Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Science and technology

How are they related? Does science drive technological innovation? Or is it the other way around?

I grew up in the Jacques Elluh generation. Oswald Spengler's 1931 Man and Technics was already old hat, with it's pessimistic view of technology and industrialization. Lewis Mumford's 1934 Technics and Civilization sought to place technology in a more comprehensive organic notion of human development, but seemed oddly-dated by the time I got to it. Siegfried Giedion's 1948 Mechanization Takes Command was a teeming idiosyncratic take on the technological accouterments of modern life, but I don't think I ever understood what he was getting at.

Elluh's 1964 The Technological Society emphasized the inevitable progress of technology, but warned of the moral consequences. Technology does not make us happy, he asserted. Too many tradeoffs.

Since my early academic immersion in this stuff, I more or less lost track of the ongoing debate between the technological utopians and the neo-Luddite handwringers. Technology may or may not make us happy, but that has not slowed technological development or curbed our appetite for the latest innovations. Even the most avid of contemporary Luddites have their laptops and cell phones and travel to anti-technology conferences on the latest jet aircraft.

My own relationship with technology has been one of trying to find a balance between the technological and the organic. I suspect technological and organic evolution is symbiotic, and follow something of the same Darwinian logic. Science does not lead technology, nor vice verse; their evolution goes hand in hand. The future -- to the dismay of my nature-writer friends -- will inevitably be a human artifact, synthetic from the get go. But because biological evolution does not proceed at the same pace as technological evolution, and because the human factor cannot be removed from technique, our bodies provide a modest brake on the mechanization of culture.

I passed a young couple on the campus yesterday. They were each listening to their own iPod through their own earbuds. And they were holding hands. Somehow it seemed an apt image of our techno-organic future.