits, but is also hazardous. Peasant farmers, unused to handling such substances, may cause serious damage to themselves and the environment. The emergence of resistant pests means that increased crop yields are frequently sustainable only by increased dosage or use of new types of pesticide, which have to be purchased using scarce foreign exchange. In transferring its technology a donor nation inevitably transfers its own ways of thinking and doing, its own institutions and values. These interact profoundly but unpredictably with the ways of life of the recipient nation.

The course of technological development in First World countries reflects their dominant values and institutions, their ways of thinking and doing. The results of science and technology are familiar enough, and can mesmerize us. But they are the results and embodiments of human problem solving practices, results which in turn shape the lives of people employing them. (Pesticides are a response to crop destruction. To be used effectively and safely, however, farmers must take all sorts of precautions, study crop development and carefully determine time and rate of applications. To do so with modem pesticides they must be numerate and literate.) As practices, science and technology involve presuppositions, the acquisition of skills, norms of behaviour and value commitments.

(Adapted from Tiles, Mary and Oberdiek,

Hans *Living in a Technological Culture:

Human Tools and Human Values',

London and New York, 1995, pp. 1-3)

Essential vocabulary

1. to designate - to specify, to describe as

2. community - body of people living in the same locality

3. to confer - to grant, to bestow

4. to wield - to control, to sway

5. negligently - carelessly


Professional ethics



6. maliciously - with wrongful intention

7. to enlighten - to instruct, to inform

8. benevolent - desirous of doing good, charitable

9. implicit - implied through not plainly expressed

10. waste disposal - getting rid of useless by-products of manufacture

11. to contaminate - to pollute, to infect

12. consensus - agreement

13. lack - deficiency, want, need

14. hereditary - transmitted from one generation to another

15. species - a group into which animals, plants, etc. that are able to breed with each other are divided

16. to alter - to change in character

17. to pursue - to proceed, to continue, to go in pursuit

18. to disseminate - to spread, to scatter

19. to engender - to give birth, cause

20. to accentuate - to emphasize

21. to impoverish - to make poor

22. inappropriate - not suitable

23. to sustain - to uphold, to support, to keep from falling

24. to mesmerize - to hypnotize

25. presupposition - thing assumed beforehand as basis of argument; assumption

26. acquisition-act of acquiring

27. commitment - adherence; devotion; fidelity attachment

Check your understanding answering the questions (use a dictionary if needed):

1. What indicates the centrality of technology in the life of mankind?

2. What are the stages of technological development of the primitive communities?

3.What does the Prometheus myth remind us?

4. What can be used to destroy as well as to create? Give some examples.

5. When has the pace of technological development increased dramatically?

6. Problems of which waste disposal are most serious?

7. What does genetic engineering open up?

8. In your opinion, should experiments on human genetic material be allowed?

9. Is it appropriate to speak of informational revolution?

10. What are the ways of assisting developing countries?

11. What problems is this assistance connected with?

12. What do science and technology involve as practices?

Task 6,31. You are given two texts, A and B. They deal with the same subject from different points of view. Read and study the two texts, noting the differences in argument and studying the vocabulary.



Unit6


THE MORAL RESPONSIBILITY OF THE SCIENTIST

Text A

To argue that scientists have no moral responsibility for the use or misuse of their discoveries oversimplifies the issue. It ignores the fact that top-level research scientists are not ordinary people. Since their duty is to do no basic harm to the society in which they live, which has trained them and by which their research is. funded, they should suppress those scientific discoveries which might be misused, and which ordinary people do not know about.

There are a number of reasons for this. In the first place scientists are, as indivi­duals or as members of a research team, in a position to know what is going on at a given moment in their field, nationally and internationally. They are in a position to know what has been discovered, and in which field crucial discoveries are likely to be made.

Therefore, acting individually, or together with their fellow-workers, scientists possess invaluable information which should be made known to their fellow citizens if it has, or may have, a direct bearing on their well-being.

As privileged citizens, and members of powerful international elite, scientists are also in a position to fight for the suppression of potentially harmful discoveries. To suppress dangerous inventions does not only mean to conceal them. On the contrary, by revealing, or bringing them out into the open, which they have the knowledge and the professional authority to do, scientists can enable informed decisions to be made by their fellow citizens as a body. This is surely preferable to such decisions remaining secret, to being the target of scientific espionage, or to being in the hands of irresponsible political or military rulers in pursuit of dangerous policies.

