Is Technology a Threat to Society?

"Is Technology a Threat to Society?" The Public Interest, Spring 2001.


I think there is some loose thinking about this whole problem of scientists, engineers, and their social responsibilities. When scientists say they want to live up to their social responsibilities, what they usually mean is that they want more power than they have; it means they want to run things, to take charge. It’s always nicer to run things than to be run by them. But that’s not what moral responsibility really means. As a matter of fact I am not all that eager to see scientists get involved in politics per se. I think that with the possible exception of businessmen, engineers and scientists are the worst people I’ve seen working in politics. Businessmen are used to making decisions. They come to Washington and discover that you can spend ten years in Washington and never have the privilege of making a decision; all you’re doing is making compromises with other people who aren’t making decisions either. It gets terribly frustrating for them, and they go home, back to a nice easy life where if you say “do something,” somebody does it.

Scientists and engineers, on the other hand, have the inclination to think that the world is full of “problems” to which they should seek “solutions.” But the world isn’t full of problems; the world is full of other people. That’s not a problem, that’s a condition. Politics exist precisely because the world is full of other people. These other people have ideas, different ways of life, different preferences, and in the end, there is no “solution” to the existence of other people. All you can do is figure out a civilized accommodation with them.

So I am not all that eager to see scientists become active in political affairs. I am, however, concerned to see engineers and scientists become interested in themselves — not in improving the rest of the world, but in facing the tasks of their own self-improvement, and learning how to think about their own responsibilities in a more serious and reflective way, rather than the traditional one: We can solve the problem, just give us the power to do it.

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