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article number 521
article date 03-29-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Opinions: American Technology and Human Welfare Part 1, Misplaced Priorities?
by Herbert J. Muller, Professor of English, Indiana University

From the 1973 book, Technology and Social Change in America.

* * *

My main ideas seem to be commonplace, for as I see it, both the goods and the evils that have come out of modern technology are quite obvious. So my only excuse for rehearsing them is that they don’t seem obvious enough to most Americans.

In particular, Americans seem too little aware of the common abuses of our technology, the very serious problems it has created. So I should warn you that although I have always been given to a depressing on-the-other-hand style, I propose now to dwell chiefly on the “disagreeable” hand—what we’re up against.

True, I think writers today too often talk loosely about crises; it seems that no problem is really respectable until it is called a crisis. But even so, I think what most needs to be emphasized is the gravity of our problems—the very real crises confronting us, such as the state of the black ghettos and the deteriorating cities.

At any rate, I’m not optimistic about the prospects of our making an adequate national effort to deal with these problems. My point, or my excuse, is that we can no longer afford any easy optimism, and can hope for the best only if we take a hard look at the worst.

Now, my primary concern is human values—values of an old-fashioned kind that at once involve me in commonplaces. (It’s significant, incidentally, that values these days are regularly called "human,” which is strictly redundant, since only human beings can have conscious values.) Anything that people like or want can be considered a human value.

Today no values are more plainly human than the money values that Americans are devoted to. Still, money is plainly only a means to some end. And so is our whole marvelous technology.

The matrix of our problems is the common assumption, in effect, that our technology is an end in itself—an assumption fortified by the immense energy that goes into it, the worship of efficiency as the sovereign ideal, the boasts about our material wealth and power, the national goal of steady economic growth, and the national idol GNP (Gross National Product), which I gather now runs to over $800 billion a year.

Of this Robert Kennedy remarked, a few months before his assassination, “The GNP takes into account neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our duty to the country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

But this only forces the basic question: What, then, is the proper end for man?

As an old-fashioned type, I’m assuming that the proper end is “the good life.” Most Americans, I suppose, would define it as happiness, though with not too clear an idea of what they mean by the term. To me, their pursuit of happiness too often looks like a compulsive, joyless effort to escape boredom.

But anyway, a people blessed with far more advantages than any other society has ever enjoyed is not clearly the happiest people on earth. And I am arguing that one reason is their paltry conception of the good life, or what I have called the highest standard of low living in all history.

Since most of us are conscientious relativists these days, knowing that no absolute standards can be conclusively demonstrated, I would stress that the good life is nevertheless rooted in absolute goods—good for their own sake, which can’t be strictly proved, but which don’t need to be proved once they are known. They include such elementary goods as health, physical well-being, and comradeliness, but also such so-called higher goods as the satisfaction of natural curiosity, of the aesthetic sense, and of the related craftsman or creative impulse.

These are the source of the traditional values of culture—the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness that constitutes the peculiar dignity and worth of man. And in the free societies they have come to include the values of personal freedom and dignity, self-realization, having a mind and a life of one’s own.

In this view, it would seem clear that the effects of our technology have been thoroughly mixed, only nothing seems harder to keep clearly, steadily in mind. Literary people tend to forget the obvious goods that have come out of it. Behavioral scientists and technicians tend to slight the no less obvious neglect of fundamental human values.

So let us take a look at the beginnings of modern technology for the sake of some perspective—an historical perspective that I think is too often lacking in both the critics and the champions of our technology. Specifically, let’s consider the invention of the railroad, one of the key developments in the Industrial Revolution that had got under way in the late 1700s some 50 years before.

In 1835, the editor of the British journal ’John Bull’ was much alarmed by this latest invention. “Railroads, if they succeed,” he warned, “will give an unnatural impetus to society, destroy all the relations that exist between man and man, overthrow all mercantile regulations, and create, at the peril of life, all sorts of confusion and distress.”

Well, railroads of course did succeed. By the end of the century they were carrying well over a billion passengers a year, and the editor had long since come to seem like an old fogey.


So it’s important to see that he was quite right. It’s now hard to realize that before the railway era, the great majority of people the world over spent their entire lives in the region where they were born, never leaving the village except to go to the nearest market town, always remaining set in their traditional ways.

