Technological Change and Social Progress

In 1965 Monmouth College held its Fourth Liberal Arts Festival centered about the theme, Technological Change and Social Progress. The program included the remarks of Dr. R. Buckminster Fuller, Dr. John Wilkinson, Dr. Thomas L. Whisler, and Mr. John L. Fryer. To start the program Dr. Max Lerner presented the keynote address.

Dr. Lerner commented upon the revolutionary period in which we live and then continued:

The term revolution has a double meaning, of course. In one meaning we think of it as involving a transfer of power from one class to another, perhaps usually with violence or some form of direct action. But in another meaning, it involves any accelerated rate of change, so accelerated as to bring about a breakthrough, a drastic breakthrough. The breakthrough in turn means that a new level is reached from which further cumulated changes take a new place... I use this second meaning of the term "revolution." Of course, American history has seen revolutions in both meanings. We had the first revolution against colonialism in modern times. And ever since that time we have been carrying out revolutions by consent. But particularly in our recent history we have been witnessing revolutions in the second sense of explosive changes so rapid that they amount to a breakthrough. We used to think we knew what the term generation meant. In our political and literary history we used it to mean a period of some twenty or twenty-five years representing an era in history. But actually recently we have come to understand that a knowledge generation, for example, is something like a decade; every decade the total amount of what there is to be known and understood and mastered in many areas of our knowledge doubles. And this is even truer of our weapons generations. Recently Admiral Raeburn, who was responsible for the Polaris submarine, was made head of the CIA and it gave me occasion to think back to the history of the Polaris. Its only some 6 or 7 years old, if that much, and yet, were now in the third generation of the Polaris missile. A weapon generation is the amount of time that it takes from the time that a weapon comes off the assembly line and is stockpiled until it has become obsolescent and needs to be replaced; and were now in the third generation of the Polaris missile. And so the accelerated rate of change is like nothing else in our history. I had occasion when I wrote my study of America as a Civilization- a study that took me a little over a decade to write- to find when I came to the end of that period of writing that a number of things that I had written at the beginning of that period were no longer true. The American civilization had changed under my very fingers as I was trying to study it; as I was trying to nail it down on paper. We need to understand this; we need to understand it particularly on university campuses, because the revolutionary changes that are taking place in our lives are on the whole unplanned revolutions, the revolutions that seem to happen, not revolutions of planned change. We need to take these unplanned revolutions and plan them, channel them; and we need also to make sure that there are comparable revolutions that take place in our minds, little insurrections of the mind and spirit that we need to carry through in order to keep pace with these drastic breakthroughs in our technology and in our societies In the deepest sense, the American society into which we are moving will be a revolutionary society, it will be computed geared, it will be information directed, it will be leisure oriented; an authentic revolutionary society. But we need to make certain that it will not be a brave new world squeezed dry of human values, a world in which automation results in a kind of automated man. If you look at some of the recent breakthroughs in the history of theoretical science, you will find that at the heart of our current technological revolutions there have been the revolution of the electron and of the positron, the attack on the nucleus itself, the discovery of the neutron, the construction of the accelerator, the whole cybernetic revolution, the revolution of the feed-back information principal, and so on. These are the breakthroughs in at least one or two areas of scientific theory The control that man has contrived over nature has, of course, far outrun the control over himself. And mans chief enemy and chief danger today are in his own unruly nature and in the dark forced that are pent up within him. I didnt put quotation marks around that last sentence because I want to make it seem to flow out of what I have been saying, but actually that was a quotation. It was a quotation from Ernest Jones in the last page of his third volume of his biography of Sigmund Freud. It is interesting because early in the century, just as Einstein was making his breakthrough discoveries in the relativity theory in space and time, so, roughly at the same time, Freud was making his breakthrough discoveries in the unconscious of the human mind. The interesting thing is that while we have followed up on Einsteins breakthrough discoveries, we have done relatively little on following up on Freuds. We have done a certain amount on mapping out this area of the unconscious, the terrae incognita of the human mind. But we must recognize that human beings are still subject to the wild instinctual ravages and forays that come from the unconscious. We have done a good deal in the history of thought and the history of philosophy to chart the rational processes of the human mind. But the problem is to subject the irrational to the control of the rational and on that in the millenia of recorded history there has been, on the whole, relatively little progress.

