Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 36, No 11 May 30th, 1973
Books — False Prophets — Alvin Toffler and Technolatry
Alvin Toffler and Technolatry
This is the first of two articles on contemporary false prophets by Terry McDavitt. They have been edited by the author from a much longer pamphlet for the requirements of Salient.
Toffler's thesis in Future Shock is that we are heading towards a state in which many if not most of us will be simply unable to cope with life. There is a 'roaring current of change' about, overturning institutions, values, and all those things the continuance or stability of which serve us as landmarks. The current may be a mere roar now, but it is accelerating all the time for the forces which drive it - technology, science, productivity—feed upon their own growth. Its immediate effects are transcience where there was stability, novelty where there was continuance, diversity where there was contention. Its deeper effects are psychological and sociological in nature, and those of us unable to cope with these will become, or have already become, victims of the paralysing 'future shock' of the title. Future shock will be endemic and may cripple human society altogether: there are limits to the rate of change human beings can absorb.
It is not necessary to have read Toffler's book to understand what it is, or this essay, is about: it is about the technological revolution. What Toffler has contributed is an extensive analysis of up-to-date 1970 knowledge. He has also contributed a display of the usual faults of technologists. He is biased and shallow, narrow, deterministic and anti-human, and philosophically he falls into the trap of what used to be called heresy — idolatry.
Le Style, c'est I'homme. And Toffler's style is that of a model technocrat. His book is replete with design and invention, extending into 'designing new men' and 'inventing new rituals'. A voyeuristic thrill attends Toffler's citing of figures of speed and size, testifying eloquently to Toffler's acceptance of the myth that figures matter most.
His technique in the first hall is to illustrate in as many ways as possible the points he has to tick off. He has done a massive sub-editing of a biased sample. The turn-over rate of British prime ministers has the same significance to him, and gets the same degreee of analysis, as the total number of Barbie dolls, and both illustrate that we throw away people.
To Toffler, each 'bit' of information is an item for the collage and he argues by continuing to paste bits on. If we were to grab his arm and say, 'Now hold it, that point...', Toffler would reply, 'What point? Forget it, here's another.' And most of his points are forgettable. He is not concerned whether or not 12,000,000 Barbie dolls represents a cultural or even technological advance. To a man to whom figures matter most, the only reply can be to ask why there aren't 20,000,000.
Whenever he strays from the purely figurative and technological, Toffler is led to strange conclusions. Because we're playing Mozart faster now, we're getting Mozart on the run, (who are? How much faster?). Because only 250,000 of the usable words in the language Shakespeare knew still form part of the 450,000 usable words, if Shakespeare were alive today he would be semi-literate. (What are 'usable words'? Usable by whom, for what?) Because 40% of a survey of Seventeen readers had taken major trips during the previous summer young people travel more nowadays. (What of the other 60%? Which young people? Why choose Seventeen to represent 'young people'?). Because there are Greeks, Jewish and Chinese names now in the specialised mutual fund field on Wall Street, professions are 'dividing cellularly' (Meaning perhaps that Wall Street is not now so much of a WASP reservation as a more purely mercantile enclave).
Ninety percent of Toffler's references are to people like Herman Kahn, a career technocrat, or professors in Eastern United States Universities who grow fatter on federal research grants, or behavioural scientists like B.F. Skinner, one of the more grotesque examples of the stupidity of a detached brain. These people, and the institutions like Rand. MIT, Udson and Stand ford that they (and Toffler himself) derive their livings from are not far removed from the kind of moral and social version that has recently given us Santa Claus incarnate in B-52's dropping incendiaries on hospitals.
It is a curious idea of intelligence, for example, that Toffler works from: in his remarkable 'critique' of technology he isolates a 'revulsion against intelligence' as a response to the loss of control over technocracy that sufferers from future shock are prone to feel. There is a 'garish revival of mysticism' (i.e., mysticism is unintelligent), and a 'disillusionment with science' (i.e., science is intelligent). Such judgements proceed from a notion of intelligence that includes objectivity, empiricism, rational manipulation, and tool invention but excludes spirituality, imagination, art. 'common sense', evaluation, creativity. If this nolion of intelligence is not itself unintelligent, assuming that it is the same thing as is wisdom is and this assumption is implicit in Toffler's teehnolatry.