Furthermore, only the scientists - the experts in their special fields of research -have the knowledge, skill, and insight on, which judgements relating to the latent use, or the consequences of use, of new products and processes can be adequately made. A disastrous moral judgement is more likely to be made by uninformed politicians, than by well-informed experts, able to consult with colleagues in other fields at the highest level.

It is not that one is entitled to expect scientists to have a higher brand of morality than their fellow-citizens. But in so far as knowledge constitutes power, scientists are powerful. Therefore their moral decisions, and thereby their duty, must be more carefully considered in all their implications.

As privileged members of society, scientists have an underlying obligation to reveal information about potentially harmful discoveries, to enable their fellow-citizens to anticipate danger and to decide what to do about them. It is easier, surely, to convene an executive committee to decide on the manufacture of a new and potentially lethal gas, than to replace lost lives. After all, dead citizens cannot vote.

In short, scientists do have a direct and special duty to their fellow-men. They cannot avoid this responsibility by maintaining that someone else should do it. If, to take an example, they are powerful enough to convince a government to ban alcohol or drugs, they are powerful enough to influence the proliferation of nuclear weapons.


Professional ethics


111


A scientist is not isolated from society. He or she is also a moral being with a social conscience. Knowing more than ordinary people, scientists should be the first people to expose the misuse of scientific discoveries endangering the lives and suiToundings of their fellow-citizens.

(Adaptedfrom the Internet)

Text В

When we talk of the moral responsibilities of scientists we mean nothing more than that they have a duty to do no fundamental harm to the society in which they live. Since they share this duty with everyone else - insurance men, teachers, civil servants, manual labourers, farmers - one assumes that they are singled out for special mention first because they are a new phenomenon (97 per cent of all the full-time scientists who ever lived are still alive) and secondly because of their disproportionate power to help or harm society. Society’s fear of the scientist is not irrational; for society is conservative, backward-looking and intent for preserving the status quo, while the scientist is radical, forward-looking, and by his or her discoveries likely to change the material environment of society. Since scientists threaten the established order in this way, they are, by our previous definition, immoral. The usual charge levelled at scientists is that they ought to, and do not, suppress those discoveries of which a harmful use might be made.

This naive accusation, however, reveals a basic ignorance about how scientists work. In the first place discoveries are not usually the work of one person, but of a team. Splitting the atom, the example to which any discussion of science and morality inevitably leads, is a case in point.

Another is penicillin, which we owe partly to Fleming and partly to those who took up his work and made production a practical possibility. Secondly, scientific advances are not made in a vacuum. One advance follows the other, and each leap forward opens up new fields for further research. Science is a chain reaction, and it might be disastrous to suppress a discovery, however trivial, which might one day be a vital missing link. Thirdly, discoveries have an uncanny habit of being made almost simultaneously by scientists working independently of each other in different parts of the world, so that one is tempted to believe that each advance becomes due at a particular moment and if not made by one person will be made by another. It is futile to ask a scientist to conceal his discoveries, because they are not his alone; he has worked in concert with others and even if by superhuman effort and diplomacy a whole team of scientists could be persuaded to keep them secret, they would soon be discovered and taken up elsewhere.

In any case who would be bold enough to set himself up as an authority capable of deciding what is harmful and what is helpful to society? Arsenic can be used to poison rats or misused to poison people; atomic power to warm the world or to blow it up. The scientists who made possible the heating and lighting of houses by gas can hardly be blamed for failing to foresee the use Hitler would make of their discovery.

The truth is that it is the ordinary man and woman who use or misuse the discoveries of science. As members of society, scientists have a responsibility to see that they are put to proper use (a special responsibility because they know more about them



Unit 6


than other people), but as scientists, their duty is to discover as much as they can about people and the universe. The use that may be made of the discoveries of scientists is not a responsibility that can be shuffled on to them. It rests squarely on the shoulders of society.

(Adapted from the Internet)

Task 6.32. Read the two texts. Write an outline of the first text and answer the questions to the second one.



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