The Connection With Health:

With regard to health, technology is a two edged sword. It has shown us how we can literally turn deserts into gardens. It has given medical science truly powerful weapons to cure diseases that were once fatal. It promises to free human beings from the drudgery of menial tasks. At the same time it has made possible the creation of weapons that threaten to make the earth uninhabitable for human beings. It appears to be the root cause of the disruption of ecological systems with the many problems associated with this. By breaking down the barriers between diverse ecological systems, technology also appears to be responsible for the emergence of new diseases. In the social dimension, it opens the door to the possibility of a technologically managed autocracy of nightmarish dimensions. Technology has been lauded as human kind’s greatest achievement and attacked as our greatest curse. Perhaps it is all a matter of how it is used. Some, however, would claim that technology imposes dynamics of its own that are essentially beyond human control. Clearly technology has created serious health threatening imbalances on a wide variety of fronts. Generally speaking the solution to these imbalances is sought in more or better technology. Can it be that technology is both the disease and the cure? Of one thing there can be no doubt. Technology has a huge capacity to influence human health – either for good or for evil.   


Key Issues:

Does Technology have dynamics that are independent of the human will? Common sense leads us to believe that technology is the servant of human needs. To some extent this is true. Yet technology has its own demands that are independent of the humans that employ it. As Jacques Ellul put it, “Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.” Once a society commits itself primarily to the technological solution to human problems, a large number of social arrangements must be instituted to support this decision. These arrangements include what kind of educational system to implement and what avenues to pursue for the solution of various human problems. Ultimately the demands of technology dictate what a society becomes irrespective of traditional human values. Techniques that were meant to be servants of human needs ultimately dictate what kind of society must be created. The servant becomes the master. Human beings act in the service of the technological imperative.

Can technology be applied safely to human systems? The technological perspective conceptualizes the reality that it is going to manipulate as complex mechanical systems. It is focused on two goals: prediction and control. When applied to purely mechanical devices such as computers and telephones, this works well. When applied to biological systems it produces mixed results. All living systems from apparently simple one celled organisms to the biosphere itself are complex self-regulating systems. They operate a little like mobiles. If you touch them at any point you effect the behavior of the entire system in ways that are frequently unpredictable. For this reason medicine produces both miraculous cures and iatrogenic illnesses. The problem is especially acute when we apply the technological perspective to the psychological and social systems within which human reality is embedded. Here the practice of an “expert” who predicts and controls the system from the outside runs into direct conflict with the person or group that wishes to remain autonomous – to set his, her or its own goals, to arrive at solutions to problems that are consistent with these goals, and to be inwardly directed.

Is there in inherent conflict between human technology and the requirements of the natural order? The most aggressive and articulate criticisms of technology seem to come from anarchists of one persuasion or another. This suggests that some people see a connection between technology and the domination of people, communities and the natural order. Perhaps the most radical spokesperson of this group is John Zerzan who sees civilization itself as inherently oppressive. Even the invention of language, which can be thought of as a form of technology, alienates people from the natural order. Perhaps he is right. It is difficult to either validate or negate a proposition of this sort. But if he is right, then one wonders what the cure for the problem might be. Some primitive anarchists would maintain that hunting-gathering societies provided their members with a life that was in general more vital, meaningful, democratic and satisfying than our civilized society does. Emotionally, something in us may resonate with this perspective, but again, it is hard to determine how accurate it really is. And again it is difficult to see what one might do if he or she were persuaded of the truth of this point of view. Now that we have a population that is supported by the technology that we have, it is difficult to see how we could return to the ways of a hunting-gathering society without first killing off 4/5ths of the earths population.

Despite the difficulties of either verifying or negating some of the basic claims of the primitive anarchists, and the additional difficulty of defining a cure once the disease becomes defined as an inherent an incompatibility between technology and human health, freedom and well being, it may well be that we can find clues within the works of such anarchists as to what we do need to do. John Moore defines defines anarcho-primitivism as “a convenient label used to characterize diverse individuals with a common project: the abolition of all power relations - e.g., structures of control, coercive authority, domination and exploitation - and the creation of a form of community that excludes all such relations.” Certainly many of us would have difficulty finding fault with this goal. The question would seem to be whether there are realistic ways of working toward this goal in a world already dominated by technology.

What would appropriate technology look like? This is a complex and difficult question. However, perhaps it is possible on the basis of what is already known to provide some guidelines with regard to assessing whether any given technological process is appropriate to the needs of humanity. Appropriate technology has the following characteristics:

  • It respects and fits into the larger ecological order
  • It is sustainable
  • It does not reduce human reality to the concept of a complex object to be controlled
  • It is equally available to everybody
  • It is subordinated to the best values of human society, including individual autonomy, diversity, community, a beautiful environment, health, and accessibility to the material pre-conditions for a decent life.