Toffler's bias makes his proposals to tame technology sound a bit like the familiar 'the way to end war is to prepare for war' theory of enlightened politicians. To get around econocentrism, or judging by economic criteria only, a 'Council of Social Advisers' to be modelled after the already existing 'Council of Economic Advisers' will do the trick, because they will judge 'noneconomics' by a set of statistical social indicators. Which is reminiscent of our own National Development Council's Social Committee establishing our national values for us by a set of questionnaires issued to member organisations. Modern technologists consider things too much in the short term, i.e., they suffer from time-myopia, but future technologists will get together in Future Insitutes, to see how they can do better what they do already. Technology has the nasty tendency to be undemocratic, see, no regular-as-clockwork plebiscites and 'social future assemblies' which will 'wire into the system' anybody not yet covered will make technology democratic see?
What is this but the technological slogan, 'something's wrong, let's have more of the same'? Do we feel happier knowing we've now got a National Development Conference looking after our future for us, and that if our ideas have been lost in the files there's a great network we can be 'wired into' that will bank us in its memory cells?
Toffler's technological bias, so marked in his definitions and proposals, leads me to one of the major weaknesses of the book his abject failure to relate to his subject any of the major social, political or moral problems attending accelerating technological change. In the second half of the book Toffler attempts to do this, but his sphere of interest is limited to biology and psychology, so he misses the woods for the leaves on the trees.
Problems not caused by accelerating change aren't exactly solved by it either, and among these let's just point out exploitation; competitive pluralism; the increasingly wide affluence-poverty gap between races, classes and nations; pollution; urban and rural community decay; the dehumanised conditions in which humans are expected to live. Scant is the reference Toffler pays any of them. Pollution, e.g., merits one paragraph as an interesting side-issue of the 'throw-away society' and another as a sub-point for a technological ombudsman.
What he doesn't say
So when considering the 'throw-away society', Toffler licks off with glee multifunctional products (perfumed rubbers!) 'rental revolutions' and fads (remember the hula-hoop?) and many other exciting things we're now getting to throw away, but his analysis totally ignores the questions of which strata in society purchase in this way, or the relative amounts spent on such things as compared to education, urban renewal, welfare scheme, alleviating hunger, or paying the rubbish collectors. Answers to these questions might force a different epithet on such a society, but the questions themselves are ignored.
According to a tradition at least as old as Galbraith, technology can solve our social and political problems for us if we would use it for this purpose. Some ideals of doing this because it is a worthy thing to do can be seen in Galbraith, but when Toffler pays lip-service to the tradition he forgets to include the idea that it may intrinsically worthy. Where Toffler acknowledges the sorts of problems we are discussing here he assures us technology could solve them, but he can't assure us that technology wants to solve them, nor tell us how it is going to solve them. But he can tell us why it might get around to it: because the poor, the hungry, and the disadvantaged might rise up and take over if it doesn't; because it would be a good way of delaying future shock in the United States for fifty years or so; because it would reassure romantics that technology has the interests of the people at heart. Such reasons are akin to those of the Machiavellian prince who has his prison cells fitted with hot-and-cold running water so that those inside won't riot and those bound for them can equate prison with their heart's desires.
Future people will have lots of choices to make but since they are subject to whims in the fashion parade of values of the future society, they will be without any free will to make them. We are told how lucky we will be to be able to choose between thousands of different models of everything, but the consumer economy and patriotism require that we choose at least one. The suspicion is, that if we were every so foolish and past-orientated as to indulge in the 'Luddite' defiance of refusing to choose at all, the 'social future assemblies' will wire our views 'into the network', the psych corps Gestapo would move in, and, using that most odourress of poisonous gases, statistics, paralyse us.
The Religion of Technology
Other assumptions in the religion of technology run through Future Shock, functioning to create despair in the reader. One is the feeling that most of us 'ordinary mortals' are in no position to influence the behaviour or decisions either of white-coated experts who work in the anonymity of government or coporation laboratories, or of unidentifiable managers who announce their intentions secretly in the public notices of newspapers. The rest of the world are treated as a passive statistical mass, 'the public', or fragmented into passive statistical little masses, 'the informed Newsweek reader' or 'the youth vote'. With respect to experts we are as ignorant peasants to their knowledgeable nobility.
Toffler displays the typical technological veneration of such experts, who, because they have the patience, interest, and very peculiar ability required to pass multiple-choice tests in the more stratospheric regions of managerial theory, computerese or micro-biology, are presumed to have the wisdom to determine the pace and direction of social change. It is inevitable that admission to Toffler's proposed Future Control Institutes should be reserved for Ph.D's One wonders who else would be silly enough to 'measure' social and cultural goals and 'invent' the equipment required to produce annual reports' on the quality of life. With a determined page 15 flourish Toffler assures us that they will all have taken courses in social science and will therefore all be social visionaries. To hand over the taming of technology to such people can only be like handing over the revival of the Catholic Church to the Cardinals.
