Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Engineering and Freedom, Part 1

There is a paradox inherent in technology. Any automated technique liberates people from the constraints of their own anatomy, extending and objectifying the limbs, senses and other faculties to create what Freud called “the prosthetic God.”[i] Technologies greatly amplify the physical and mental freedom of human beings to explore and control the world. But the way the environment is reorganized to accommodate this amplification also is a cause of human bondage. The automobile, for example, dramatically reduced urban population density by subdividing the distinct functions of the city. Thereafter, those unable to afford a motorcar, or who had poor access to public transport, were effectively amputated from full intercourse with society. But even those with cars are beholden to them just as they are to all the other automated technologies, as much as a cripple is to her wheelchair. By changing the scale and nature of the environment, technology turns the human body invalid.


During the twentieth century, the entire material environment of Occidental and East Asian societies became engineered — constructed according a plan or blueprint. This includes, of course, the symbolic or artistic aspects of culture — now transmitted through television, the movies, records, the Internet, and in specially-designed places for public performance. “First World” society was transformed, during the last century, from Gemeinschaft, the “organic community,” to Gesellschaft, the mechanical or rational community. The world of engineered technology is the most conspicuous aspect of the modern Occident. But, emphatically, Western society is not built upon the values of efficiency and rationality, alone. This is demonstrated by simply referring to the fundamental tenets of Western politics: democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech, thought, etc. None of these values have rationality or efficiency as their primary goal, quite the contrary.


There could be nothing more inefficient than having policy and law determined by the population at large, most of whom are unschooled in and indifferent to the workings of government, and otherwise prone to divide into faction over what laws should or should not be instituted. Consequently, democratic decision-making succumbs to “politics,” wherein statute and programmes are erected based on compromise and “horse-trading,” a most inefficient of getting things done. Nearly all the great rationalists of the ages have agreed that, democracy is very worst sort of government, including all the others. Plato devised his ideal state, as laid out in the Republic (or Polity), in which the true democracy of his Athenian home was banished, in favour of rule by an elite group of philosopher-kings, called the Guardians. Throughout his works, Plato damned Hellenic mass democracy, which he blamed for the condemnation of his master, Socrates. Aristotle was more moderate in his assessment of democracy, but nevertheless also favoured an elite rule by learned men. The Enlightenment philosophers, the supposed pioneers of liberal thought, were scarcely any less damning in their view of democratic rule than were the ancients. Voltaire advocated rule by a “benevolent despot,” essentially a philosopher-king of the Platonic model. Rousseau seemed to favour direct democracy, as occurred at Athens, but with no allowance for party or faction within the assembly. All were supposed to adhere to “right reason,” with abstainers being “forced to be free” in spite of their own inclinations. This is hardly a liberal or democratic schema, but it was put into practice by the Terrorists of the Committee of Public Safety to guillotine thousands at the end of the French Revolution.


The dictatorship of The Committee of Public Safety was accompanied by the complete abnegation of what limited rights were available to Frenchmen in that day and age. Civil and legal rights, as embodied at first in English common law, undermine the role of the state as keeper of public (and private) order. Warrants and writs, and other conventions that protect individuals from unreasonable search and seizure, detention, coercion of testimony, and so on, owe little to philosophical systems. They evolved slowly, as a result of “political” conflict and compromise between the interests of the individual, and those of the state. In police states, there is little crime except that committed by the authorities themselves. Ordinary street crime in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia was eliminated through the detention of anyone suspected of an offence. Later dictatorships had more sophisticated, though no less efficient, methods of keep ordinary criminality down. The nullification of legal and civil rights that this entailed is the most rational method of eliminating the problem. Logically, the cost of lost liberty due to the suspension of civil rights, is worth the benefit of increased security of the person and property. Such conventions as right to silence, or the trial- verdict by one’s peers, could never have been developed based on rational precepts.


Rational philosophers have throughout the ages viewed free exchange in the marketplace as a base and unsavoury use of the faculties, satiable by strict regulation and control. Plato favoured a primitive communism for his Polity, while Aristotle championed the “autarky” of a household-based economy. The classical political economists were rarely in favour of total laissez-faire, and after Karl Marx, most rational intellectuals have sought some sort of regulation of the market. Laissez-faire, meanwhile, was not devised, but identified as a viable system by the Physiocrats and Adam Smith in the eighteenth century. It came about not because of the rationality of philosophies and systems, but of the self-interest of countless participants in the market.
Liberal freedoms, then, were not borne of logic and rationality. Western philosophy has made a far better case for dictatorship than for democracy — for totalitarianism than for freedom.


Liberalism evolved from the conflict in early-modern times between newly-empowered royal states, and the emergent middle ranks of European society. Through long struggle and war, monarchies were compelled to grant some degree of liberal rights to individual citizens, in religious matters, and then in legal and civil affairs. Liberalism stood in opposition to the rational and efficient administration established by the great kings of Europe, and aimed to create a margin between state and society, a civil space in which the individual could act unmolested by authorities or other citizens.


