Human Values in an Age of Technology

This week, I’m on spring vacation and decided to unearth my vinyls and take a few samples. One of these from my collection, which I started as a teen more than 14 years ago, is a record companion to a slide presentation entitled, “Human Values in an Age of Technology”, published in 1972 by the Center for the Humanities in New York. The following recording is a direct wav from that record and a transcript from that recording. I will be adding subtitles soon. I did gentle noise reduction and added a limiter and mild compression, as well as cut out much of the sound effects and the Coca Cola commercial. Please enjoy this piece of technological history in its 1970’s analog glory.

Adlai Stevenson said, “Nature is neutral. Man has wrested from nature the power to make the world a desert or to make the desert bloom. There is no evil in the atom. Only in men’s souls.”

From birth to death, the wonders of technology shield and comfort us. We are the heirs of a great industrial revolution, a revolution of incredible magnitude, a revolution that gave man power to use nature. Now he possesses the ultimate mechanisms for saving the labor of his own muscles and for putting to work the energy of natural forces.

The revolution began in the 19th century. By the time the 20th century was half over, man had developed the means to destroy himself and his planet in two global wars. He had perfected the technology of murder. It became possible to kill someone who was miles away, someone you could not see, and it became possible to kill millions in concentration camps with invisible gases sprayed from showerheads. Of course, the choice, life or death, was up to man. Back when the earth was still unscarred, when technology meant only accrued acts in a fire, a Sioux Indian had warned, “This is the fire that will help the generations to come if they use it in a sacred manner. But if they do not use it well, the fire will have the power to do them great harm.”

Technology had come to mean a great deal more by December 2nd, 1942.

On that day at 3:25 PM in a secret improvised laboratory beneath the football stadium at the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi and a team of scientists set off a self-sustaining atom-splitting chain reaction in this first controlled experiment. They achieved nuclear fission. The Atomic Age was born. Again, the choice was life or death. The Atomic Energy Commission put it much the same way as the Sioux Indian long before. Nuclear weapons and atomic electric power are symbolic of the atomic age. On one side, frustration and world destruction; on the other, creativity and a common ground for peace and cooperation. We have lived since that time under what President Kennedy called “a nuclear sword of Damocles”.

The single hair holding the sword back is our own determination that the final button shall not be pressed. We are a generation born into a world capable of possible self-annihilation because the sword sometimes dips close to our necks. We have become activists. We have become peace-loving.

We care about our world.

We are a generation born into a world in which the latest gadget is almost instantly obsolete. We can send a satellite into the atmosphere to predict our weather. We watched a man step onto the moon as we sat with our grandfathers who still think the automobile is a miracle. We are restless and anxious, but we are comfortable in the good life brought by technology.

Comfortable in the good life. Once children died from diseases, you can now buy a cure for at the corner drugstore. Technology has made it possible to control human life with supersonic devices – has made it more comfortable with laser beams and battery powered hearts. Once farmers invested their lives in toil that brought only a meager existence. Machines have made it possible to farm the land and the sea for food in abundance to package and preserve surplus so it can be shipped to places where there isn’t enough. Technology has made it possible for it to be said, “No one has to go hungry”; like the first spear that extended man’s reach, the technology of our era has enabled our thoughts to go beyond the environment we live in. This stimulus to the imagination has inspired the artist. There are museums where nothing stands still, and the musician. There are symphonies built of sounds that are outside any musical notes.

If there are mind-bending tools for the artist, there are also new tools for the citizens. Never before has the flow of information been so rich, the data so immediate. Turn on a television set in Georgia and you can watch the president in China or the war in Indo-China or the Olympics in Japan. You can know not only what is happening, but what is being thought and felt throughout the world. Millions of new magazines and books are published each year, translated, shipped and distributed across the planet. Distances are no longer measured in miles, but in time. Paris is no longer 3,600 miles from New York, but seven hours Paris with her history, her art, her cuisine, her people – seven hours away.

All of this naturally has changed the way men think, the way they look at the broadened world before them. Jay Robert Oppenheimer, a modern scientist, described the process: “Modern technology has altered our labor and our rest, our power, and the limits of that power as men and women and as communities of men and women…it has altered the means and instruments as well as the substance of our learning, the terms and the form in which decisions of right and wrong come before us.” Yes, it’s true. We’ve been changed in every way by the impact of technology, and the rate of change has been fantastic.

But despite these changes, these new opportunities… despite the good life the technology has brought, something bothers us: the negative payoff, the equal and opposite reaction. Advances in medicine have saved and lengthened life, and we face the prospect of too many people and not enough space. Agriculture has learned to grow more and better food, but chemicals now contaminate the soil. We face the prospect of insufficient food. Men have discovered how to draw fuel out of the earth at ever increasing rates, and at some point there will be none left for our descendants. The prospect is frightening of air is so fouled by pollution it can’t be inhaled; of the greenhouse effect with the planet surrounded by a layer of smog so thick that the sun’s radiation is locked in and the heat cannot return to the atmosphere and the Earth’s temperature rises and the glaciers melt into torrential floods. Some say it will all happen within 30 years.

And still, the pace of technology continues; faster and faster it goes, and man can create through his machines nearly anything he desires. A modern writer, Alvin Toffler, coined the term “future shock”, the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.

The future is tomorrow, then today. The future is now and it is obsolete by the time we’ve said those words.

We are no fools. We know that technology can both enhance and endanger our lives. If, as in 2001, we place our bodies in suspended animation, who will decide to waken us? What we fear is that as the pace accelerates, the ability for choice, the power to affect one choice or the other – of life or death – may be diminished, and then gone.

A poet, Archibald McLeish talks about technology: “Something is happening to the human role in the shaping of civilization. A curious automatism, human in origin, but not human in action seems to be taking over. The process has somehow taken over, leaving the purpose to shift for itself, so that we, the ostensible managers of the process, are merely its beneficiaries.”

Everywhere men are striving to understand the reeling impact of technology. At the United Nations, the Secretary General appoints a special committee to advise him on technology’s influence on human life. Foundations give grants for studies to measure technology’s impact on all phases of life. An independent commission issues the preliminary report of a 10 year study. The report concludes, “Technology makes possible what was not possible before. It offers individuals and society new options to choose from.” But the report contains a warning as well: “Existing institutions and traditional approaches are by and large incapable of coming to grips with the problems caused by technology. They are unable to realize the possibilities for resolving those problems that are also inherent in technology.” A novelist, C.P. Snow, writes, “This world is ours. We can do something good with it or we can destroy it. We cannot cut ourselves off. If we do not show virtue, this world is going to be a hell. Virtue is hard for us. But remember, hatred is easy, destruction is easy, and that special kind of easiness is ultimately nauseating to the soul.” There are no answers here, no ultimate values to cling to as we make use of technology, only the search for wisdom in our aims and in our purposes.

But what of us, and the future? Some have called us a generation that is, by no means, sure it has a future. Others say we stand on the threshold of a brand new age: a technotronic society that is shaped culturally, psychologically, socially and economically by the impact of technology. This new age is filled with many possibilities within technology, that we may choose where technology must work for us and with us.

We want to shape our world.

The Center for the Humanities (c) 1972

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