Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Living in a Technological Culture: Human Tools and Human Values

Mary Tiles and Hans Oberdiek
Routledge: London
1995
0415071003 (hb)
37.50 (hb)
xi + 212 pp.

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The authors of this book argue that technologies-electronic, digital, mechanical, industrial, scientific, etc- are bound to the culture that has produced them. To understand what will be the impact, role or shaping of technologies and cognate practices requires members of those same cultures to be self-aware and reflective. The authors illustrate what this would involve, or a least outline what would be some of the moral principles that would guide such self-awareness. The hope of the authors is that those who read the book will be given the intellectual acumen to avoid the pitfalls of over simplistic views about science, technology and culture. With this acumen, readers will begin to have a better grasp of such things as the cultural context in which the distinction between hard and the soft sciences is made, the erroneous distinction between technology practice and politics, the differences between cultures, economies and nations and its relation to scientific and technological practice, and much more besides. Ultimately, they will find themselves in a better position to argue and debate about the role of technology in society. The authors offer a philosophic inquiry into these issues, justifying their disciplinary perspective with the claim that technology, science and action are connected by ideas culturally mediated and bound. Hence their subject matter is the proper stuff of philosophic inquiry-i.e., the investigation of the systematic properties of ideas and their relation to action, perception and understanding.

The book consists of seven chapters, plus an introduction. Each treats the issues from a different angle, though all combine polemical argument with empirical examples. Chapter 1 sets the scene by considering two views of science and technology: one optimistic, the other pessimistic. Rather awkwardly they compare the (optimistic) visions of Clive Sinclair , the man made famous for the first ever mass produced digital watch and infamous for the C5 powered bicycle (unfortunately most American readers will know nothing of these technological feats) with the scholarly and pessimistic ramblings of Ellul. I say awkward since the words these two individuals offer on the role of technology are not the same in terms of their purpose, the manner of their delivery, or more generally in terms of the relationship between those sayings and the social actions they are part of. I shall come back to this. Chapter 2 is used to explain how science is culturally located, and thus is related to specific sorts of power structures and formations of expert power. Chapter 3 repeats Latour's thesis that a key achievement of contemporary science has been its ability to impose itself on the world outside (rather than having to get bits of the world into the lab, as in previous scientific epochs). They explain that one consequence of this is the loss of local crafts, indigenous (especially underdeveloped nation) know-how and cultural diversity. Another is that such science-all encompassing, imperialistic- necessitates large expense and capital intensive approaches to research and development. Skipping to Chapter 5: here the authors explain how technological developments and research are linked to political issues, and that consequently matters that are often presented as merely technological should be subject to political control and inquiry. Chapter 6 considers the relationship between technology and agriculture and explains that those who control Western research act against cultural diversity in agricultural practice. The authors exalt the Japanese for apparently managing to avoid some of the pitfalls of this with rice growing technology. Chapter 7 seeks to answer the question of who, or more precisely why there is such confusion and such " a mess" as regards the attitudes toward and debate about techno-science. They explain that there is all too often a "corruption of conscience" (p178) and that there is a need to impose some principles of "moral responsibility" on all those involved in techno-science. They explain what a morally responsible person would be responsible for (quite a lot, as one can imagine).

The book as a whole suffers from a number of problems. First, a rather minor quibble: there is no overview of the arguments to guide the reader as to what they may find. Even within each chapter there is little guidance as to what the contents will be and the reader is often left with a queezy feeling as examples that first give the impression of being brief turn into pages and pages of text. Many substantial examples are not flagged at all. The absence of a guiding structure may be a function of the fact that the book is co-authored by individuals who by their own admission had little time together during the writing process. Hence it may be that neither of the authors new in detail what the other was writing except in the broadest sense-i.e., what was agreed early on in the writing process. I do not know.