The railroad accordingly did represent an unnatural impetus, and a profoundly disruptive one. It signalled the end of the old social and political order as it broke down both geographical and social barriers by carrying ever more millions of passengers from all classes. It became the popular symbol of the technological revolution that was in fact creating all sorts of confusion and distress.

More to the point, the editor of ’John Bull’ spoke for not only many respectable people of his day but for the vast majority of mankind throughout history. Men had always tended to resist fundamental change, any radical innovation. So the railroad symbolized the deepest change that was taking place, which was the attitude toward change itself.

It was the growing disposition to accept innovation, even to welcome it. Change was now being called progress. But then we must add that that stodgy editor is still not really a stranger in our revolutionary world. Although change has long since become routine, most people welcome only superficial novelty—the latest models, gadgets, thrills.

People still resent and resist any call for fundamental change in their ways of thinking. Or, as Bertrand Russell once observed, "Most people would sooner die than think, and in fact do so.” Especially in America, they do not at all welcome radical new ideas.

In spite of our boasts about our greatness, Americans seem more afraid of radicals or revolutionaries in our midst than are any other people in the world. And none are more fearful than the business leaders who keep on revolutionizing the economy, accelerating the drive of our technology—leaders who are the most influential radicals of our day.

This brings up an even deeper paradox. The Industrial Revolution was the work of many inventive, enterprising, daring persons, using their heads. As I read history, it was by no means inevitable, automatic, or predetermined by any iron laws of history. Its early course was foretold by no thinker of the time—including Adam Smith, the most acute analyst in the days when machines were growing up.

Yet, by the same token, the Industrial Revolution as a whole was quite unplanned. Its pioneers didn’t get together and say, "Well, let’s try a society based on the machine for a change.” Like the inventor of the railroad, they were unconscious revolutionaries who hardly foresaw, much less intended, the profound changes their innovations would bring throughout the whole society.

The Revolution illustrated those "vast, impersonal forces” that we hear so much about. It came to seem impersonal and automatic as one invention called out another, and the impetus given to it by the railroad made it well nigh as irresistible as irreversible.

And all along, society was even slower to realize the changes that were coming over it—difficulties that we now call “cultural lag” but that, in spite of our knowingness, are as great as ever because of the terrific drive of our technology. Americans today are still slow to face up to the basic problems it creates.

Well, their best excuse is the obvious goods brought by the new technology—so obvious that it is easy for sophisticates to overlook them. Men have had sound reasons for calling the change “progress.”

The Industrial Revolution meant much more power over the natural environment, a power men have cherished ever since they started chipping flints hundreds of thousands of years ago. It meant a rise in the standard of living, very slow and spotty at first, but in time unmistakable and historically remarkable.

As C. P. Snow reminded the literary world, the Industrial Revolution was the only hope of the poor for a decent living—the poor who had always been the great majority of mankind. Likewise it meant an increasing abundance of material goods—goods it is now easy to disparage as merely material, but which are nonetheless real.

It seems necessary to repeat to some literary people that it is quite possible to live the good life in a house with plumbing, central heating, and other comforts and conveniences, that they too evidently enjoy. At least few critics of modern civilization seem to be putting on hair shirts. Or if we say that man cannot live by bread alone (as we should), we should also keep in mind the commonplace that man first of all needs bread.


It’s also hard to realize now that all through history, down to our century, countless millions of people starved to death, and many millions more had to worry about getting enough bread, as they still do in the non-Western world. A recent UNESCO study of the life of a typical Frenchman of the seventeenth century revealed that if he reached the age of 30 he would have lived through two or three famines, and three or four more near-famines.

It is worth repeating that America is the first nation in history in which more people die of eating too much than eating too little.

With all this material progress came some clear gains in human freedom (a value I’ve specialized in). A higher standard of living meant more effective freedom for ordinary people, more opportunity, a wider range of choice and greater power of choice.

In Europe, the Industrial Revolution was a major factor in another boon for the common people—free public education. An agricultural society can get along with a mostly illiterate population, as they all did in the past, but an industrial society can’t.

So even conservatives, fearful of the masses, were in time persuaded to risk sending poor children to school. And only the wealth provided by the new technology made it possible for countries to educate their entire population.

In the democratic industrial countries the upshot has been that the common people have been given more rights, opportunities, privileges, and incentives than they ever enjoyed in the past.