My first proposition to your is that its going to require a different breed of cat, a new breed of man, to be able to master and control the enormous power of the new technology and the new weaponry. Because this is a college campus I hope you allow me to dream a dream, of what the "Early Bird" satellite could accomplish, and also the nightmare as to what nuclear weapons could accomplish. But I have a different kind of dream, and I hope I dare dream it here. It is a dream of a possible emergent man in American civilization. One who will be revolutionary in the sense that he will meet the changes of his time with an unsurprised alertness. One who will not recoil from technology, who will not revolt against the machine, who will not become a machine-wrecker; one who will accept technology and try to work with it; one who will not recoil from power nor from change nor from the reality principle in the real universe. One who will refuse to become dehumanized by the machine, One who will put out antennae of sensitivity in order to pick up the new tremors in the life of the mind and the spirit. One who will not succumb to the fascinations of the true believer in the age of ideology. One who will know what he is committed to, what he believes in, what he is ready both to die for and live for. One who will be a unique individual in a society of diversity, but also be able to recognize the diversities of others and to accept them. One who will know that man can become a monster unless he forgets the nexus that ties him by human connection with his fellow beings. One who will recognize the great chain of being that ties all human beings together. Thats my dream.

Our chance is one of influencing the type of personality structure that emerges from our universities; that chance is a limited one at best, but oddly it is restricted to America. We can do relatively little to influence the kind of man that emerges in Western Europe and Easter Europe, in Russia, in Western Asia, in Southeast Asia, in South Asia, in Africa, in Latin America, and yet we must be aware that there are forces operating there also and that new types of man for better or worse, are emerging there.

I wrote a book recently called "The Age of Overkill." I, of course, took the phrase from the Pentagon. The Pentagon people talk of the overkill factor as the number of times over that any weapon can destroy its target.

Professor Lerner pointed out that for our society, political structure, and the world, we have not followed out the implications of the "age of overkill." Our thinking stems from what he calls "classical politics," which is akin to classical Economics.

In Classical economics, the object of study is wealth, and the scarcity of wealth is the key idea. In classical politics the key idea is power and the scarcity of power. And at the base of Machiavellis thinking and the whole state system of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries followed him. It was the idea that a nation could never get enough power, that it piled power on power until finally there came the showdown of war. Of course, what these new weapons have done is to cut all that, because what we have today is not the scarcity of power but surplus power. We have weapons that we dont dare use, weapons that are unthinkable to use. Of course, we dont dare stop making them either. If we stopped making them we would soon find the other side would not stop making them and that we would be so overshadowed by their weapons that we would not be able to use ours at all. But you have this crazy paradox of our times. These weapons which have so much power in them that we dont dare use them, these weapons have become powerless. We nevertheless do not dare stop making them.

The world finds itself confronted not with power scarcity but with power surplus. And another consequence of that is that the doctrine of national sovereignty-which developed along side of the early industrial revolution- the doctrine of sovereignty is being tested in the showdown of war. That doctrine of course has again been undercut. Because it is impossible for America or the Soviet Union or China or any other great power, impossible for any nation to play it alone; impossible for it make decisions alone.

American is part of a power cluster, the Western free world power cluster. The Communists have a power cluster. The Russians and the Chinese are today contending over mastery of that power cluster. We call this polycentrism, the struggle between the centers of power in the Communist system. We have a kind of polycentrism in ours too, in the emerging challenge of DeGaulle to make Paris a second power center within our power system. But it has become impossible for any one nation to think in terms of absolute nation sovereignty.