Is capitalism incompatible with appropriate technology? In our present situation we have a form capitalism that is almost unopposed on a global level, and it is clear that there is a profound conflict between this capitalism and the need for appropriate technology. The most blatant example of this conflict is found in the “race to the bottom” that an uncontrolled global capitalism has forced upon the world. Countries are forced to compete with each other not only with regard to who can supply the cheapest labor, but also with regard to who will provide the fewest environmental protections. Clearly a capitalism that is unconstrained by any forces that defend the common good will impose a form of technology on the world that is profoundly and dangerously in conflict with the health and well being of workers, their families, their communities and the entire ecological order. The only question is whether this conflict is inherent in the nature of capitalism or whether it can be corrected by some form of market socialism that attempts to retain the vigor of a competitive market while defining rules of the game that prevent the rape of the earth and the exploitation of workers.

Conclusion. In general the concept of “appropriate” technology would seem to be the most promising approach to the problems presented by technology as it has currently evolved. But it is clear that in some ways we have created a Frankenstein’s monster that threatens either to destroy us outright, or to turn human society into a prison for the human spirit. Therefore it is important that we not be overconfident of facile solutions and easy formulas. The critiques of those most sensitive to those values that are threatened, and who are most keenly aware of the risks inherent in technological development must be listened to with respect.

Connection With Other Topics:

Arms and Military – Technology has led to a dramatic increase in the potential lethality of weapons – so much so that now the use of war to resolve human conflicts represents a risk to survival of the human species. Indeed, the fundamental disease of the modern world may simply be that that our evolution in the sphere if technology has outstripped our moral and spiritual evolution. Such an assessment does not necessarily judge technology to be inherently evil. But it does suggest the need for channeling more of our human intellectual resources into the deepening of our understanding of what moral and spiritual evolution might mean, and how it might be achieved.

Corporate Ethics – Who owns technology, and what are the legitimate ends to which it can be put? Almost all our technologies are the outcome of a effort of the whole community, and many of the breakthroughs have been financed by public spending. To then allow a few individuals to gain almost complete control of this technology for their own personal gain is highly questionable. Two good examples of this are the use of “suicide seeds” and the degree of control that one person –- Bill Gates – is permitted to have over the use of computer technology.

Ecology – One of the most disturbing aspects of technology has been its impact on the ecology. Ecological destruction due to the impact of technology – however one wishes to frame these issues philosophically – is one of the greatest current threats to the continuing wellbeing of the human species – and even to its very existence.

Democracy – The technological model of controlling systems from the outside through techniques that only experts are able to apply is inherently anti-democratic when applied to human systems. This is seen more clearly in the mental health system than anywhere else. But if the fundamental social and political decisions that need to be made in a wide variety of fields can only be understood by technicians, this presents a challenge to the very concept to democracy.

Diversity – Technological approaches require that the phenomena to which they are applied be understood in mechanistic concepts and standard procedures. Especially when applied to the human level of reality, this would seems to entail a denial of the diversity of personalities and cultures in the actual world.

Diseases – Few would deny the value of basic medical procedures such as vaccines, basic medicines, surgical techniques and and similar technological interventions in for the eradication or treatment of diseases. Also, technologies that make safe drinking water and improved sanitation available has doubtlessly been a boon to health. Seeking appropriate technological solutions where they are possible is to be encouraged, but there may be a point of diminishing returns in the use of technology as a means of assuring health. The development of resistant “super-bugs” as a reaction to the excessive dependence on antibiotics may be an example. Also it is not unusual to find people who are effectively trapped in an life of such poor quality that the technology that keeps them alive is more of a curse than a blessing.

Human Rights: Techniques of surveillance, manipulation and control can and are being used in a manner that violates basic human rights. If technology cannot be brought under human and humanistic control the eventual outcome could well be a technocracy that would violate most human rights as they are now understood.

Religion: How does one view our fundamental relationship to the rest of reality? Is the Universe a thing to be controlled and manipulated, or a living thing that we need to respect and adapt to? Ellul, one of the most articulate spokespersons on the topic of technology, considered himself to be a Christian anarchist.

What Can Be Done?

Probably the most pragmatic approach to the problems created by our technology would be to advocate for “appropriate technology” as defined above. A good starting point would be to heighten our awareness of the relevance of this issue for virtually every topic we cover on this page. On the basis of this heightened awareness we could then begin to ask the key question: what would appropriate technology look like in this sphere of life? Perhaps it would be useful to focus on a specific area in which you have expertise or a special interest a begin to advocate for appropriate technology in that sphere of life. The topic is too broad for any one person to have a complete mastery of what technologies are available now, or will soon be available in every aspect of life. But the fact that we cannot know everything, and do everything is no reason for not doing something.

  • Become informed on the philosophical aspects of the question.
  • Become informed on specific technologies.
  • Avoid knee jerk reactions either for or against new technologies.
  • Inform other by conversation, letters or articles.
  • Participate in groups that try to create more appropriate technologies.
  • Participate in advocacy groups such as Greepeace or Mad Pride.
  • Advocate for legislation that requires the use of appropriate technology.