It’s difficult for you students here to appreciate the literally extraordinary outcome in America that you represent: millions of ordinary Americans going to college—a privilege once reserved for a tiny minority. Millions more have a high school education, also a rarity in the past.

This means that most young people today choose their own careers, decide where and how they will live; whereas in the always predominantly agricultural societies of the past, the great majority followed automatically in the footsteps of their fathers, remained peasants who lived out their lives in the village.

* * *

But now for the "other hand”—the costs of material progress, which to me seem as obvious. From the beginning, the Industrial Revolution brought some glaring social evils, such as women and children working 12 and 14 hours a day in factory and mine. Economic historians are now fond of saying that the historic novelty was not the evils, but the discovery that they were evils and then the resolve to do something about them.

The masses of people had always toiled and lived in wretched poverty. I think it’s important to say this, but I think it’s more important to emphasize that social legislation protecting workers came pretty late, after a great deal of confusion and distress, and that it was always fought by business interests and other respectable people, especially in booming America.

Likewise the increasing prosperity aggravated the plight of the many millions of people who remained very poor, and who were always the chief sufferers from the chronic depressions and unemployment that came with the new technology.

It emphasized another abiding paradox of this technology—that a rational, efficient organization of practical means that could perform wonders has never got around to satisfying the elementary needs for a decent life of a great many people. Today, most affluent America, infinitely the richest society in all history, still has many millions of poor people, and has only begun a piddling war on poverty.


So too with another early consequence of the Industrial Revolution, the growth of ugly, grimy industrial towns—the foulest environment that man has ever created. Slums in the cities grew bigger and fouler because they were considered a natural, normal condition of industrial progress. And again the wealthiest nation on earth has only begun to clear out some of its worst slums, while the black ghettos keep spreading.

The millions who all along were condemned to live in these slums may then remind us that the gains in freedom for ordinary people were offset by new compulsions.

Millions of people were also condemned to the routines of factory work, day in and day out going through the same mechanical operations—trivial, uncreative, humanly meaningless.

In a real sense, slaves to their machines when at work, they also had to live where machines were at home. So they lived in such dreary places as Gary, Indiana—once described as a city inhabited by four blast furnaces and a hundred thousand people.

In general, people have been subjected to the compulsions of the new technology in the interest of efficiency and economy—conceived in terms of money values, not of human costs.

I won’t go into the too familiar story of how industrialism has worked to standardize and regiment people, mechanize and dehumanize life, and has generated massive pressures against the individual that in another view it had liberated.

I would note, however, one consequence of the organizational revolution that came with the rise of industrialism: the growth of corporations, ever bigger business, and then of bigger government, bigger organizations or bureaucracy all through the society, now including big universities too.

Since Americans are fearful of bureaucracy in government as a threat to their freedom, they should realize that it’s just as much bureaucracy in big business, which is somewhat less concerned about the freedom of ordinary people.

The men at the top may still recite from the gospel of economic individualism, but this has little meaning to all the little people in or under the big organizations, now suitably identified by holes in punch cards. {I like the signs carried by the students at Berkeley who were protesting that the University administration was treating them like cards in a computing machine. One sign read: I’m a human being: Don’t fold, spindle, or mutilate!}

Well, from here on I shall dwell on the situation in America today. As you all know {and I’m talking to the students} but maybe can’t actually realize, the forces of science and technology have lately gathered a terrific momentum, producing an unprecedented rate of change.

In the generation since the World War, or in the lifetime of you people, we’ve experienced more sweeping, startling, radical change than whole civilizations went through in a thousand years. Consider for a moment just some of the historic events you have lived through:
- the dawn of the atomic age;
- the conquest of outer space, with rockets to the moon;
- the revolt and rise of the whole non-Western world (where the great majority of mankind lives);
- the population explosion,
- the knowledge explosion, and
- all the other explosions that make exploding seem to be a normal mode of expansion;
- the many new technical wonders, from television to the wonder drugs that may make over human personalities;
- the dawn of automation, with computers to take over the brain work;
- and so on and so on.

God knows what may happen the day after tomorrow. Experts in forecasting have drawn up a list of a hundred significant technical innovations that we can confidently expect by the year 2000, and they have speculated on some of the possible social consequences. But it’s impossible to say what life will be like then, or even to be sure that there will be any human life on this planet.

Now, the most obvious problem is the appalling destructive power at our disposal. Nuclear weapons make it possible for man to destroy his civilization, or maybe the whole human race—to do all by himself what it once took God to do with a flood.


