Historical Perspective on Culture and Technology

As I look back over the development of human consciousness in general, and ethics and morality in particular, two great ages or eras stand out. And we, as a society, are embarking on a third.

The first is the period between 800 and 200 BCE dubbed the Axial Age by the philosopher Karl Jaspers [8]. Jaspers argued that during the axial age “the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently… And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today”. These foundations were laid by individuals within a framework of a changing social environment, and having a profound influence on future philosophy (based in logic and reason) and religion (based in revelation). These Axial Age individuals include Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in the West, the prophets in the Middle East, and Confucius, Lao-Tzu and the Buddha in the East.

As noted by Huston Smith [9], compassion and wisdom are the hallmarks of the Axial Age. Paradigmatically, this Age is pre-egoic, i.e., operating before the rise of individualism and liberal values, and is marked by “collectivism” wherein nomadic peoples came together to form tribes, villages and towns, and the “physical,” where technology supported physical labor, from weapons to support hand-to-hand combat to hand tools for agriculture and beasts of burden. When taken in its entirety, the wisdom traditions (i.e. including Judaism, Christianity and Islam) give us the three Virtues in the West: Humility, Charity and Veracity and the three Poisons in the East: Greed, Hatred and Delusion. Virtues are what we aspire to; poisons are to be avoided. Smith describes the Virtues as follows

Humility: The deeper meaning of humility is to treat your-self fully as one, but not more than one.

Charity: If you treat your self fully as one, you have an obligation to make sure your fellow human beings are treated fully as one.

Veracity: Huston Smith calls it, “seeing the world in its suchness”, which means the ability to drop our “subjective” lens and see the word, “as objectively” as possible.

As I argue throughout this chapter, veracity presents the biggest challenge of all, because the paradigms that give rise to our cultural conditioning lie at the unconscious and sub-conscious; they are implicit in all of our actions and not always, if ever, made explicit. To make this point clear, consider the fundamental canons of the National Society of Professional Engineers' Code of Ethics.

Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:

1. Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

2. Perform services only in areas of their competence.

3. Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

4. Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.

5. Avoid deceptive acts.

6. Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.

The first Canon is basically a general statement of Charity, the second Canon is a specific statement of Humility, Canons three, four and five are specific statements of Veracity, and the sixth and final Canon is a combination of all three Virtues. These Canons have been developed over the past 100 years or so, and to the best of my knowledge, their time-honored origin has never been articulated, but carried in the collective unconsciousness of society over the millennia.

The second great era centers on the Enlightenment (eighteenth century Europe) sandwiched between the Age of Reason (seventeenth century Europe) and the Social Movement termed Modernity (ninteenth century Europe and the United States), all of which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution. It began with Descartes and Newton, and it is marked by a paradigmatic shift from the physical to the mental (cogito ergo sum), and from the collective to the individual (from the preegoic to the egoic). It focuses on a priori universal laws, whether they are natural, physical or moral. It is an age that gave rise to major achievements in moral philosophy and ethical theory; among the more germane to the engineering profession are Right's Ethics (Locke), Duty Ethics (Kant) and Utilitarianism (Bentham and Mill).

The Enlightenment also marks the divergence between Eastern and Western cultural values; the paradigmatic shifts from the collective to the individual and from the physical to the mental did not take place in the East to the extent it took place in the West. I must emphasize that this discussion is not about intelligence. This is about a context that enabled Western Society to replace physical labor with machines that is based on new quantitative analyses and replicated empirical data;

i.e. the development of the “scientific method.”

This paradigmatic shift is best exemplified by the development of science and technology and how it influenced the Industrial Age. From one perspective, David

S. Landes describes in great detail why the Industrial Revolution first occurred in Europe and not elsewhere [10]. To quote Landes:

To be sure, in Europe as elsewhere, science and technology had their ups and downs, areas of strength and weakness, centers shifting with the accidents of politics and personal genius. But if I had to single out the critical, distinctively European sources of success, I would emphasize three considerations: (1) the growing autonomy of intellectual inquiry,

(2) the development of unity in disunity in the form of a common implicitly adversarial method, that is, the creation of a language of proof, recognized, used, and understood across national and cultural boundaries; and (3) the invention of invention, that is the routinization of research and its diffusion.

