Samuel Florman, In Praise of Technology

(from Existential Pleasures of Engineering, 1975)


1.      Main point: Growing hostility toward and fear of technology is a dangerous phenomenon

         a.      Critics demonizing technology

         b.      Anti-technologists yearn for simple solutions to our problems when there are none



3.      Jacques Ellul (French), The Technological Society (1954)

         a.      "Technique" has become a uncontrollable Frankenstein monster

         b.      "Technique" is not just use of machines, but all deliberate, rational, efficient organization

                   i.       Like Winner’s broad definition of technology

         c.      Humans created technique in prehistoric times as needed it

         d.      More recently technique has been used by the well-to-do to make money

         e.      Masses accept it for its comfort (Berry’s “ease”)

         f.       Now search for efficiency via technique has become an end-in-itself, dominating man and destroying quality of his life

4.      Lewis Mumford Myth of the Machine (1967 and 1970)

         a.      Leading historian of technology

         b.      "In The Myth of the Machine, Mumford insisted upon the reality of the megamachine: the convergence of science, technics and political power as a unified community of interpretation rendering useless and eccentric life-enhancing values. Subversion of this authoritarian kingdom begins with that area of human contact with the world that cannot be successfully repressed - one's feelings about one's self."

5.      Charles Reich, Greening of America (1970)

         a.      Spoke on behalf of youthful counterculture and its dedication to liberating consciousness-raising

6.      Theodore Roszak Where the Wasteland Ends (1972)

         a.      A primitive spiritualism

         b.      A new "Arcadian" (=simple, innocent, untroubled) criticism of post-industrial society



         a.      Anti-Technologists (Luddites) argue that technology (p. 150)

8.      One: Is autonomous & beyond our control

         a.      "Tech is a (a) thing/force, (b) escaped from human control ("technological determinism"), and is (c) spoiling our lives"

9.      Florman's response

         a.       Technology is not an independent force/thing, but merely an activity that people engage in

                   i.       Compare with Winner’s idea that technology is a “form of life”

         b.      People choose to engage in technology

                   i.       Even if the choice might be foolish or unthinking

                   ii.      Even if this choice may be forced on some members of society by others, this is different from technology itself doing this

                            (1)    Boss forces worker: If you want a job you will use this machine

                            (2)    Tech itself coercive? Everyone drives big SUV, so safety requires you do? Guns are everywhere so you need one too

         c.      Florman's automobile example to illustrate technology's "deterministic nature" (meaning "it causes unanticipated things to happen, some undesirable" )

                   i.       Invention of auto changed how people thought as well as act

                   ii.      Changes their living patterns

                   iii.     Changed their values and expectations in ways not anticipated

                   iv.     Some of automobile’s undesirable consequences are traffic jams, accidents, pollution

                   v.      “So tech advance seems independent of human direction”

                   vi.     So does Florman in a sense accept technology is out of our control?

10.    Two: Degrades work:

         a.      "Forces man to do work that is tedious/degrading"

         b.      People work because they have to in order to provide for themselves

         c.      We both hate work and need it for our fulfillment

         d.      Think of Winner's claim that "people are what they do"

11.    Florman's response

         a.      Work of earlier times was not any better than work in a tech society

         b.      Agricultural work-sounds appealing to armchair intellectuals- but in fact it is "brutalizing in its demands"

         c.      People prefer factory and office work to "drudgery of the farm"

                   i.       Is that why farm children leave rural communities?

12.    Three: Encourages/enables frivolous (undesired) consumption

         a.      "Forces man to consume things that he does not really desire"

13.    Florman's response

         a.      But consumers who buy cars and electric can openers could--if they chose to-buy oboes, oil paints, sailboats, hiking boots, chess sets, & Mozart records

         b.      If they did not have real consumer desires, they could buy a kidney machine to help their neighbor instead

         c.      Perhaps people's consumer choices are vulgar, foolish, and selfish, but it is a cop out to blame this on "the economy or society or technology"

         d.      Is Florman's response sensitive to the power of advertising, competitive consumption, and the consumer society in general?

