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 (
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 (
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 (
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 (
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.