By Sean F. Johnston, Montreal, QC, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020, 324 pp.
Reviewed by A. David Wunsch
Those who have recently published a book looking at the intersection of science, technology, and society must wish that they could have delayed its appearance. As I write this in the summer of 2020, the world is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and is looking for a medical fix, a life-saving vaccine. The public’s faith in science and technology has never been higher. Computer “apps” that explore things such as the frequency of, and point of origin of, COVID-related Google search terms, and Twitter posts, are being used to trace the progress of the virus and to predict the sites of further outbreaks. The United States has been roiled by the death, at the hands of the police, of George Floyd. Floyd’s killing was captured by an app that has been circulating throughout the globe that has acquired the near iconic power of the crucifixion. With the majority of the American people equipped to make audio–visual recording of police brutality and post them on social media, we expect that crimes such as this will certainly diminish.
The public’s faith in science and technology has never been higher.
A tempting synecdoche for Prof. Johnston’s book about technological fixes is a story he tells about Alvin Weinberg. In August 1965, there were six days of riots in Watts, a Black section of Los Angeles. Triggered by police brutality, the upheaval caused major losses of lives and properties. Weinberg, a major figure in the field of science and public policy, was the Director of Research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the largest laboratory within the U.S. Department of Energy. He sent a letter to Donald Hornig, a chemist and special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson for science and technology. Observing that riots usually occurred in hot weather, Weinberg proposed an “engineering fix” that would provide air conditioners to slum dwellers. That air conditioners might solve problems created by centuries of racial discrimination, of which the riots are just one manifestation, strikes one as ludicrous, which is not to say that an air conditioner might be unwelcome in a poor person’s apartment, especially if they did not have to pay the electric bill. Weinberg is one of three public figures Johnston sketches—all of them believers in the efficacy of technological fixes to solve social problems. That mindset is prominent today and is often signified by the phrase “there is an ‘app’ for that.”
Belief in the efficacy of technological fixes to solve social problems is prominent today, and is often signified by the phrase “there is an ‘app’ for that.”
Johnston begins his story with Howard Scott and the Technocracy movement, a group that believed that government should be run by the technically trained. Scott, a self-educated engineer, came into public view when enthusiasm for engineers and their work was riding high—the decade after the end of World War I. Recall that the United States elected a civil engineer, Herbert Hoover, to the presidency in 1928.
Scott became the public face of the Technical Alliance that emerged in 1919, lasting about two years. He had a favorite parable: passengers clinging to the outside of electric streetcars, while standing on their attached platforms, frequently fell off and were maimed and killed despite signs demanding that they stay off. Scott pointed out that the problem was solved by engineers who simply removed the platforms, not by politicians or sociologists. Fellow members of the Alliance, many with a leftist slant, were such big names as the electrical engineer Charles Steinmetz and the sociologist Thorsten Veblen; the movement had roots in the trend toward scientific management promoted by Frederick Winslow Taylor. During the depression, Scott helped found the Committee on Technocracy centered at Columbia University. He explained, “the word … means government by science, social control through the power of technique.” Local chapters were formed that included engineers and their admirers but excluded active politicians; the movement had faded by the time of Scott’s death in 1970.
The Technocracy movement was a group that believed that government should be run by the technically trained.
Turning to the next-generation techno-optimists, Johnston presents the chemist Richard Meier. Unlike Scott, Meier had a formal education in his field, receiving his Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1944 from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). A research chemist during World War II, he was one of the founders of the Federation of American Scientists whose purpose was to use political means to effect the peaceful use of science and technology for national and global benefits. Meier’s major postwar career was as an academic on the staff of the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the University of California at Berkeley, where he became a major, much published, source in regional planning and an advocate for the rational rebuilding of cities. Johnston describes him as someone seeking “realistic utopias” which, for example, exploit nuclear power and the mass cultivation of algae as a means of supplying power and food to a planet in need of postwar reconstruction; Johnston sees him as carrying the spirit of the technocrats into the academy without their brash insistence on government by engineers. Meier showed sensitivity to social conditions and advocated that technologists be aware of them, while arguing that social dilemmas might be reduced to science and engineering problems. A visionary, he argued in the early postwar years of television that it could evolve into an integrated system of entertainment, communications, and banking, foreseeing the Internet. He was a pioneer in the planning of resource-conserving and ecologically sound cities.
Recall that the United States elected a civil engineer, Herbert Hoover, to the presidency in 1928.
Meier was to have a formative influence on Alvin Weinberg, who read Meier’s book Science and Economic Development and was impressed by the statement, “Most people would instinctively exclude the scientist and the technologist in the search for solutions. Yet, in many instances, a social problem can be restated so that it is also a scientific and engineering problem that is not only researchable but soluble.