I remember a conversation with a great Republican leader, Wendell Willkie, just before his death. He said that national sovereignty is no longer something to be saved, it is something to be spent. As I think back at that, I see how right he was. This is true, of course, of everything important in life. It is true of love and affection. If we try to dole it out, if we say Ill give you so much if youll give me so much, we find ourselves ending up love less and unloved, but if we spend it generously we find we have more to end with than when we started. This is now proving true of sovereignty. If we try to hoard it, if we say "get the United Stated out of the United Nations and the United Nations out of the United States," if we say, "what concern is it of ours as to what happens to the poorer nations;" it we say, "what do we care about the Common Market countries in Western Europe;" if we say "what do we care about India," and so on, we will find that we end up on top of a mound of radiated ashes hugging our national sovereignty to our breast. But if we spend it, if we, in effect, declare our determination to reach a meeting of minds with our allies as a first stage and ultimately, as a last stage, with our enemies as well, in order to make sure that these weapons of destruction are not used; if we do that, then we will be able to live in a world in which our cultural nationalism will become an even great force.

Professor Lerner pointed out the growth of nationalism in Europe, Africa, and Asia, with the alliance system. This leads to the diffusion of nuclear weapons. If those nuclear weapons continue to be diffused to more and more nations, our chances of preventing a nuclear war grow less and less. "If we get a concert of powers among the great powers to prevent that further diffusion we will have taken a great step. And that, in turn, can lead to a second step, which is arms control, and a third stop, which is disarmament. Youll notice that for me disarmament is not a first step, it is the third. Before you can get from A to D, youve got to pass through B and C. And I think in terms of the concert of powers and of arms control as B and C. And then ultimately as a final step I think of a world policing force which will grow out of the concert of powers and arms control and disarmament. Not a world state, not a world society, but, in rather practical and limited terms, a policing force that would make sure that there will be no aggression with nuclear weapons.

Just as important as the arms race is the intelligence race. Not only the intelligence of individuals but the collective intelligence of our best minds. And not only the will of an individual seeking his own objectives and his own career and happiness, but the collective will of the people. The kind of collective will that was demonstrated in October in 1962 at the missile confrontation crisis with the Russians over Cuba. The kind of collective will which I hope will shaped today now in America over the Viet Nam crisis which is not being shaped because some of the intellectual leaders have not yet come to understand some of the realities of our time- what I call the reality principle of our time. When we can get a genuine meeting of minds between our political and intellectual leaders I think we can get an organization of our collective will in the way in which we had it at that Cuban missile confrontation crisis. But without it, we will not be able to explore the limits of possibility.

Another facet of the revolution we are seeing has to do with what Professor Lerner called "the machine principle." Many of my colleagues on university campuses are frightened of the machine because they are frightened of standardization. The fact is, of course that we have been living with standardization for some time and will continue to live with it for some time. But I hope very much that the principle of standardization is not transferred from the products that we use to the ideas that we think and the values that we live by, because when it is you get not standardization but conformity. One of the best instances that perhaps I can give you, a dramatic instance, comes in the area of popular culture.

Our technology has developed a magnificent set of big media- the press in the book publishing industry, paper-back books particularly, in movies, radio, in television. We have not yet thought out what needs to accompany that magnificent technology of the big media. For example, take television. One of the big differences between the movies and television is that in the case of the movies you sell a product. You sell or create a product and show it, sell it to an audience. The audience makes its decisions between a large variety of products. In the case of television you do not sell the product to an audience, you sell an audience to a sponsor. The larger the audience, the larger the price of the product of the sale. And what counts is quantification- what counts is the size of the audience, and the principle is that every head counts once, no matter whats inside of it. Now to me that is the principle of naked mechanism. It is the principle of replaceable parts. It is the principle of replaceable parts taken right out of the industrial process itself and applied to the society where it doesnt belong

