Promises and Threats of Technological Advances

DOI 10.22430/21457778.1468



Everyone knows that science-based technology has been advancing relentless since Galileo’s time. But the scientific skeptics also know that, unlike science, technology is ambivalent: while most of it is beneficial, some of it is harmful. For instance, whereas nuclear science has enriched culture, nuclear engineering has made the war crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki possible, and it has turned us skeptical about the future of life on Earth. This axiological ambivalence of technology is the subject of this paper. Let us start by differentiating technology from the science that supports it. Although both disciplines are rational and follow the scientific method to justify their principles, science is limited to finding new truths, while technology is mainly interested in truths of possible practical use (Bunge, 1985). Moreover, it is only the obscurants who mistrust science, and only the naive who are technophiles without qualms.  Actually, both the irrationalists and the supporters of the "humanist" or qualitative approach to the social are sworn enemies of scientism; on the other hand, those who are neither technophiles nor technophobes warn of the ambivalence of technology and argue that it should be muzzled to protect us from its jaws.

Basic science's contribution to technology has sometimes been exaggerated and sometimes neglected. For example, we now know that the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century began in the minds of a few skilled craftsmen and workers, not in those of university-trained engineers (Beckert, 2014). In contrast, the electronic computer would have been impossible without the physics of the solid state, application of quantum mechanics, and without the theory of computation pioneered by Alan Turing. This means that the post-Industrial Revolution technology was rooted in disinterested research, the only one capable of excavating the microphysical foundations of phenomena or appearances. But this bright side of science hid its dark side. Fear of the dark side of technology is not new. As early as 1430, at the height of the voyages of discovery, when Chinese sailors embarked on ships ten times the size of Columbus' caravels, with crews of up to 1,500 sailors, the central government of the Celestial Empire ordered the closure of the shipyards for afraid of the possible damage that foreign trade across the Indian Ocean would cause: contacts with peoples with evil customs and excessive strengthening of the group of merchants brought about by their contact with the outside world.

Four centuries later, in the course of the Industrial Revolution, the replacement of the handloom by the mechanized one had tragic consequences: the unemployment of thousands of hand weavers and the emergence of the Ludist movement, which rejected the introduction and use of all modern machines. And although ludism was violently repressed, technological unemployment only shocked a few. In particular, the great romantic poet Heinrich Heine wrote his famous ballad "The Weavers of Silesia". Economists and philosophers at the time, however, did not utter a single word. They did not know what to do in the face of this new social fact: a progressive change that enriched a few and pushed thousands into misery. About a century later, when the massive use of computers evicted calligraphers and stenographers, there were economists who wanted to comfort us by assuring that, while it was true that mechanization made some jobs obsolete, it also created others, so that after a short period of time the problem of technological unemployment would disappear.  However, this was not true, because an employee who handles computers replaces two others tied to the inkwell and the Dictaphone. Today we still endure this effect of the automation that began in factories and offices around 1950.

In truth, technological advances cause unemployment and so far no one has told us what can be done to avoid such an outcome. I dare to suggest that nothing could get around it but that there is a way to save workers who become "redundant" when replaced by machines. This partial solution entails the substitution of private property by the production cooperative. In fact, both profits and losses are distributed among the cooperators, who gain by mechanizing part of the work. Put another way, losses caused by improvements in production are absorbed by the cooperative, which translates into gains in quality of life. In short,

Such transformation, inconceivable in an individualistic perspective, is obvious in a systemic perspective (Blanc, 1847; Bunge, 2009).

Mechanized work also has medical consequences, some of which are clearly unfavorable. Just think about sedentary life and its effects, obesity and cardiovascular disorders. But at least these silent killers can be controlled with working-time related exercises. Even this side of the work organization can be better managed in a production cooperative than in a market constituted by mutually independent agents, as the cooperative can employ medical consultants and trainers. Finally, let's take a look at the conceptual angle of technological advancement. The use of computers allows us to handle loads of data, enhancing numerical calculation and descriptive statistics. In particular, personal computers have noticeably strengthened the computational branch of sciences, such as computational physics. But this advance has produced a negative side-effect: the neglect of foundational problems. Indeed, computer programs take theories for granted, which leads to dogmatism, which is particularly harmful in both sciences and humanities (Truesdell, 1984). In particular, the cult-like use of computers has facilitated the calculation of statistical correlations between arbitrary variables.

Ultimately, the advance in computational capacity has been undermined by a setback in foundational research, which could have been foreseen, since calculating is easier and more satisfying than inventing or assessing new mathematical formalisms. Let us not forget that the young Stalin worked as a calculator at the Tbilisi meteorological observatory and was able to do so because this work did not require scientific knowledge. This case exemplifies the difference between truths of reason and truths of fact, which Leibniz had already pointed out in 1704.


  • arrow_upward Beckert, S. (2014). Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

  • arrow_upward Blanc, L. (1847). Organisation du travail. Paris: au Bureau de la Société de l’industrie fraternelle.
  • arrow_upward Bunge, M. (2009). Filosofía política. Barcelona: Gedisa.
  • arrow_upward Bunge, M. (1985). Treatise on Basic Philosophy (v. 7). Dordrecht: Reidel Publishing.
  • arrow_upward Truesdell, C. (1984). An Idiot’s Fugitive Essays on Science. New York: Springer- Verlag.