* * *

But this points to the most fundamental paradox. Technological change has been accelerating because it’s more consciously, deliberately planned than ever before. The many billions the government has been spending on research and development represent by far the mightiest effort in history to direct change. All about us are the elaborate appearances of planning and control.

Never before has a society displayed such apparent foresight and will to take charge of its future. Yet the terrific drive seems mechanical and automatic, because it seems irresistible. As is often pointed out (but to no effect), it appears that we "must" do whatever is technologically feasible, no matter what the human cost.

So Americans "must" spend many billions of dollars to keep producing bigger and better nuclear weapons, even though we already have many more than enough to blast the whole earth—the equivalent of 14 TNT tons of explosives for every human being on earth.

Likewise we "must" spend more billions to put a man on the moon, while a billion or so men on earth don’t get enough to eat. Now it seems that we "must" build supersonic planes, no matter what the dangers of sonic boom. They might remind us of the test pilot who radioed in: I’m lost, but I’m making record time.

So the final question is: "Can" man control his terrific technology? Can he direct his immense power to obviously sensible, humane ends—first of all to making the world a safe place to live, then to making it a more civilized place? And since there is so much deliberate planning, at least the appearance of control, the immediate question is: Who is directing our terrific technology, and for what purpose?

Robert Hutchins, a voice crying in the wilderness of California, has given a blunt answer: Our technology is being directed piecemeal by the wrong people, in the wrong ways, to the wrong ends. Specifically, it is being directed in part by our government, primarily for military purposes. For the rest, it is being directed by big business in the interests of private profit, commonly with little regard for any values except money values.

To be sure, government is still providing many valuable services, business is producing an abundance of real goods.

But again I judge that we need to emphasize much more the glaring abuses of our technology, which again don’t seem glaring to most Americans. Our immense power is increasingly a power over not only nature, but over human beings. And for civilized purposes—social, moral, cultural, spiritual—it seems to me a basically irresponsible power.

First, our government. The reason we’ve spent more than a trillion dollars on military defense including many billions on obsolescent weapons systems such as the ABM’s (anti-ballistic missile) coming up now, is of course, the Cold War—the felt need of keeping ahead of the Russians.

The need has also been obvious, in that the Soviet doesn’t always act like a peace-loving nation. But even so, it illustrates the appalling folly of collective man. Of course the nuclear arms race gives no real security to either country. Nobody could win a big nuclear war.

There is also the cold truth that in our obsession with the Cold War, we devote to our Arms Control and Disarmament Agency only a tiny fraction of one percent of what we spend on military hardware—and that, to the rest of the world we don’t always look like a peace-loving nation either.

For the purposes of a free society, still another troublesome consequence is the notorious military industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned the nation about. Life and death decisions affecting all of us are made by a very few men now often in secrecy without public debate. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “Never have so many been so completely at the mercy of so few.”

As for our war in Viet Nam (one of those decisions made in secrecy), I happen to be among those who consider it a frightful mistake, but in any case the war came first. Among its casualties were the public welfare programs, the fate of which makes it indecent to talk anymore about a "Great Society.” The cry in Washington is still that we can’t afford a serious war on poverty or the slums.


This brings up another elementary neglect of human needs that Galbraith dwelt on in ’The Affluent Society.’ As we grew richer by the year, all the time boasting of our efficiency, our postal service grew poorer, our schools and hospitals more overcrowded, our streets dirtier, our rivers and the air we breathe more polluted, our cities more unfit to live in.

Congressmen who didn’t bat an eye over appropriating $60 billion for the military always attacked as “reckless extravagance” proposals to spend a few billions on public welfare programs—whereas we were in fact spending a smaller proportion of our growing national income on public services than we had been and the supposedly alarming increase in the Federal debt was actually a decrease in relation to this income.

In general, the sloganeering that passes for thinking in the nation’s capital is based on assumptions about our economy and government that were not very realistic even in the past, but that an affluent society has made hopelessly obsolete.

Hence, while serious thinkers have grown much more alert to rising problems than men were in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, government remains slow in responding to them. The latest example is the riots of the blacks in the city ghettos.

* * *

To come closer to home, let’s consider another revolutionary consequence of the affluent society: the education explosion that has sent hordes of students to college. Now that the government is pouring billions into the universities for research and development, educators are talking of another major industry—the knowledge industry—which has become the biggest industry in the country.