When you think of an audience, as an audience of replaceable parts, they are not subjects, they are objects. And in that sense you get dehumanization. You get the principle of the industrial process itself where it does not belong, in the human society, where every individual must be a unique individual, where the principle must be one of diversity, and where the crucial idea is the idea of nexus between the individuals. In our machine oriented society the technician had become very important and the technician himself is in grave danger, the danger that he will take over the principle of detachment which operates effectively in science and technology and apply it to this moral being and his social being. You remember what Lord Acton, the great Catholic historian, once said: "The only true detachment," he said, "is that of the dead. They no longer care." In the society and in the moral sphere, this kind of neutrality means that you are no longer a valuing human beings. It means a kind of valulessness.

I wrote in my "American as a Civilization," about the neutral technician, who say in effect, "tell me what to do and I will do it. I wont ask any questions about it. Just tell me what you want done and I will do it." And this means the exaltation of technique and the indifference to values, the annihilsm of values. It applies to a number of engineers, corporate manages, executives, professionals, often to teachers. Give me a job to do and Ill do it and I wont ask the question, for what end? This, of course, means the squeezing dry of human being- dry of his humanity. I suggest that perhaps this danger in a highly technological age may turn out to be one of the greatest dangers of our times.

The big organization has developed in our time, and Professor Lerner said, Were going to have to be living in big organizations, working in them, living with them, but we dont have to live by them We have to insist that to work and live with these big units does not mean living in the mirror image of others and taking our sense of our own valuation from them. In a sense we have to become anarchists, to cultivate small organic groups that still retain within them the principle of the life form as against the over-organized life which is a consequence of the big technology.

Another consequence of big organization that affects big universities in particular has to do with the specialization in human knowledge itself. Because our knowledge has gone so far and has become so complex that it has broken up into little areas, each of us is in a small part of the forest. It is very rarely that we see what others in the other parts of the forest are doing.

We today in the intellectual process, because of our specialization, are losing the sense of the whole. We need people to arise and protest against this, to try to recapture the sense of the whole. How much of our university college curricula contain a sense of the whole? Not much. How many of our teachers, how many of our students, have the sense of the whole? Not many. Reality does not come in fragments. Reality comes in wholes. And because it comes in wholes, it needs to be studied and comprehended in wholes. We need a reorientation of our thinking, so that our curricula will be not subject-oriented but problem oriented, policy-oriented, man and life-oriented. And this means that we need to recapture some of the feeling that people had at the beginning of the modern era particularly in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While there are some people that need to be specialists there are others who need to be generalist and who need to carry on the tradition of continuity as the sense of the whole.

In this revolutionary age, with its uprooting and dangerous forces, it is important, Professor Lerner said, to claim the future. Many of our young people are today bitter, some of them are quite violent. I think it is because they have lost the feeling that they can claim the future. I think we can make a claim on the future but again only if we think and do certain things, and one of them involves the kind of society that we have. We have been exploring the spacious firmament on high, but what we have not yet done has been to carry over our sense of the limitless horizons into the sense of a spacious society. President Johnson has been trying to talk of the spacious society and has been introducing a series of measures, pushing them through both houses of Congress.

What are these measures? There are the measures having to do with poverty, with the slums, with alcoholism, with addiction, with racialism, discrimination, with anti-immigrant feeling and so on. These measures on the whole have been quite necessary.