Can he be serious?
Where a process might prove itself efficient, the technologist raises an Institute to its continued honour (production) and glory (growth). In the beginning there was only the Economic Council but the word of Muldoon was heard among the faithful and now we have a National Development Conference. The technologist, working out of an Institute himself, comes to believe that institutionalisation is not only the touchstone of success, it determines success.
Toffler recognises that some people, notably the 'blue-skyers' (artists, Utopians, social visionaries, idealists in general) have annoyingly demonstrated that they can have an idea without the help of an Institute. So he proposes we institutionalise them into efficiency and oblivion by creating 'imaginetic centres' and 'Utopia factories', and giving them a prestigious technological label, 'imagineers'. The saddest part is that he's serious.
Toffler's section on the 'limits to adaptability' conforms to the predictions inherent in his empirical and technological assumptions. The limits he describes are strictly those that can be experimented upon and counted — biological and psychological measures of disease-incidence and stress-behaviour. Spiritual, instinctive or emotional limits don't count, probably because they can't easily be counted. We are reminded of the experts who are going to measure our progress in the quality of life, and the educationists' point that what can be measured most easily is what is most measured and not usually what is most significant.
When Toffler comes to education his deterministic approach presumes that the system that grew to meet the demands of industrial society is actually efficient in meeting those demands. This would mean that a person schooled under the present system is ipso facto a literate, linear-thinking, specialised, industrialised human being. Without considering such subtleties as illiterates, drop-outs, alienated students or mystics, Toffler rushes to join the attack on the present system as outmoded. The problem, as Toffler sees it, is that the education system at present mass-produces Industrial Men. The answer as he sees it, is to change the system so as to mass-produce Super-Industrial Men.
I put it that a value-structure ignorant of, if not opposed to, the spiritual, instinctive and emotional aspects of humanity is not one that has respect for man's integrity or dignity. Toffler's technolatry is such a one and worse: In presuming that a man can be processed into a 'visionated' social planner, that eccentrics can be 'wired into networks', that Utopians can be institutionalised into factory-cum-asylum laboratories, that people can be schooled into Super-Industrial automatons, it displays the arrogant contempt of man that underlines all totalitarian and deterministic theories.
Toffler's stupidities derive from the stupidity of his idolatry of technology. The old theologies are not much in fashion now, but the experience of man-kind-past cannot be jettisoned if the course of mankind-future is to take is to be a wise one. It is pertinent to recall that the distinguishing mark of the heresy called idolatry was that it abstracted out of the teeming multiplicity of life some one particular bit and elevated this to the Godhead. It is wise, especially in an agricultural economy, to understand and respect the attributes of cows, but it is idolatrous (and foolish) to take the Cow as sacred and place it on a golden pedestal. Seeing the universe through technological glasses and making all indiviual and social problems into little prayers at the pedestal of sacred Technology is a contemporary example of a very old-fashioned human trait.
The Toffler Commandments
It makes sense to place Toffler's technolatry in the religious realm, for what Toffler has handed down to us is a fully worked-out religion. It comes complete with Churches (Institutes), myths (advancement, progress, empiricism, the divine right of the slide rule). Commandments (transience, novelty, diversity), a single greatest commandment superceding all others (the Technological Imperative — 'we need not less but more technology'), Saved and Damned (Future and Past people), exalted priesthood (white-coated experts and ulcerous managers), a few Saints (Nobel prizewinners in Science), and, now, gospel (Future Shock). In return for being worshipped properly. Technology will 'give' us affluence, democracy, you-name-it, and as a bonus to those nations in a state of whiter-than-Persil grace, under 20 different brand names.
I suggest an alternative set of proposals for taming technolatry: to cease forthwith the veneration of 'overseas experts' until such time as 'overseas' or 'experts' have demonstrated they are more wise than clever; to subvert any structure that assumes the efficiency of its lubricants is more important than the people it is supposed to be serving; to laugh at humourless behavioural scientists; to carry about with us an independent spirit, a poison for which technology has yet to invent an antidote; to demythologise technological pomp and circumstance with the gelignite of crap-detection; to defy the dictatorships of consumerism, fashion and statistics; to pour vials of magic into the phials of biochemists; and finally to cherish and esteem all those aspects in each of us that can't be fed into a computer but nevertheless provide much more reliable 'data' on our talents and personalities — our instincts, emotions and imaginations.