Rationality undermines freedom practically as well as theoretically. Engineering, which automates manual and handicraft technologies, has progressively shaped and re-shaped landscape and society for more than two hundred years, bringing convenience and utility, and also dependence upon automation for everyday needs, and paralysis when faced with technological failure and breakdown. Engineered technology is usually seen, favourably or not, as the fruit of laissez-faire capitalism. But an economy not encumbered by high taxes or excessive regulation does not, in fact, contribute much to the progress of engineered technology. In a state of perfect or ruinous competition, profit margins are too low for firms to invest much in research and development. Historically, technological advance has been subsidized directly or indirectly by the state, in fulfilment of its essential function as monopolizer of coercion. The state began as an armed camp; when it comes under attack from insurrection or invaders, it assumes precisely that form once again. Organized warfare has forced states to invent or adopt engineering novelties. The state, unlike private capital, can “afford” to invest in technologies that are without apparent commercial potential. The roads and aqueducts of ancient Rome were built to defend and fortify the empire, not to expedite commerce. In the Hellenistic empire of the Seleucids, Hero and Archimedes constructed steam engines, but only their martial inventions (such as the catapult and the screw) found widespread application. Steam-powered engines remained novelties in the second century before Christ, because the imperial state of that time found no purpose in financing their construction or operation.


Steam power was not rediscovered until the eighteenth century. Contrary to popular understanding, however, the “industrial revolution” in northern England and Scotland in the 1700s, which brought in the factory-based economy, was not initially dependent upon steam power. Rather, the advances in productivity in the textile and other industries came about because of the division and specialization of labour. As exemplified in Adam Smith’s description of the pin manufactory in the Wealth of Nations (1776), the minute divvying up of the work involved in creating a good allowed a single, largely unskilled workman to produce in a day as much as twenty skilled craftsmen. The division of labour, Smith observed, was key to the “wealth of nations”, and came about spontaneously as trade was loosened from state taxation and regulation. Machines are but the fruits of the division of labour, Smith wrote.[ii] In fact, machine-industrial production did not predominate until well into the nineteenth century, after its value had been proven in armaments factories financed or controlled by the state. Europe owed its technological predominance over the rest of the world due to the competitive struggle amongst its various countries (England, France, Prussia, Russia, Spain, Portugal, etc.). Historian Paul Kennedy noted in his study of the rise and fall of great powers, that it was the need for the various European states (that, unlike the other metropolitan centres of civilization, had not been united under a single power since the fall of Rome) to keep abreast of each other militarily, which launched the modern age of engineered technology.


Industrial revolution has occurred in most places not through the private capital accumulation, but from the heavy investment of the state in armaments production, to fight or prepare to fight wars. Thus, Britain only became fully industrialized after the twenty-five years of French Revolutionary / Napoleonic wars, and the growth of heavy industry in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States was slow, until the Civil War sparked the American industrial revolution (which nevertheless was centred in the northeast and mid- to far-West of the country, not touching the midlands and deep southeast until the 1940s and ‘50s). Prussia and Japan were transformed into industrial powers in the nineteenth century under dirigiste, militarist governments. Stalin’s Russia, in making the leap from an agricultural to factory-based economy, directly copied the example of post-1867 Japan. The economic power of the United States in the post-World War II era has been assured in large part through the investment of the U.S. Defence Department in high-tech projects to fight the Cold War (resulting, for example, in cellular technology and the protocols which make the Internet possible).


Engineering advance rarely occurs in a liberal marketplace, because a competitive environment is anathema to investment in sophisticated technology, which must be subsidized in their construction and operation before any return is seen. Unless subsidized by the state, technological innovation is deemed by market actors as too risky and dear to be economically feasible. It is when the government, through funding and fiat power, supports engineering, that it is accepted generally. Today, people in Occidental countries live in unprecedented prosperity, due in no small part to the progress of engineering during the twentieth century. But affluence is no essential prerequisite to the practice of civil and other forms of liberty. As described by the classicist H.D.F. Kitto, the free people of Athens, lived hardly better than their slaves, in spite of their involvement in far-flung trade during the fifth century BC. The evolution of direct democracy in Attica prior to and during the classical age, resulted from conflict and compromise, rather than abstract theorizing, and most free citizens of that time and place were far less interested in philosophy than were the most famed of the Hellenes. Modern societies with enduring liberal traditions, gained civil and economic freedom prior to becoming “technological societies,” and many countries (such as Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia) underwent technological modernization under totalitarian conditions. Totalitarianism, with its ever-present bureaucracy, is the apex of engineered modernism, in fact. In the twentieth century, people in liberal societies exchanged a good deal of their liberty to live under most engineered (socially and technologically) conditions.

R.B. Glennie

Part two of `Engineering and Freedom'.

[i]. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, tr. Joan Riviere, rev. and ed. James Strachey. The International Psycho-analytic Library, 17 (London: The Holgarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1963; 1969 reprint), p. ??.
[ii]. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 1. (1776; electronic text edition, Hamilton, Ontario: McMaster University Archive for the History of Economic Thought, May 29, 2000).

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