Sometimes some of my students say to me, but Mr. Lerner when you talk of these things it sounds fine, it sounds grand, and noble, but why dont you be realistic? Don t you understand that weve had poverty in the past and will continue to have it; weve had slums and will continue to have them, weve had crime and violence and will continue to have them, we have discrimination and bigotry and will continue to have them. They say its a fact of life, its tragic, but there it is. And I say to them you may be right, but please dont use the word tragic. Dont demean the concept of tragic. Tragic is nobler than anything youre saying. Tragedy is the very part of the constitution of the universe. Tragedy has hit everyone of you as it has hit me. None of us, men or nations, is immune to tragedy. The only difference is that it destroys some of us and deepens others. Tragedy is part of the constitution of the universe but theres a difference between the tragic and the pathetic. Pathetic is not part of the universe; pathetic is man-made. And because it is man-made it can become man resolved. Poverty is not tragic, it is pathetic. The slums are not tragic, they are pathetic. Addiction is not tragic, it is pathetic. Racial discrimination is not tragic, it is pathetic. Religious bigotry is not tragic, it is pathetic. War itself, I affirm, is not tragic, it is pathetic. These are all man-made and because they are man-made, they can be resolved.

I had an experience some years ago, coming back from a trip Id made to Asia. I came back by way of an Eastern European Iron Curtain country. I went to Poland, and I spent a little time at Warsaw. I had an interesting time there with some of the journalists and professors. They had an evening for me, and the chairman of the evening got up and he said, "Mr. Lerner, youve written this big book on American Civilization." "Could you tell us in one word what is the essence of American civilization?" I said, "this is a book of a thousand pages, but you want me to distill it into one word?" He said, "thats right. In one word. What is it?" Have you ever had this thrown at you? In one word, what is American civilization? And I thought very hard and fast. What is it? Is it freedom? Is it democracy? Is it equality? Is it decency? Is it tolerance? Is it dynamism? Of course it was all these things, but suddenly I heard myself say "Access." The Chairman laughed, he said, "Mr. Lerner, weve heard of American success but we havent heard of American access." I said, "you see we have a Declaration of Independence, which says that all men are born free, and will remain free, but we are not born equal. Were born very unequal. Very unequal potential, very unequal abilities. I have 5 children, every one of them was born unequal with unequal abilities." I said, "every parent knows this, every teacher knows it, every employer knows it. "But," I said, "we also have the idea that there ought to be equal access to equal like chances so that every one of these unequally born youngsters gets a chance to develop his unequal abilities to perform. And in this sense, the heart of the unequal experience is access." If I understand the civil rights movement, it is being fought as an effort to achieve equal access. What we need is a society of access now. But only as a step toward a great society. The fact that we have equal access to equal like chances, does not mean that we thereby become capable of great achievements. Great achievements are the result of what individuals do. Great achievements are the result of the nexus between individuals, their sense of each other. This is a matter of personality structure, this is a matter of value systems in the society. This is something that we have not yet achieved, but something that we can achieve.

The changing technology is producing a cybernetics revolution which Professor Lerner said we think of as "something that provides new leisure for our people. I dont like the word "leisure." I do care very much about the concept of time. Time is something that has not been available to most people in most societies over the long span of history. Time is the one thing they have not had. Oh, there have been small leisure classes that have had time. There was the leisure class of Pericles in Athens, a leisure class in renaissance Florence, in renaissance Venice, a leisure class in Elizabethan England, a leisure class in Louis XIVs France. Each of these leisure classes was able to stretch the summit achievements of human mind, in the arts, in literature, in the graces of life. But there has never been a leisure society. The achievements of these leisure classes were bought by the lack of time of the people as a whole, but the exploitation of the underlying populations. We in American today, are on the threshold, not of another leisure class society, but of the leisure society, in which time is becoming available and will more and more be available, not to some, but to most; eventually, we hope, to all.

This means not simply freedom but drudgery; it means more than that. It means freedom to explore the possibilities of the reflective life. of the contemplative life, of the creative life. Not every person can be a great creator. But every person can taste some of the fruits of creativeness, in his own way, within the frame of his personality structure. Every person is the heir to everything that has been said, and thought, and felt in the past, if he has the time for it, the motivation for it, the inducement for it, the possibilities for it. And thats the kind of threshold that we stand at now. That of a new time society. I dont care how the times I gotten, whether as a result of tearing down the work day or the work week, or having longer vacations, or whatever it may be. In one way or another it will be available.

