TECHNICAL ADVANCEMENT AND THE MAIN PROBLEMS OF MAN
Armando Martins Janeira
We are living in an epoch in which science and technique have produced in the industrialized countries an upsurge of material power and economic prosperity as man has never experienced before. We overtook the so-called industrial revolution and entered a much more far-fetching one, the scientific revolution. The new industries based on science have, in a few decades, completely changed the way of our lives. Science is today at the basis of the organic system which commands the life of the modern societies. For this, the new science which applied to industrial production puts at our disposal a force more powerful than ever, has suffered itself a complete change. New physics has made a more revolutionary break with the past than has the introduction of any new theory in science since 1600. (1) The notion that matter can be converted into energy and the experience that man can destroy matter have never been thought possible before.
The opposition between man and machines, - which has been emotionally explored by a stream of literature having at the top the myth of the robot created by Karel Capek - is fading away with the invention of electronic machines, which complete man’s mental power, prolonging this power and multiplying it to extraordinary proportions, soon attaining, the experts predict, the contribution that optics brought to the human eye.
The invention of the private researcher in his solitary laboratory has given place to the team work integrated in a carefully articulated plan in which the particular abilities of each member are used in the most efficient way to achieve the whole task.
The cybernetic revolution provoked by generalized use of computers and automated self-regulating machines has initiated a new era of production, as different from the industrial era as this one was different from the agricultural era. The cybernetic system has potentially unlimited output capacity and requires progressively less human labour. (2) These machines, which are progressively less costly, require less and less human labour. Hence the decrease of the number of jobs. Since 1960, the year when the cybernetic revolution began to take real importance, the productivity per man-hour rose at an extraordinary level pace above 3.5 per cent. The new machines, besides replacing men, foster a high-level competition with workers, as to compete with them a worker must have at least a high school diploma. (3)
This result of the use of perfected machines which, instead of helping men, create new social problems of unemployment, are a paradox of our industrial society and it means that the old social structures need readjustments to the completely new conditions.
These important changes caused by the cybernetic revolution are only felt until now in the United States, though its repercussions are felt already in other industrialized countries. And this happens at a time when the industrial revolution has not yet reached many places on earth.
The sending of the Sputnik aloft in 1958 has opened new horizons in the field of human experience. It is impossible to foresee today the far-reaching consequences of this adventure. Space exploration can bring us tomorrow to a revaluation of the nature and significance of life. In three or four lustres we shall probably have in the moon the bases of control of space vehicles operated for varied scientific uses. This will mean a communication network of incredible complexity, linking far distant space probes to their bases, providing continuous control over the nearer space vehicles and channelling a vast stream of intelligence between earth and the moon. (4) These perspectives bring us to believe that the tide of material capacity is increasing, that man’s power is expanding towards reaching unimaginable limits.
The books, based on scientific data, speculating about man’s future, about the conditions of life in the year 2.000 based on the development of science and technique, whatever serious those authors may be, look to us today like mere science fiction.
THE GREAT PROBLEMS OF MAN
Among all the great problems which stand ahead of us today and threaten our path toward the future, the three outstanding ones are the threat of over-population pollution of man’s environment and the danger of annihilation by nuclear war. Julian Huxley still adds here: over-exploration of natural resources, erosion of world’s cultural variety, the abortion in technology instead of creativity and quality, the widening gap between the rich and the poor nations. But all these dangers have more a character of degeneration of man’s activities and sense of justice or are dependent on man’s control on population increase and on super-scientific war. By the rhythm we are going, soon the earth will be insufficient to feed and to offer living space for the constantly increasing billions. Besides, the spread of certain industries threatens already the health and life of entire cities. In the United States certain diseases have appeared in consequence of polluted waters. In Japan millions of fish appeared dead and in the rivers which cross the great cities there is no sign of life. In countries like Japan, the expansion of the chemical industries cannot be done without spreading pollution and at risk of killing living beings. It has been found that the Adélie penguin, which never leaves the Antarctic, now lays eggs containing DDT. At the same time the danger of the extinction of man will be increasing in the years ahead, with the development of means of wholesale destruction and with nuclear weapons accessible to every nation and put in hands of politicians of little scruple and parochial vision. The fact that every man today is conscious of the permanent threat of annihilation will probably bring general conviction of the final meaningless of war - if we do not end all in a futile holocaust.
