David (dissembly) wrote,

Society and technology

I posted a reply to a short promotional essay on the Tor website, and I thought, "I'm so bad at updating my livejournal, but this would've made a good lj post."

Here is the essay I was replying to:

Why The Future Never Gets The SF Right, by Michael Flynn.

And my comment/reply:

Before I say anything, I think the idea of a high-tech society with no belief in science or progress is awesome, and will keep an eye out for your work. I just want to disagree with the particular view of history in your essay, for the sake of intellectual discussion.

I’m surprised to see Engels in the list of philosophers for whom the “endless universe is making a comeback”; Engels was a materialist, a follower of scientific progress (and debunker of mysticism), and (obviously, given his politics) a believer in humanity’s ability to continue technological progress into the future.

As a historical materialist, I think he would have disagreed with the outline you give of the history of technological development. I don’t think that it’s necessarily beliefs that hold back science in a larger sense. We need to remember that the Scientific Revolution came in an age of social revolution, where kings and queens (and the beliefs they fostered to justify themselves) were being swept aside and a more advanced economy based on markets, owners and labourers appeared.

The ancients you list aren’t just distinguished by their beliefs in a cyclical universe, but by just how extremely impoverished their societies were. The Greeks and Romans built amazing feats of architecture and engineering – but they had little in the way of large-scale industrial production, which could maintain some level of technological progress based on science. They supported miniscule populations by modern standards, and their great feats were not those of organised, modern workforces, but of slaves whose replenishment was not a sure thing. It was a society where the idea of working for a boss was obscene. It couldn’t have supported a technological revolution on the scale we’ve experienced over the past few hundred years.

Similarly, to Joseph Needham’s idea of linking scientific progress to the idea of a created universe; most of Christian history is the history of backwards, unscientific feudalism. I think Carl Sagan had a colourful way of putting it, I remember him saying something like “You would have an astronomer sort of like you might have a court jester.” It was a peasant-based economy, again, like the ancients, extremely impoverished. Simply not capable of great leaps of progress (or rather, not capable of translating that progress into ever-increasing technological change).

It’s only after the markets and merchants (that had always been around) suddenly see the monarchies around them losing their economic power, and find themselves and their commercial interests becoming stronger and stronger (in places like Holland and Venice, then England and France), to the point of a wave of revolutions, that scientific and technological progress really starts to take off. Because it suddenly becomes both economically relevant, and economically supportable by society.

Now, I think, we’ve passed the high point of capitalist advancement. Science is increasingly hamstrung by financial and commercial pressures; capitalist innovation is more and more about new kinds of smartphone and less and less about real, fundamental leaps in technology; investors are naturally unwilling to spend huge amounts of cash on high-risk, low-return scientific/technological adventures like space travel, alternative energies, etc – and governments no longer have the political will to fund such projects (to my generation, it seems like that was all really just to out-compete the USSR anyway!), and the economic crisis in Europe is even starting to drive people in some places (such as Greece) out of organised workplaces and big cities, and back toward the peasant countryside – to avoid starvation. Our capitalist world is actually running the tape backwards, in many senses.

I feel like we’re on the verge of the kind of thing you describe for your book, just on a smaller planetary scale with lower tech: a society with lots of high-tech toys, and no real ability to progress in a meaningful way. Instead of citing religious dogma, researchers in universities hear the neo-liberal, bureaucratic-capitalist catechisms, and must bow and make obeisances to the priests in accounting. Global warming is just the icing on the dystopic cake.

If we want to send people to Mars, barring some unforeseen development, I think we need to go to the next stage of society. Not to put too fine a point on it, but thats the stage envisioned by Engels – not as part of any cyclical thinking or mystical utopianism, but actually as an extremely materialist attitude, born of the Enlightenment.
Tags: economics, politics, sci-fi, science
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