14.    Four: Creates unjust class divisions; technocrats exploit others

         a.      "Creates an elite class of technocrats and so disenfranchises the masses"

         b.      Divides society into a class of a few, elite, powerful technocrats and the rest of society who are powerless

         c.      A tech elite is taking control of society and exploiting them

         d.      Gap between rich and poor widest in 40 years

         e.      Reich "decisions are made by experts, specialists, professionals who are safely insulated from feelings of people"

         f.       Consider medicine, taxes, those in control of information (e.g., stocks)

15.    Florman's response

         a.      At least this avoids the foolish idea of a demon technology compelling people to act against their own self-interest

         b.      Sure people try to take advantage of other people

         c.      No reason to think such exploitation has increased as the result of technology

                   i.       But if technology enhances power, then those who have it have increased power over others who lack it

         d.      From earliest history, peasants been exploited by nobleman; bankers, merchants, landowners, kings have exploited the masses in virtually every large human groups

         e.      In fact, historically, exploitation has lessened with increases in technology

                   i.       In advanced tech societies average citizen is freer than ever

                   ii.      Abolished slavery, rigid class structures are going away, equal rights for women, etc

                   iii.     Look at underdeveloped nations (those w/o tech) to see how technology lessens exploitation: with less tech, more exploitation

         f.       Compare Jared Diamond's idea that despotism only became possible with agriculture

                   i.       Florman agrees that in small tribes less exploitation than in large ones and agrees tech played a role

16.    Five: Separates man from nature

         a.      "Cripples man by cutting him off from the natural world in which he evolved"

         b.      Catastrophic consequences when humans are cut off from the natural world

         c.      Rene Dubos (a research biologist who won a Pulitzer Prize for So Human an Animal, 1968) claims that:

                   i.       Man is an animal whose nature (physical & social) formed during course of his evolution

                   ii.      This basic nature-molded in fields and forests-not suited to life in tech world

                   iii.     Man's ability to adapt to almost any environment is his downfall

                   iv.     Little by little he has accommodated himself to physical & psychic horrors of modern life

                   v.      Must choose a different path or we are doomed

                   vi.     Similar to Paul Shepard’s claim about us being Pleistocene beings trapped in world of modern technology

17.    Florman's response (1)

         a.      Uses Daniel Callahan (a well-respected philosopher and founder of the Hastings Center) on relation of humans/technology

         b.      False dualism man/technology; not two separate kinds of realities

         c.      "Man by nature is a technological animal"

         d.      "To be human is to be technological"

                   i.       So are hunter-gathers less human as use only “primitive” technology?

         e.      Technology is just man in one of his manifestations

         f.       Thus the creation and use of technology is not contrary to--but rather essential to-the flourishing of human nature

         g.      This is the “homo faber" idea: Humans as beings who control their environment through tools

18.    Florman's response (2)         

         a.      True, we as a society are less in touch with nature

         b.      But not due exclusively to tech

         c.      Tech could be used to put people in very close touch with nature, if they wanted that

                   i.       Examples? Yellowstone Old Faithful Web Cam

         d.      Vacation homes for wealthy in wilderness; people could live in highest jungle treetops with birds if they wanted

         e.      But people want penthouses in NY city instead

                   i.       Note the recent phenomenon of second homes in wild areas

         f.       Rural people could stay on farms or in small towns and live spare/simple lives if they wanted

                   i.       As Wendell Berry wants!

         g.      Instead they tire of loneliness and tedium and hard physical labor and succumb to allure of cities

         h.      Sees no evidence that frequent contact with nature is essential to human well-being (as Luddites and environmentalists claim)

                   i.       Note: The Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

         i.       Even if our complexity as a species is due to evolving in a diverse natural environment, why must we continue to reside in landscape in which we evolved?

                   i.       Diversity of city and cultural life is equally stimulating?

         j.       Millions of people lived entire lives in cities with little contact with nature and why think led inherently inferior lives?

                   i.       Arguable that a life w/o significant experience of relatively wild nature is impoverished as is a life w/o experience of cities and culture?