In the kind of technical language that has grown fashionable, Clark Kerr writes that “the production, distribution, and consumption of knowledge” now accounts for 29% of the Gross National Product, and is growing at about twice the rate of the economy. Daniel Bell adds that the university bids fair to be the primary institution of our new kind of technocratic society, even more important than the corporation.

All of us here might therefore rejoice in our new eminence. All, that is, except those of us engaged in the old-fashioned business of a liberal education. The consumption of our kind of product represents a small fraction of the GNP. For the emphasis is on specialized technical knowledge, not on breadth of interest or understanding, enlargement of mind, enrichment of personality, or the cultivation of civilized values.

The billions are going chiefly, of course, into science and technology. When President Johnson requested a few million dollars for the new Foundation on the Humanities and the Fine Arts, Congress promptly slashed this tiny amount in half. A Republican leader who tried to cut it out entirely protested, “We got along pretty well in this country for a century or so without spending money for culture and the humanities.” In short, culture is a mere frill.

As for the serious business of life, all that is supposed to keep America healthy and strong, the leaders of both parties appear to agree that our primary national goal must be steady economic growth. This might seem odd, since the basic economic needs of most white Americans have long since been satisfied by our technology, and business can flourish only by creating a lot of superfluous needs, such as the latest model and the latest gadget.

But I suppose business must come first in the new kind of society we’ve developed, in which we are all more dependent on the state of the economy than ever before. I’m reminded of the prayer of the little English boy in the World War: “God bless Mother and Daddy, my brother and sister, and save the King—and oh God, do take care of yourself, because if anything happens to you we’re all sunk.”

And so we’re all sunk if our economy collapses, and we may be in a bad way if it grinds to a halt—still worse if it enters an old-fashioned depression of the kind it had regularly in the palmy days of free private enterprise.


But even so, I stick to my simple point, that steady economic growth is only a means to some end. Since business seems to be taking pretty good care of itself, it’s all the more important to have some civilized notion of the end or of the good life.

Now we’ll never agree, of course, on just what is the good life for man, any more than the wise or the holy men through the ages have ever agreed. And I, for one, don’t want complete agreement, just because man has such rich diverse capacities, and because I’m committed to the values of individuality, or people thinking independently for themselves.

As a teacher of the humanities, I no doubt share their common objective—how to be more like me—but I wouldn’t even press this laudable objective.

Still, thoughtful people can at least agree that wealth and power don’t automatically lead to a better life. And since I began by saying that we all know some absolute goods, I will now add that we all can and do agree on some absolute evils.

An obvious example is the pollution of our rivers and our air. Nobody would deny that this is a bad thing. Then the pertinent question is: Why has affluent America put up with it for so long and only just begun to do something about it?

And again the answer is obvious. Our great industries produced the pollution. To reduce it will require government interference with private enterprise, cost a lot of money, and cause businessmen some trouble. In other words, it calls for more "creeping socialism”—what appears to give businessmen nightmares.

I must confess that I find it hard to share these nightmares. Inasmuch as they’ve gone on piling up record profits, corporations have grown into giants, and my impression remains that General Motors is not a poor, helpless, grievously oppressed organization.

I state as an historical fact that never in any past society did businessmen as a class enjoy such power, privilege, and opportunity as they do in America today. Then I’d add that they have more responsibility too.

So I’m brought to the role of big business in directing our wondrous technology. In the old days before the New Deal (the golden age of Barry Goldwater), it was often frankly irresponsible. J. P. Morgan said in so many words: “I owe the public nothing.” Another big magnate said more bluntly, "The public be damned!”

Now I think the big corporations have grown distinctly more responsible. But I also think that too often they’re by no means responsible enough in the exercise of their very great power. Their spokesmen still tell us that economic freedom is the most fundamental kind, the heart of the American way of life, even though the authors of the Constitution neglected to mention it.

But what they defend most zealously is the freedom to be socially irresponsible.

Here I won’t go into some of my own pet irritations, such as:

- all the commercials the big TV networks now work into their news programs;

- or the scandalous income tax favors lavished on the highly protected oil industry, which repays us with Texas millionaires (types who may recall the old saying that self-made men relieve God of an awful responsibility);

- or the scandalous profits of the drug industry (a matter I feel bitter about because of a blood pressure pill my doctor has prescribed—a drug that the government bought from a European country for the equivalent of five cents a hundred pills, and that costs me $8.75 a hundred in the drugstore).

