Technology in America: We need to think about cultivating the necessary habits of the heart and resisting the allure of the ideology of technology.

April 15, 2012

The American:

Why are Americans addicted to technology? The question has a distinctly contemporary ring, and we might be tempted to think it could only have been articulated within the last decade or two. Could we, after all, have known anything about technology addiction before the advent of the Blackberry? Well, as it turns out, Americans have a longstanding fascination and facility with technology, and the question of technology addiction was one of the many Alexis de Tocqueville thought to answer in his classic study of antebellum American society, Democracy in America.

To be precise, Tocqueville titled the tenth chapter of volume two, “Why The Americans Are More Addicted To Practical Than To Theoretical Science.” In Tocqueville’s day, the word technology did not yet carry the expansive and inclusive sense it does today. Instead, quaint sounding phrases like “the mechanical arts,” “the useful arts,” or sometimes merely “invention” did together the semantic work that we assign to the single word technology.1 “Practical science” was one more such phrase available to writers, and, as in Tocqueville’s case, “practical science” was often opposed to “theoretical science.” The two phrases captured the distinction we have in mind when we speak separately of science and technology.

To answer his question on technology addiction, Tocqueville looked at the political and economic characteristics of American society and what he took to be the attitude toward technology they encouraged. As we’ll see, much of what Tocqueville had to say over 150 years ago resonates still, and it is the compelling nature of his diagnosis that invites us to reverse the direction of the inquiry—to ask what effect the enduring American fascination with technology might have on American political and economic culture. But first, why were Americans, as early as the 1830s, addicted to technology?

Tocqueville’s rough and ready quasi-sociological approach led him to conclude that Americans preferred technology to pure science for both political and economic reasons. “Nothing is more necessary to the culture of the higher sciences, or of the more elevated departments of science, than meditation,” Tocqueville explained, “and nothing is less suited to meditation than the structure of democratic society.”2 Theoretical science in his view required aristocratic repose and leisure, and nothing of the sort existed in America. Instead, Americans were promiscuously active. The citizens of democratic nations, according to Tocqueville, “are always dissatisfied with the position which they occupy, and are always free to leave it, they think of nothing but the means of changing their fortune, or of increasing it.”3 Tocqueville, himself an aristocrat, did not think this restless, entrepreneurial climate the ideal habitat of sustained theoretical reflection.

Tocqueville understood what impressed Americans and it was not intellectually demanding and gratifying grand theory. It was rather “every new method which leads by a shorter road to wealth, every machine which spares labor, every instrument which diminishes the cost of production, every discovery which facilitates pleasures or augments them.”4 This was how democratic societies measured the value of science and America was no exception. Science was prized only insofar as it was immediately applicable to some practical and economic aim. Americans were in this sense good Baconians, they believed knowledge was power and science was valuable to the degree that it could be usefully applied.

“It is chiefly from these motives that a democratic people addicts itself to scientific pursuits,” Tocqueville concluded. “You may be sure,” he added, “that the more a nation is democratic, enlightened, and free, the greater will be the number of these interested promoters of scientific genius, and the more will discoveries immediately applicable to productive industry confer gain, fame, and even power on their authors.”5

We could summarize Tocqueville’s observations by saying that American society was more likely to produce and admire a Thomas Edison than an Albert Einstein. As a generalization, this seems about right still. The inventor-entrepreneur remains the preferred American icon; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are the objects of our veneration. This was already evident in the 1830s and Tocqueville eloquently described the distinct blend of technology and economics that we might label America’s techno-start-up culture. But if Tocqueville was right in attributing American attitudes about technology to political and economic circumstances, we should go one step further to ask what might be the political and economic consequences of this enthusiastic embrace of technology.

When we ask questions about technology we often ask about matters such as safety and efficiency or costs and benefits. We don’t often ask, “What sort of person will the use of this or that technology make of me?” Or, more to the present point, “What sort of citizen will the use of this or that technology make of me?” We don’t often ask these sorts of questions because we tend to tacitly endorse a theory about the neutrality of technology, a theory we could call the NRA approach to technology. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This slogan nicely encapsulates the view that technologies are ethically neutral and ethical implications attach only to the use to which a technology may be put by individuals.

This notion enjoys a certain commonsensical plausibility, and, as far as it goes, it is true enough. A hammer could be used to build a home or it could be used to injure a person. Nuclear energy could power a city or flatten it. But it is not quite all that can be said on the matter. A fuller account of technology’s ethical ramifications would take into consideration how the use of a technology may inculcate certain habits and engender certain assumptions. In others words, technologies not only allow us to act in certain ways that may or may not be ethical, their use also shapes the user and this too may have ethical consequences. Winston Churchill’s observation about buildings captures this dynamic nicely. “We shape our buildings,” Churchill said, “and afterwards our buildings shape us.”6 He might also have said, we shape our technologies and afterwards our technologies shape us…

Read it all.

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