Weinberg was a better thinker than the air conditioning fix that I mentioned might suggest. Unlike the technocrats, he did not advocate replacing politicians with a science/engineering elite. Long seen as an advocate of nuclear power, he proposed in 1972 a “generation of safe reactors carefully sited in clusters far from populations in high-security nuclear parks tended by a nuclear priesthood of specialists.” Weinberg did not downplay the problems of nuclear waste and plant safety. Johnston mentions in passing that in 1973, during the Nixon administration, Weinberg was dismissed from his position of Head of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for publicly expressing his concerns about nuclear safety. It is unfortunate that we are not told more about this event.
Scott pointed out that the problem was solved by engineers who simply removed the platforms, not by politicians or sociologists.
Johnston has used an abundance of primary source material in his writing on Meier, Weinberg, and Scott. The remainder of his book presents information that will, in many cases, be familiar to students of the 20th- and late 19th-century history of technology. Inevitably, there is a discussion of Edwin Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward 2000–1887, which portrays an American society in which the means of production are owned by the government and where the necessities and comforts of life are distributed free to all, thanks to a “scientific socialism” such as that promoted by Marx and Engels. The book and its sequel, Equality, inspired over 100 Bellamy Clubs, some lasting into the 1930s, whose goal was to bring about such a society where everyone could retire at the age of 45, thanks to central planning and advanced technology.
Johnston includes some familiar examples of tech-fixes that have had tragic outcomes. DDT was used extensively in the 1940s and 1950s to kill lice, fleas, and potato beetles. It was a boon to soldiers during the war and to farmers in the postwar decades. This changed in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring which vividly described its harmful effects on animals and humans. Thalidomide, a “sedative” developed in 1953, should never have been given to pregnant women. The result was thousands of deformed children—but the drug was not pulled for nine years.
DDT and thalidomide are horror stories, but the book fails to convey the American public’s abiding faith in technological fixes. Johnston relates that Weinberg was a great admirer of the auto-safety advocate, Ralph Nader. Paraphrasing Nader, Weinberg asserts “… a safer car … is a quicker and probably surer way to reduce traffic deaths than is a campaign to teach people to drive carefully.” The theme has antecedents in the Technocracy movement of Howard Scott who observed decades earlier that well-engineered highways would greatly decrease automobile deaths. Scott and Nader are right. The rate of motor vehicle deaths, per miles driven, is now 7% of what it was in 1923, thanks to safety glass, seat belts, air bags, better highways, and so on. Of course, this is more than technological determinism: laws had to be passed mandating seatbelts, speed limits, airbags, safety inspections, and so on. The public had to be convinced—the slow, hard process of social change.
DDT and thalidomide are horror stories, but the book fails to convey the American public’s abiding faith in technological fixes.
Baby boomers likely have warm memories of a publication that flourished in their young adulthood and sold in millions: The Whole Earth Catalog: Access to Tools. This large format paperbound book flourished during a time when thousands of disaffected Americans took to living in communes, many in the country. The tools and technology described were those that encouraged “off the grid” living: carpentry tools, forest gear, welding equipment, and eventually personal computers.
Stuart Brand, the Catalog’s founder, now in his 80s, is still a tech guru and Johnston identifies him with the movement toward geo-engineering, an attempt to control global warming by, for example, reducing the influx of sunlight by seeding the atmosphere. Johnston faults these plans as undermining attempts to attack the root cause: overproduction of greenhouse gases. He describes “geo-engineering [as] a spectrum of half-baked technologies cobbled from the worst traditions of engineering ….” Johnston does not acknowledge that man has been re-engineering earth ever since the first cave man built a fire and sent smoke and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. He also presents geo-engineering as a binary choice—one that would discourage efforts to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. Johnston would have presented a more balanced picture if he had quoted a statement of Brand’s—a talk recorded in Vancouver and presented on Canadian radio in 2010 where he asserted “maybe nothing” will happen due to accumulating greenhouse gases but it would be “like playing Russian Roulette with five cylinders loaded, to not reduce emissions [italics added].”
To conclude, Johnston summarizes his work as a warning against the rhetoric of technological hubris: we must view with skepticism “evangelists for numerous miraculous technological cures.” The point is well made, but the book, inadvertently, makes another sobering one. In page 78, we find a group portrait of President Eisenhower’s Scientific Advisory Committee. Composed of 18 white middle-aged males in suits, it may look quaint to our 21st-century eyes, but we realize that there was a time when the President of the United States was advised by such distinguished scientists as I. I. Rabi, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, Jerome Wiesner, who became President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Alvin Weinberg. In 2020, no such person briefed Donald Trump. Although the American public may remain enthralled by technological fixes, the political establishment suffers from scientific blindness.
A. David Wunsch is the Book Review Editor of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. He is a Professor Emeritus with the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Lowell, MA. His e-mail address is David_Wunsch@uml.edu.