Of much more substantial concern is the selection of examples within the book. Too many are rather crude and obvious. What makes one feel unhappy about these is related to the prior question of who the book is for. The book does not push the boundaries of philosophical inquiry back or introduce some new finesse to the philosophy of science. Nor does it offer news to those disciplines more directly concerned with the empirical (rather than the conceptual) study of science and technology, such as sociology. One therefore assumes that the authors have written the text with pedagogic purposes in mind; that the book is intended for (advanced) undergraduates and graduate researchers at the commencement of their studies. If this is so-and the authors don't help the reader or indeed a reviewer to know whether this is the case, I am only conjecturing-then choosing the right examples is of absolute importance. In advanced philosophy, especially the philosophy of language, the selection of intriguing examples is quite an art, and most often the best examples are those which have an everyday, inconsequential appearance to them. This appearance can be delicately unpacked and inappropriate implications and associations done away with. I have in mind, obviously, the empirical investigations of Wittgenstein. For less advanced investigations, when one is trying to teach the mechanics of such investigations, then the selection of examples is more difficult. One must not pander to everyday prejudices or gross assumptions; the examples must provoke reflection on subject matter that has hitherto been treated as mundane, inconsequential, taken for granted. And here lies the rub.

To begin with, Tiles and Oberdiek make inappropriate comparison between examples. What appears in Time magazine or the Economist (viz the views of the inventor Sinclair) does not consist of the same stuff as that which is presented, Elluls' The Technology Society. They cannot-or rather they should not- be compared and contrasted as if they were both philosophical positions-unless of course one wants to ignore the different purposes and context that give each their meaning. And this is precisely what a pedagogic text is meant to teach the reader to avoid. Second, Tiles and Oberdiek choose examples that any teenager could pick off the shelf-politics and the bomb; nineteenth century science and capitalism; twentieth century agricultural technology, otherwise known as the green revolution, versus Western economic imperialism. Reference to these may please those who don't want to think about anything except what is in the News everyday. But their selection enervates any concern with less mentioned and often more intractable examples. It is the latter that are effective in didactic environments.

This rough handling of empirical material reaches an apotheosis in chapter 7. Here there is a discussion of the tragic design and work practice floors associated with early McDonnell Douglas wide-body jets. Tiles and Oberdiek's summary of the events and the motivations of the engineers who designed and maintained these aircraft reads like the worst marketing propaganda from Boeing Corp. The reader is told that there can be little doubt that these people were-no, are!-morally culpable for the design and work practice failures. Every death that ensued when the airframes of these aircraft failed over Paris and other cities is the direct consequence of the actions of these individuals. We are told these individuals (and others) had corrupted consciences.

This is pretty heavy stuff. The trouble is that one is not persuaded by the arguments and evidence put forward by Tiles and Oberdiek. Though they cite some of the reports and literature associated with the disasters in question, they seem to know nothing of a range of approaches that are specifically concerned with trying to unravel the complex issues that lead to the kinds of disaster that brought down that plane over Paris all those years ago. I am thinking here of research into Human Error and more generally Human Factors, for example. These approaches are intended to unravel the enormously complex chains of events, including misperception, error, cock-up, serendipity and more that lead to such tragedies. The last thing these approaches want to do is finger point. Without reference to such approaches, indeed with out any mention of them, an initiate (i.e. someone who is being taught by the book) might get the impression that aside from the task of "merely" gathering evidence-much of which Tiles and Oberdiek do report I should say-the real investigative work in these cases is a philosophic one. That is because the task is to discover the individuals whose corrupted consciences led to these disasters. But as I say, this is little better than finger pointing.

In trying to illustrate their arguments with examples like these, in making ill-judged assertions about events and circumstances, and with inappropriate comparison, the approach that Tiles and Oberdiek want to outline gets lost. There is little room for subtlety of understanding or delicacy of thought; no role here for the trained mind. Though they commence their book with the pious hope that they will teach the reader to avoid oversimplifications, they end up offering oversimplifications themselves. A very bad mistake indeed.

Richard Harper
Digital World Research Centre, University of Surrey

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999