19.    Six: Alienates man from himself

         a.      "Provides man with technical diversions which destroyed his existential sense of his own being"

                   i.       Like kids on youtube or video games constantly

         b.      Anti-tech movement tries to discredit modern leisure activities, for this is one thing technology supposedly gives us: more leisure

                   i.       But evidence is we working more than ever!

         c.      When ordinary person thinks she's happy-going to a ball game, watching TV, listening to jukebox, playing a pinball machine, eating hot dogs, Luddites say not really happy

20.    Florman's response: Elitism and paternalism!

         a.      Anti-technology movement manifests a disdain/pity/disrespect for ordinary person

         b.      Completely discounts integrity/intelligence of ordinary person

         c.      Discounts choices and desires of ordinary people, and thinks their Luddite opinion is superior

         d.      Is it elitist to judge that people’s desires are unfortunate or bad for them or unduly influenced by forces outside them?



22.    Technology destroys nature

         a.      Florman's response: Humans have destroyed their ecology (converted forest to pasture) for all of recorded history

         b.      Not at the scale or rate we are now doing; e.g., dramatically affecting climate of the planet, massive loss of biodiversity

23.    Technology destroys community

         a.      How?



25.    Luddites falsely romanticize "primitive" cultures

         a.      Contrast our abysmal technocracy with supposedly preferable cultures: the primitive tribe, the peasant community, medieval society

         b.      Anthropologists find this harmony of life only in a few primitive cultures, others display anxiety, hostility, and all the ills Luddites see in our modern society

         c.      Primitive cultures are likely to be unpleasant, as almost totally vulnerable to every passing hazard of nature, beast, disease and human enemy

         d.      Typical primitive man was brutal and brutalized, materialistic, suspicious

         e.      Middle ages as illustration-time of pestilence, public tortures

         f.       Callous brutality, unrelievable pain, ever-present threat of untimely death are realities our ancestors lived with

         g.      Luddites recognize we can't return to earlier times, but want us to recapture values of these cultures

         h.      Florman thinks doing so would involve a change in human nature (though he knows that Luddites see this as a return to true human nature)



27.    Florman claims he is not saying that our lives are better, just because we live longer and in greater physical comfort than earlier peoples

         a.      Today we do have problems that are unique in degree if not in kind

28.    Have a vague generalized feeling of discontent much more widespread than a generation ago?

         a.      Cause? Too many people wanting too many things

         b.      Not caused by tech

         c.      Due to kind of creature man is

29.    A few are willing to turn to the past

         a.      Do w/o disposable bottles

         b.      Move to counter-cultural communes

         c.      Refuse to buy computers and enter modern world (Berry)!

30.    Vast majority of people in world want to move forward, whatever the consequences

         a.      Isn’t this a scary idea?

         b.      Not ignorant of problems; disturbed by crowding and pollution

         c.      Recognize that "progress" in not necessarily taking them from worse to better

         d.      Despite misgivings, they are pressing on with an awesome (and praiseworthy?) determination                  

Study Questions Florman’s In Praise of Technology

1.      What is Florman’s response to the idea that technology is beyond our control?

2.      What is Florman’s response to the idea that technology degrades the quality of work?

3.      What is Florman’s response to charge technology has created a class of technocrats who exploit others?

4.      What is Florman’s response to the charge that technology harmfully separates humans from nature?

5.      Does Florman think about the idea that use of technology alienates us from our human nature?

6.      Does Florman agree with this statement? It is true that frequent contact with nature is essential to human well-being, but technology can help us with this contact

7.      Explain in what ways Florman thinks critics of technology “romanticize primitive cultures.”

8.      Evaluate Florman’s claims that “few people are willing to turn to the past” and that “the vast majority of people in the world want to move forward, whatever the consequences.”