According to the statistics we dispose of, which only begin to be fairly reliable from the middle of the seventeenth century, the total of world population was, then, about half a billion, and the rate of increase 0.5 per cent per annum. This rate had tripled in 1900, and today goes still higher, nearly 1.75 per cent, meaning 60 million as annual increase. Three hundred years back the world population, as far as we can calculate, took 2 centuries to double. But it has doubled during the 19th century and doubled again during the first half of the twentieth century. At the present rate of births the world population will double every period of 25 to 30 years.
Today world population is about two billions and three quarters. An estimate made recently by the United Nations has calculated that world population will reach 7.4 billion before the year 2,000. From 1950 to 2000, during the brief period of half century, the population of the world will nearly treble. India, one of the poorest countries today, will have trebled its population in the year 2012, overtaking the population of China, which then will have doubled. (5) More than one half of world population is illiterate and faces hunger and malnutrition.
Family planning has been the only answer to this serious problem, but the general results are scarce. Japan is one of the rare successful examples: the birth rate has been cut by half in one generation, thus having kept Japanese population stable.
To make this problem more difficult, the countries which show greater increase of population are the poorest and more undeveloped ones. It would seem that man’s first task should be to feed the hungry three quarters of human race by the scientific and technical means at his disposal, which by general judgement of scientists are considered sufficient to eliminate poverty and disease. This could be the greatest task of twentieth century man. The material power and prosperity are at the reach of every country, if foresighted and wise rulers decided to resolve to concentrating their efforts on the improvement of the material living and social conditions of citizens, instead of fostering their personal or national prestige through wars and expensive demagogy.
But even in the prosperous countries the problems of population create serious apprehension. First, because it is feared that present prosperity may not be enough to spread to an ever increasing number; second because the concentration of people in monstrously large cities begins to make life less and less civilized, with the increase of crime and the difficulty to fight the criminals in such a human jungle, with air pollution, smog, with all the inconvenients of cutting the contact of man with nature. The city has been the heart of the development of civilization. Athens and Rome, the Italian and the Hanseatic cities have been the hub of political institutions and the place where the greatest worlds of art and thought were born and encouraged. But cities today are becoming so monstrously extensive that nobody can apprehend their spirit like before, they became unknowable, disform, impossible to live in. The unknown zones of the earth are no more in the Himalayas, in the forests or deserts of Africa and Asia, but in the miserable districts of London, New York, Calcutta. A sign of the unnatural development of modern cities is shown in the creation of administrative capitals like Washington and Canberra, where a heavy bureaucratic machine is working according to dry, administrative regulations. Before, the capital city was the center of political, philosophical, literary and artistic thought. The men of government entertained philosophers and protected artists. Politicians gained much from this illustrious conviviality, that is why politics was a humanist discipline, infused with wisdom and had wide vision, then, while today became mere administrative regulation. The great politicians are rare, but the bureaucrats are more and more specialized and efficient. The modern capital is no more a city in the noble Graeco-Roman sense, but a specialized urban center, a machine for administration.
Most towns are becoming huge industrial centers. The view of nature disappeared there. Generations of men live and die without enjoying the daily pleasures of the natural things, like seeing a blue sky, a moon unsurrounded by wires and electric lamps, the strong scents of the earth, trees, mountains, waters, the supreme beauty of the change of the seasons. A new applied science, which a Greek town-planner, Doxiadis, named Ekistics, the “discipline of human settlements” is trying to stop the obsessive tendency toward excessive human concentration, and to bring again men to the healthy neighbourhood of mother nature.
