Playing at God, but working for all humanity

December 17, 2004

How does technology affect social change? Science has helped free the lives and minds of many, but argues Lisa Jardine, even in developed Western societies, some people continue to demonise it

For Aristotle, the "useful arts" completed and perfected what nature had begun, improving man's capacity to act upon the natural world, and enhancing the quality of human existence. Technology has been the catalyst for social change since before the Greek mathematician Archimedes demonstrated that water could be raised to irrigate parched ground above a stream by means of a continuous screw-mechanism inside a flexible tube.

Beginning in antiquity, what the 17th century later called "mixed mathematics" created machines that freed men and women from back-breaking toil and distributed the benefits of civilisation throughout the known world - from the simple lever and compound pulley-system, to the vacuum cleaner and the washing machine.

For many people, however, "technology" is associated with "biotechnology", and they have no hesitation in delivering a negative verdict on its contribution to altering our lives. New technology means genetic modification of natural plant species; genetically modified crops and foods are possibly irreversible changes to the environment and to tried-and-tested sources of nutrition on which we depend; so technology stands not for progress but for humankind playing God by taking unacceptable long-term risks. The preface to a 2003 British Cabinet Office document on GM foods states: "The challenge for any government is to regulate the use of this new technology in a way that safeguards the public and our planet, commands public confidence, but also ensures that our society does not necessarily throw away the benefits science can provide.

This is no easy task."

Historically, though, new technology has been seen as bringing benefits to the least fortunate. The first applied scientific instrument, invented by Sir Christopher Wren in the early 1650s, when his royalist family had been forced into exile in the farming community, was a piece of agro-technology.

Wren devised a mechanised seed drill for sowing corn "without waste".

Broadcast sowing by hand was backbreaking work, and much of the seed, scattered on the surface of the field, was lost; the drill opened furrows to a uniform depth into which seed was dropped mechanically. For Wren and his fellow members of the Royal Society, technology meant an escape from hard labour and want.

At the beginning of the 17th century, Francis Bacon identified the printing press, gunpowder and the compass as the technological innovations that had enabled man to make the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity, based on "natural philosophy" (science) and an enhanced understanding of nature.

Historians still agree that Bacon had astutely identified the key moments and technological forces and agents contributing to lasting social change.

There is surely no question about the impact of the printing press as a force for change. In the century following the invention of movable type in the 1450s, thousands of copies of the written word, inexpensively reproduced, came into the hands of ordinary people, enlarging the pool of those with access to the rich treasury of information drawn first from scripture and the classics, and subsequently from vernacular handbooks and practical manuals. Cheap mass-produced books in every household encouraged literacy, which rapidly increased across Europe and beyond. Instead of gathering around the priest - privileged deliverer of divine truth orally - each individual could own and study the sacred text. Print led directly to freedom to think for oneself, to make up one's own mind on any question, and thereby forged the Western intellectual tradition. The technology of print may be said to have caused the Reformation (both Erasmus and Luther were masterly manipulators of the book) and ultimately to have contributed to the emancipation and equal treatment of women and ordinary people of all ethnic backgrounds and social classes.

Medical technology has dramatically altered our expectations of life. From syringes used to inject substances into the bloodstream and to carry out blood transfusions as early as the 17th century, to the defibrillators and replacement valves now used to repair damaged hearts, technology has allowed us to survive conditions that, until recently, would have killed us. Full participation by women in professional and public life depends on contraception, allowing them the freedom to choose when and if they give birth, overriding the natural rhythms of reproduction that throughout history largely confined women to the domestic sphere. The debate surrounding the provision of generic drugs for those with HIV/Aids in Africa reminds us that the development of chemical cures for resistant diseases is also part of the progressive world of new technology.

Historically, social change has been brought about gradually, in the wake of each life-altering technological innovation. Recently, however, the personal computer and the internet have dramatically accelerated the speed at which information is distributed, and thereby the pace of social change across the globe. It is not surprising then that we are finding it difficult to judge whether the communications and data-processing boom is ultimately a force for good.

Might this accelerated social change stall? Measures of social improvement based on the democratisation of the means and processes of knowledge gathering, the ability to work from home, and immediate access to online learning can be used to argue that the lot of the individual has been markedly improved by new information technology, and with it life in general. Read any issue of New Scientist and you must conclude that the world is moving at break-neck speed towards becoming a better place.

At the same time, however, the gap between the haves and the technologically disenfranchised has become a chasm. How many of those invited every day on the radio to "log on to the BBC's website" have access to a fast internet connection, or even to a PC? For every one of us who buys our plane, train and theatre tickets online, millions more are still waiting for electricity and clean running water. And not every technological innovation offers an obvious amelioration of the life of the average man or woman.

The growth of military technology, anticipated in Bacon's identification of gunpowder as one of the early modern period's agents for social change, is a clear case in point. Archimedes was killed in 212BC, during the capture of Syracuse by the Romans in the Second Punic War, after his machines of war had failed to hold back the Roman army. By the 15th century, gunpowder had been harnessed to the construction of huge cannon to produce the military hardware that brought down the supposedly impregnable walls of Constantinople in 1453 - delivering this gateway city to Mehmed II at the very moment when the benign technology of printing was bringing the written Christian gospel to all of Europe. And although military technology - from Leonardo Da Vinci's battering ram to heat-guided missiles - may have helped powerful nations to subdue their enemies, it has horrifically worsened the impact of war on non-combatants.

GM foods are a striking example of a technological development about whose long-term consequences many of us are uncertain. For those for whom getting enough to eat is the single most important item on their daily agenda, new biotechnology's drive to develop high-yield and blight-resistant crops, if successful, offers a promise of an improved way of life. Those in advanced Western societies whose produce is unthreatened by toxic blight, and for whom the additional waste associated with organic produce is not an issue, are in the luxurious position of being able to reject the potentially irreversible changes of new biotechnology in favour of traditional agriculture. To the well-fed of the developed world the environmental risks seem overwhelmingly to negate any possible positive outcomes.

Indeed, one of the social changes to have resulted from technological advance - part of that acquired freedom to decide for ourselves that grew out of the technology of the printed book - is a predisposition to reject unfamiliar technology once an acceptable of personal safety and comfort has been achieved for ourselves. In the absence of direct experience of life-threatening childhood illnesses, the level of the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccination of children in Britain has fallen to its lowest level since it was introduced. Yet the official view is that 95 per cent of children should be immunised by their second birthday if we are not to return to a situation where the wider population is at serious risk from epidemics.

The history of technology has always been one of bold initiatives and opportunities seized. The lesson of history seems to be that each new step in the onward march of technology should continue to be taken, cautiously but firmly, with each new challenge undertaken in the interests of the many, rather than for the satisfaction of those already safe, comfortably off and well fed.

Lisa Jardine is director, Arts and Humanities Research Board Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, and professor of renaissance studies, Queen Mary, University of London.

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