Regarding autonomy, Landes also describes why, within Europe, the Industrial Revolution took place first in Britain. Here too, quoting Landes:

Britain, moreover, was not just any nation… Remember that the salient characteristics of such a society is the ability to transform itself and adapt to new things and ways, so that the content of “modern” and “industrial” is always changing. One key area of change: the increasing freedom and security of the people. To this day, ironically, the British term themselves subjects of the crown, although they have long—longer than anywhere—been citizens.

Although originating within the Greek and Roman Empires, and associated with freedom, it was during the European Enlightenment, that people transitioned from being subjects of a king or queen to being citizens of a city and later, a nation. Such status carried with it rights (such as the ability to participate in the political process) as well as responsibilities (such as military service). Citizenship is the mark of the individual, and the hallmark of the European Renaissance,[1] the very essence of the egoic period.

We might also ask why the Industrial Revolution did not occur in the East, particularly in Japan. Here I refer to both David Landes [11] and Jared Diamond [12]. While each Asian country had it own unique set of circumstances in terms of natural resources, climate, geography, and the socio-political environment, many suffered from what Diamond calls “cultural isolationism” rather than embracing “cultural diffusion,” the latter, a necessary ingredient for scientific and technological advancement. Beginning in 1633 and lasting until the Meiji Restoration in 1867– 1868, Japan had closed the door to the outside world. In the words of Landes [13]:

Japan had had enough of discovery and innovation, enough fire and blood. The aim now: freeze the social order, fix relations of social and political hierarchy, prevent disagreement and conflict.

The net result of cultural isolationism during this nearly 250 year period, is what I would call the “not invented here” syndrome. For Japan in particular, the culture of today[2] regarding Fukushima as described by the Chairman of the Independent Commission reporting to the Diet of Japan is also the culture of yesterday: “reflexive obedience, reluctance to question authority, devotion to 'sticking with the program', groupism (collectivism) and insularity” [14].[3]

As said, the Industrial Revolution, a product of the Enlightenment, is an age wherein physical labor is replaced by mental analysis resulting in man-made machines that are conceived, built and operated from a (Newtonian-Cartesian) world-view or paradigm based on three premises:

Reductionism: The world can be understood by reducing complicated systems to their parts.

Determinism: The world consists of causal links or chains; or output is proportional to input.

Objectivism: The world obeys universal laws; the results of observations are independent of the observer, which taken together with the first two premises, yield these universal laws of nature.

This world-view has served Western Society well by providing a particular lens through which to view physical reality. It results in a fragmented world with distinct parts or boundaries. Studying these fragments has developed much of the technological world we know today. It is important to stress that in this paradigm, it is assumed that there is good data, the system has a fi ed boundary and that second order (nonlinear effects) can be neglected. One has only to look at a complex machine such at an automobile to see that each system, from the engine to the CD player, is researched, designed, developed and manufactured separately—and yet they all fi marvelously together as planned. It is hard to imagine understanding a physical world that is not amenable to such fragmentation. And as long as the roadway is free of ice, the automobile and the driver behave as expected!

These two eras have now taken Society (both East and West) into a third, which is still in the process of being defined. It is sometimes called the Post-Modern or Post-Industrial era. It may have begun with a new understanding of the physical world (quantum mechanics and relativity), the biological world (the double-helix and cloning), the political world (the nuclear weapons race and the space race) or the social-media world (the Internet and the Information Age). It is neither pre-egoic nor egoic, neither physical nor mental; it appears to be trans-egoic and emotional. I will explore this later in the chapter.

It is often said that society's ability to develop new technologies (biotechnology, information technology, nanotechnology and nuclear technology) has far outstripped its ability to deal with their impacts (both intended and unintended consequences). I believe, in part, it is the unconscious grip of the Newtonian/Cartesian enlightenment world view that has the United States paralyzed with respect to high level radioactive waste disposal for example,[4] in much the same way as the pre-egoic, Axial Age world-view (primarily echoes of Shintoism coupled with elements of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism) that have Japan paralyzed with respect to safety culture, in light of the events at Fukushima. I believe that the way to resolve these dilemmas is to make these implicit world-views, explicit.

  • [1] The European Renaissance took place between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries…. A natural precursor to the Age of Enlightenment.
  • [2] The culture of the Japanese people today is not monolithic and the Chairman's remarks were focused on the root causes of the accident.
  • [3] The English version of the report has been criticized because these statements do not appear in the Japanese version.
  • [4] The “Not In My Back Yard” or NIMBY attitude is egoic based.
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