At the risk of being indiscreet or un-American, I’ll consider just your mammoth, automobile industry. The automobile, which has been doing away with the passenger train, has brought much more of the “peril to life” that the editor of ’John Bull’ feared in the railroad; many more Americans have been killed on the highways than in both world wars.


Now, under government pressure, the auto industry has only begun grudgingly to put more safety devices into its cars, and it is still resisting efforts to make it add exhaust controls in order to reduce pollution of the air.

Why this indifference to human safety and public health? Alfred Sloan, the wizard who built up General Motors, stated the basic reason quite simply in his memoirs: “The primary object of the corporation was to make money, not just to make motor cars.” It made more money by making expensive cars with excess power and chrome, annual new models with only styling changes, instead of just sturdy, efficient cars.

Well, profits must of course be the primary concern of big corporations. First and last they’re all necessarily out to make money. Andrew Hacker, a kindly disposed political scientist, has explained that they can’t be held socially responsible for their decisions about how to keep their business profitable, and that social problems created by their technological advances, such as automation, must be left to the government.

But then the trouble is that their spokesmen habitually resist government efforts to deal with the problems, just as they have fought every major reform in this century. Like the automobile manufacturers, they protest that the government is interfering with business.

Likewise they too have opposed public welfare programs as reckless extravagance, rehearsing the slogans about spending ourselves into bankruptcy while taxing ourselves to death.

Meanwhile, business has built up another revolutionary enterprise: a $15 billion advertising industry to make Americans ever more extravagant in satisfying their private or selfish wants. It is dedicated to the proposition that selling eyewash in fancy packages is what keeps America healthy and strong.

This advertising industry brings us back to the curious tyranny of our kind of economy. It is absolutely essential, I suppose, to the steady economic growth on which we now depend. Americans have to be sold on the latest model and all kinds of fancy or superfluous goods, or else our economy will collapse.

As has often been said, the primary function of Americans today is to be consumers. They must keep on consuming faithfully, arduously, to the end of their days—an end suitably marked by a costly funeral. Theirs not to question why, theirs but to go and buy. Then it must be said that Americans appear to be doing their duty gladly enough.

* * *

So we come to the root of the problem. We cannot simply blame either government or business for the abuses of our technology and the neglect of fundamental human values.

The fault is finally the fault of the American people. They have not been protesting against the folly of the nuclear arms race.

They are not demanding that we spend anything like the billions it would take to make the American city fit to live in, or to provide decent homes, schools, and jobs for the blacks in its ghettos.

Still less do they call for more aid to the billion people on earth who don’t get enough to eat.

{Let me add that I’m sparing you the biggest problem looming up: the growing gap between the few “have” nations and the many “have-nots,” made worse by the population explosion. So just the annual increase in our national income has been greater than the total income of the whole continent of Africa, with its more than 300 million people.}

Americans are plainly in a conservative mood, disposed to sit tight because they’re sitting pretty, and to complain only about the taxes they have to pay for having it so good. They are in no mood to make any real sacrifices, even though their taxes amount to a smaller proportion of the national income than the taxes levied in the European democracies.


And in their self-indulgence, the great majority approve the values they’re sold in the interest of private profit. Businessmen can always defend the cars with excess power and chrome and fins, trashy programs on TV, and all the other trivial or tawdry products of our technology, by saying that they are only giving the people what they want.

Such living values make uglier the violence of the white backlash against the blacks, the uses of white power to keep the blacks out of the suburbs. What are these people trying to preserve? What vision? What ideal? What image of freedom and dignity? What notion of the good life?

Let us look at Americans in their automobiles—the sacred cows of the American way of life. Another reason for the blight of the American city is that its government has been spending most freely to take care of the needs of the automobile, eating out the heart of the city to provide more parking space while building more throughways leading into it, only to increase the congestion.

To me there is no more absurd spectacle than that enacted every morning and afternoon in America—millions of people driving to and from work in the city, one to a car, bumper to bumper, often through smog, often tense and irritable, unable to relax and enjoy the passing landscape.

Worse, they seem unaware that there’s usually little to enjoy in this bulldozed landscape anyway, chiefly a clutter of billboards and neon signs, garish shopping centers, drab or ugly suburban sprawl, and honky-tonk and other commercial slops to make more hideous the approaches to our cities.

