Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that a man may patent an oil-eating bug that he had devel Book World THE GOD THAT LIMPS: Science and Technology in the Eighties. By Colin Norman. (World Watch Institute/Norton. 224 pp. $14.95) oped in a gene-splicing laboratory -- a bionic bug, as it were. It may make him rich. Its social usefulness is unmeasured.
This is one example of what users of stately metaphor used to call "the march of science" (or, technology). But Colin Norman's useful little study suggests that the march has become a sprint, even a blitzkrieg sweeping all before it.
Norman selects as the symbol of the technological revolution Hephaestus, the fire-giver of Greek myth, who was lame -- "the only imperfect member of the pantheon of classical gods." It is a telling metaphor. Nearly every rush to unpack Pandora's box seems to release at least as many curses as blessings.
Norman has many examples, but consider one of the more familiar. In the quarter-century before 1973, world oil production grew steadily by 7 percent a year, from 4 to 20 billion barrels. If some benefits were obvious, so now are many social costs. In the "developing" world, nations rich in oil suddenly have more wealth than they can safely assimilate. Nations without oil are now in debt, to the last nickel of their resources, to Western banks. For the oil junkies of the industrialized West one price of addiction is a vast growth in the export of military technologies: one way to pay the bill and balance the books.
At a more basic level, the twin phenomena of mechanization and automation often bring in train the specter of underemployment. Norman tells the sinister tale of the 18,000 large tractors bought by Pakistan in the late 1960s on a World Bank loan. The tractors, according to a post-mortem by the Bank, increased neither crop yields nor varieties. Instead, they induced a drastic centralization of landholding and the net loss of five agricultural jobs per tractor, portending "little short of a disaster to the economic and social fabric of the rural sector."
Nor is this effect confined to poor countries. "An American company, National Cash Register, noted in its 1975 Annual Report that an electronic cash register requires only 25 percent as much labor to produce as its nonelectric counterpart. As a result, NCR reduced its workforce at plants in the United States and Europe during the late seventies at a time when overall sales expanded."
Such cautionary tales, and they are many, limn the Hephaestian limp of technology. Thus "The God That Limps" is a reminder that the breathless sprint of technology too easily becomes a substitute for deliberate forethought about the future we want and need, especially when new technologies are abruptly grafted upon traditionalist societies.
It is possible to become quite gloomy about it all. If several decades of starry-eyed acceleration of research and development (and enlightened attempts to broadcast its benefits) tend so often to worsen the net human condition, what prospect is there that the process will not endlessly repeat itself?
One gets the impression that Homo sapiens is nearly incapable of distinguishing between a boon and a swindle. But this has always been true. The future, especially when warped by untested innovation, is unknowable. That is amply shown by the failure of even the most beneficent planners, through history, to anticipate the ultimate effects of the improvements they tout. Moreover, the underlying materialist impulse of modern technology leaves out of account many fundamental sources of human satisfaction. In the measurement of pain and pleasure we have moved little beyond the rude utilitarian calculus of a century ago.
One conceivable response to the disruptive effect of "inappropriate" technologies is more planning, especially of the participatory sort that Norman finds attractive. But planning is always implicitly statist in tendency. Besides, if high technologists cannot predict the final costs and benefits of their new toys, what likelihood is there that simple peasants and workers will do so?
There is, of course, a way out of the Hephaestian trap, although Norman does not advocate it and most of us shrink from contemplating it. That is to reexamine our worshipful faith in the idea of linear Progress. It is a dubious creed. The most basic of human psychic needs is a sense of constructive attachment to a purposeful social order -- as Aristotle told us long ago. New technologies usually unsettle or demolish that satisfaction, bringing despair and anomie. We may be too attached to the deceptive lures of Progress to step back from it and think again. If so, the world foreshadowed in "The God That Limps" will be a world of dislocation and upheaval, without repose. But man is a player with fire, and playing with fire is never cheap.