The solution for the problem of spread of nuclear arms will require probably more than an international treaty. It will require a whole change in the international structure, an archaically divided into an increasing number of small states. All the outstanding thinkers of today point to a federation of all nations, abolishing the barriers separating races, religions and ideologies.
But these dangers which threaten the survival of man’s species, are accompanied by another kind of risks, which concern the degradation of human mind, a general lowering of the human standards. Progress in our age brings, together with brilliant perspectives for man’s emancipation from material needs and astounding scientific exploits, the somber threat of sinking men into a bare standardization and desperate loneliness: man is threatened of losing his noblest attributes, his true qualities of humanity. These dangers are originated in degenerations in the social organization. We are faced with progressive standardization of man in giant working communities, in which the individual loses all personal characteristics to become a mere piece of a monstrous machine.
The super-organized and affluent society in which we live threats every man with mental insipidity and spiritual vacuity: the more things civilized man can get and produce, more empty himself becomes. This technocratic society tends to concentrate the powers of decision in the hands of a group of bureaucrats, obsessed by the problems of government and administration, who are able to ensure high standards of living for the majority of the people, but themselves lacking enlightenment and culture for leading the people in the way of intellectual education and wisdom. The organization man is the exponent of a society in which individualism is becoming redundant and group and organization ensure security and happiness to every individual and determine which are his spiritual needs as well as the material necessities imposed by his social standing. William Whyte, in his well known book Organization Man, has described the social mechanism that produces this well-rounded man, thirsty for belongingness, contented in his gregariousness. Even the heroes have become materialist. The organization suppresses all dangers of unorthodoxy, the ideas come from the group, not from the individual, creation becomes anonymous. The hero, in the bourgeois society of last century, was the writer and the artist. In the affluent society of today the hero is the bureaucrat and the scientist - a hero who lost all the romantic and spiritualist prestige, himself bureaucratized, a materialist and practical hero whose orthodox ideals and inconspicuous ambitions are in faithful conformity to the social milieu. Our epoch is not propitious for heroes. On the contrary, the social ideal is the anti-hero. The novel, the theatre, the ideologies make the apology of the anti-hero. The prevalent ideas are belongingness, togetherness, perfection work, efficiency, social conformity. In the United States, which is the most advanced example of society of “organization men”, of the “$4 billion currently being spent for research development by government, industry and the universities, only about $150 million - or less than 4 per cent - is for creative research”; “of the 600,000 people engaged in scientific work, it has been estimated that probably no more than 5,000 are free to pick their own problems.” (6)
The scientist becomes one of the company-oriented well-rounded men, his scientific interest and curiosity becomes rationalized, because his organization wants to keep his “researcher’s eyes focused closely in the cash register”. - “No geniuses here, just a bunch of average Americans working together”.
But it is not only the social milieu that tends to kill the individual, creative qualities of man, there is also modern society’s agent for uniformization and levelling men by lower standards: mass media of communication. Sound and television broadcasting, cinema, most of the press ubiquitous advertising, in their intensive, enlarging action, threaten to suppress the creative power of man making him accept passively a stereotyped mass of ideas, levelling down the people into a state of mental mediocrity.
Due to the highly technological nature of “this monstrous nonentity called mass communication”, some of these means, like radio and television, have, since the appearance of broadcasting, been centralized and concentrated. Press shows this same trend, mainly since the last war. In England two morning daily newspapers represent two thirds of the whole circulation. In the United States. ##(text missing in both scripts?)
The centralization and concentration in mass communication reflects, of course, the trend to centralization and concentration of commerce and industry, in which they ensure larger sales and lower prices of production. The trend towards concentration is seen determining large economic movements in a super-national scale, which are shaping the future of whole continents, as it is happening today in Europe.
