The High-Tech Imperative

In the bad old days of infatuation with technology, the naive belief was current that for every problem there would be a technical solution. Since then this attitude has been discredited and we speak warily of yet another "technological fix". Instead of technology as the solution, we see it as the problem. We resign ourselves to live with it, realizing that life without technology would be grim, or even non-existent for most of us.

The manifesto argues against the view that technology is a necessary evil. It argues that it has a natural dynamism, which is the necessary part, and that it wants to move away from the low-tech, which is the evil part. The ultimate high-tech has in common with natural organisms a high degree of automation, miniaturization, and efficiency. It is coherent with, rather than intrusive upon, nature.

Technology presents us with a paradox. It is the culprit that enables us to kill and maim, despoil the environment, deplete natural resources, and jeopardize human dignity. This aspect makes us want to call for a moratorium. On the other hand, as technology develops, it allows us to do more with less: less material, less energy, and less pollution. As technology matures, it becomes less noisy and less visible; more subtle and more precise. It is this trend, which I call "high-tech", that should make us want to accelerate technological development. The conflict between these contrary reactions on our part is paralyzing us.

The paradox of technology is resolved when we realize it is part of a transition in the development of humanity. The negative aspects are associated, perhaps inevitably so, with this transition. Buckminster Fuller describes the transition by means of an analogy. He compares humanity to a chicken embryo being hatched inside its egg. Like humanity, the chicken is inexorably depleting its non-renewable resources. Yet it would be lethal to attempt to reverse the trend, alarming though it may be. Like humanity, the only way to avoid disaster is to press forward and to continue its innate development.

Valuable as this analogy is, it has misleading aspects as well. A hatching bird is likely to be successful: the process has been tried out billions of times. In its transition, the bird is in the genetic company of a long line of successful ancestors. But even though it may not be the first cosmic egg to hatch, Earth is on its own. We cannot take for granted that we can just follow our nose and assume that our non-renewable resources will be sufficient to carry us through the transition. We have to wake up and think.

Buckminster Fuller has provided another analogy to illustrate the transition. He likens our present store of nonrenewable resources to the battery of a parked car that needs to reach a distant destination. Of course it is possible to get the car moving (this one has manual transmission) by engaging its first gear and operating the starter motor. This option is analogous to arresting technological development, so that we would continue with our present wasteful devices. Just as the proper use of the battery's energy is to start the main engine, the proper use of our non-renewable resources is to start the main engine of Spaceship Earth. Current indications are that the main engine is good for another few billion years, which gives us time to review the situation in the year 3000.

According to Buckminster Fuller's view, the doing-more-with-less aspect of technology (he calls it "ephemeralization") can be the essential one, while the harmful aspect can be accidental, and temporary. That is the good news. The worrying side is that we have only caught a glimpse of ephemeralization. What required in 1950 a great machine hall with tens of thousands of incandescent vacuum tubes consuming hundreds of kilowatts can now be done by a sleek gadget that fits in a briefcase and consumes a few watts. A wispy strand of optical fiber does the job that required a ton of copper only half a century ago.

Too many of such breakthroughs fail to yield anything but gadgets of surpassing silliness. Not enough of that ingenuity is applied to providing basic needs such as food, shelter, and sustainable energy for humanity in its increasing numbers. The problem is that many dispensers of high-tech are narrow specialists working for entrepreneurs who have locked themselves into a situation where they have to provide a quick return on investment. Fuller realized the limitations of the specialist and called for Comprehensive Designers, blithely assuming the mere need would call them forth. But ever since Plato needed a Philosopher-Prince to realize his Republic, the dire need for such people has failed to produce the desired effect.

Fuller has unwittingly followed Plato in assuming the need for a high degree of central control in realizing the Great Transition. Perhaps this is not necessary. In one of Lewis Thomas's essays he observes that the great edifice of science was built by specialists. The result is that millions of publications somehow add up to a whole that contains, in retrospect, a largely coherent main stream, though not seen as such by the individual contributors, none of whom was endowed with more than tunnel vision on a tiny part. Thomas compared the phenomenon to that of termites as builders.

When there are few termites, they scurry around aimlessly, just pushing bits of debris around. Nothing comes of it. When a kind of quorum is reached, the same kind of behaviour results in a great edifice, complete with pillars and soaring symmetrical arches. The contrast between science as a whole and the individual contributors is no less striking.

To effect the transition for humanity requires indeed something superhuman. But there is hope: the superhuman scope required does not put the goal beyond human reach. Science as a collective enterprise has shown the possibility of a superhuman mind implemented by the chaotic interactions of narrow specialists without central control.

The bad old days of belief in the technological fix had one redeeming feature: it attracted the best minds to science and engineering. Though it is valuable that past naivete has given way to a more balanced view, the old enthusiasm for science and engineering has dimmed. Putting our current travails in the context of humanity's great transition provides a vision that is as inspiring as any in the past.