First, we need to revise our conception of the job, and of work. In the Protestant ethos, work had a meaning. Work was something that you cared about, something you did out of a sense of vocation, a sense of calling, something that gave you fulfillment. Weve lost that sense of work, and instead of that, we have the job. The job is something that you give as little of yourself to as you can. That you try to get as much for you as you can, and that you try to get away from as fast as you can. The job is not work, and we need to recapture the sense of work. What I have is a dream for the future. The chance of other people, many other people, millions of other people, hundreds of millions of other people, to do work in that sense. Most of them dont do it now; their work in the office or in the plant is a job. They may be able to refashion that so that it may become work, because the nature of what I being done in the office or in the plant is changing, so much is being taken over by machinery. The drudgery aspect is being taken over by machinery. The new things that are happening are essentially processes which can give new dimension to those that are at work at them, if they choose to find those new dimensions and new perspective.

I think of America as becoming a nation of amateurs, using amateurs in the literal sense- those who love what they do whether they get paid for it or not. Perhaps its playing the cello in a quartet, daubing away at canvas, working at carpentry, being a Civil War buff, or a World War I buff. Whatever it may be, it becomes something that people become deeply absorbed in. It becomes work in that sense. It becomes fulfilling and it opens up new vistas of possibility.

I spoke a while ago on the failure of the growing American son to identify with his father. Largely he has failed to identify with the father, partly because the father hasnt been around. In a real sense he has a valueless father. He hasnt been around physically. Hes not been around as a principle of emotional and physical authority. Also the son doesnt know what the father is doing. He doesnt know his work. He has no way of knowing his work, as the son in early America knew the fathers work. On the farm, in the small town, in the artisans place, in the shop, he knew his fathers work. And it may be that father and son, most of them as amateurs, may come to have a new sense of identity that they didnt have before and that there may grow to be a new feeling of communication between them. Because, believe me, the walls of communication have been breaking down.

One of the students of the University of California had been haranguing his audience. He said, "never trust anyone over 30. " There may be a new sense of identity that may remove that.

Similarly, we may develop a new capacity for play. We havent had that. You have it as children yes, but you lost it rapidly afterward. Instead of that, you develop what we call fun. You know, you go somewhere and people say, "have fun." You come back, and they say, "did you have fun?" And you dont dare tell the truth. You have to lie. Youve got to have fun, even if it kills you. Youve got to have fun. Fun has become one of the imperatives of our time. Fun in the sense of something anxiety-ridden, frenetic, tension-filled. But Im talking of something else, Im talking of play. Play in the sense of the total harmony of the body and the mind and the spirit, not in order to produce a product but simply for the purpose of the expressiveness of the personality. Play in the sense of a new relationship to nature, to the carpet of the earth, and the tent of the sky and the whole world of sight and sound and color. Play in the sense of intellectual playfulness with ideas. Play in that sense we have gotten away from just as weve gotten away from a feeling of work. What we have a new opportunity to do, perhaps the most important revolution ahead of us which weve only just begun to tap, is the whole revolution of values. The capacity to make the journey into the interior of our own minds and selves and to face what we find there, the most dangerous journey of all. The capacity to reach out and to have a sense of the human connection with others. The capacity to love and to receive love. The capacity to identify with others, with their experiences with others, their sufferings, their trails, their victories, and their triumphs. The capacity to feel the sense of oneness with ones group and community out of which identity flows. The capacity to be oneself, to nourish the core of selfhood within oneself, and to nourish that against all assaults from outside.

These are some of the values that can be developed in the new society in which time will be available to more and more people and ultimately to all. And if we can make our way through something like the values revolution of this sort then I think the young people may come to think that they do have a claim on the future; that the future is possible, that they can stretch out their hands to claim that future. Then if we dont, then I think that Adlai Stevenson once said will come true. "There will be other and bloodier hands than ours, that stretch out to that future to claim it."