As lower prices and the possibility of a larger mass of population sharing in the benefits of economic centralization and concentration are the fruits of these modern trends, they are, under this point of view, beneficial. Radio, television and cinema spread the ideas, the works of art, the works of the great classic composers, bring the words of the great writers, savants and statesmen of our time to the contact with many millions.
Mass communication has certainly increased public self-consciousness, spread culture and through ingenuous advertising, increased the consumption of goods. But more often than not the words of our great men, instead of wisdom, show only afflicting banality, the television works of art are trite, the advertising is vulgar and ubiquitous, and the over-increasing commercialization, inciting “consumerism” is invading all aspects of modern life.
The danger of mass communication is the danger of intellectual standardization, of suffusing in every individual stereotyped ideas. There is a saturation of souls and minds: the mass media insist, twenty four hours per day, teaching and telling people what to do, what to think, where to go, how to live. And as all that the media say is trivial and banal, the mass of people are becoming vulgar, the level of culture is shallow, the minds passive and conformed to a general pattern. The preoccupation for individuality and distinction is seen with hostility and considered bizarre. The anguish and yearning for the highest planes of culture, for the absolute and immortality that illumined the greatest minds of the past, or even, at times, a whole enlightened “elite” would be misplaced in the “elite” of today, the highest exponents of which are the society of savants and the group of scholars. This uniformity of tasks and minds is making life everywhere increasingly the same. The sense of style is being lost. The Americans have nearly nothing of it left. Ritual, which gave to individual life richness of form, feelings of social communion and foundation for solidarity, pride and satisfaction, is being lost.
The worst is that nothing substantial replaces the loss of these old social values, not even the consciousness of freedom, of the power of the people for leading their national life, as democracy is becoming everyday a more complex web of officialism and encastled bureaucracy.
The individual is tied up to empty formulas, his brain is saturated with second rate thoughts, he is losing progressively the habit of thinking individually, the powerful imagination and creative force of the masses, which gave the European Middle Ages such a magnificent colour intellectual vigour and sturdy poetry, is being withered. This monstrous apparatus, stuffing people’s heads with trivial ideas, empty, dead words, threatens to fashion and universalize a new type, the mediocre man.
All the deplorable results of modernization that I have mentioned are not really necessary and inevitable fruits of progress. Some are due to defects in social organization, some to social malfunctioning and to maladjustments. Social progress itself, helped by scientific and economic progress, will suppress many of them. As man gets a clearer consciousness of what human life means and of his place in a newly conquered universe, he will be able to emancipate from many of the political inhibitions and moral prejudices to which he is bound today. We must not forget that the progress of life creates new problems as it is going suppressing old ones.
The trend of spreading the education to larger masses of the population and extending the number of years in school, is certainly the most remarkable result of the present economic upsurge. Larger and higher education activates in the masses potential capacities and abundant energy for higher and better productivity and a richer, more intense and more enlightened social life.
In order to appreciate what the increase of production can mean today, we should remember that until the invention of steam power and electricity the increase in labour output during a century was negligeable. It is mainly since about one and a half centuries that, due to the progress in physical sciences, industry and agriculture began to advance in great strides. We are advancing to a point where the scientific-industrial productivity will be great enough to supply the needs of all earth’s population. The time will come when agricultural methods will bring into productivity the yet unexplored areas of America, Africa and Asia. This is already in our sight, we can devise the way to get to an affluent world society, living in harmony within a complex and well balanced system of economic production and political power.
It is to be hoped that the development of the sources of energy by the utilization of nuclear energy and the possibilities opened up by the larger use of computers, will help, in the end, towards the improvement of the condition of large populations of yet undeveloped countries.
The serious shortcomings and defects of our social and economic life can be eliminated when progress will become truly universal and will spread to all fields of human activities and social organization. For that of course we have to endeavour to lift up human condition, fight poverty and social injustice, suppress the taints and evils provoked by a faulty industrial and social progress.