Apparently Americans accept ugliness as natural and normal, just as people did in the bad old early days of the Industrial Revolution. They don’t mind the transformation of God’s Own country into “God’s own junkyard.”

* * *

So I’m brought back to the basic question: Can we control our terrific technology? Can we direct it to humane, civilized purposes, a more gracious way of life, more pleasing to eye and ear? I think it is technically possible to do so, in view of all the deliberate direction.

I also doubt that there will be anything like a great national effort to do so, certainly not while we’re obsessed with the Cold War, but most likely not even if we’re ever at peace with the world. Robert Hutchins concluded that to direct our technology intelligently, first of all to get it out of the hands of the wrong people, would call for a revolution, not only economic and political, but moral and intellectual.


I see no immediate prospect of such a revolution, or any popular demand for one in America. In popular journals there has been quite a fashion lately of forecasting what America will be like in the year 2000, and the basic picture is always the same: the future will bring only a bigger and fancier technology, only a wonderland still more fit for Alice. Its capital has been given the appropriately ugly name of Boswash, a huge metropolitan sprawl or megalopolis reaching all the way from Boston to Washington.

In a sense, I’m more pessimistic than Hutchins. His charge that the wrong people are in charge of our technology forces another question: Who then are the "right" people to put in charge? I see no possibility of agreement on an answer to this question, nor do I myself have a clear answer.

I would never put our government, any government, in complete charge of our technology, any more than I would turn it over completely to private business.

Neither would I entrust the job to any central organization, any body of social engineers or systems analysts, for these specialists always tend to put efficiency or the needs of the system above the human values I’m most concerned about.

And I would not turn over the job even to a foundation of the humanities, headed by Robert Hutchins.

From long experience as a professor, I can only imagine the endless wrangle over the right means and ends, the noisy confusion that led an African observer of an American faculty meeting to ask, "Do you think they’re really ready yet for self-government?”

So again I conclude lamely, as I did the last time out. So long as we remain anything like a free society, we’ll go on directing our technology piecemeal, at best curbing some abuses, making somewhat ampler provisions for both elementary human needs and civilized human values.

Finally, our best hope remains the obvious one: education. All of us here know that education is a very long, slow, uncertain process. In the universities it’s complicated by the increasing specialization which is turning out more one-dimensional men.

This might make us all wonder whether we’re preparing students for life the day before yesterday, instead of tomorrow—and then wonder just how to give them the professional training they need and also give them a better understanding of our technological society, make them good citizens with a proper concern for human values, help them to make satisfying use of the increasing abundance and leisure, develop them as independent individuals with minds of their own, and prepare them for responsible leadership in a future that the specialists in serious forecasting tell us will be still fuller of problems.

As an educator too I can’t end on a high note. The best I can do is to point to some hopeful signs. The American people seem to be growing more alert to the changes in our society. They’ve been making best sellers of books about the organization man, the hidden persuaders, the status seekers, the lonely crowd, the pressures to conformism—the not-so-brave new world.

Of course, there is much more to be said on behalf of the American people. In the universities there is a considerable stir, more of an awareness of what H. G. Wells said long ago, after World War I: “From now on, history is a race between education and catastrophe.”

Yet at the end I’d repeat that there will have to be a great deal more change if our world is to be made safe and fit for human beings to live in, and that our pace of adjustment is still pretty slow in view of the accelerating pace of technological change and the urgency of some of our problems.

Then the best I can say is that the wonderful, fearful potentialities we have developed through science and technology are still open, for better and for worse.


It is much too easy to blame everything on technology, for what we make of it is strictly up to us. In particular it is up to the younger generation, who will inherit both the powers and the messes created by their elders.

So among the most hopeful signs to me are the signs that more students are growing alert to the problems, taking an active interest in them, aspiring to more than a good, safe berth in a good, safe corporation.

Certainly, most of the students I teach are better informed about the state of America and the world than were the college students of my own generation. They include young radicals who consider me just an old liberal (the dirtiest word in their lexicon), but even so I welcome their indignation, their ardor—at least until they begin busting up the campus.

In my usual style I might then say: God bless our youth, or maybe God help them—that is, if there be a God, which I don’t know either. But I think I know that they may at least still regard the problems as challenges (another of our favorite words today), or even as opportunities. I thank you.

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