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Technology, selective globalisation and control

How prominently does “technology transfer” to developing nations feature in the programme of globalisation? And what impact does it have outside of the West? In the book I have been discussing (Globalization, Technology and Philosophy, edited by Tabachnick and Koivukoski) Trish Glazebrook investigates these questions in light of what she perceives as a puzzling lack of focus on them among globalization and technology theorists (with exceptions such as Sandra Harding), and because of the suspicion, that these theorists may actually be repeating the ethnocentrism that characterizes science and technology.

In her view, the globalisation of technology requires novel ways of conceptualizing questions pertaining to the political implications of the metaphysics underpinning modern technology, lest such ethnocentrism be extended and reinforced. This conviction on her part stems from her further belief that, unless the ideology of control inherent in technology be taken seriously, it is bound to be transferred to social and political exploitation, instead of which she believes local concerns worldwide should determine what impact global technology has on indigenous cultures.

To substantiate her belief, and given the indissoluble link between technology and knowledge, she predicates it on the centrality of the desire for knowledge that has characterised Western culture from the outset — both Aristotle and, later, Descartes, placed the quest for knowledge at the basis of their projects, and this has not changed. It was Aristotle, too, who made a distinction between theory or science, praxis and technical knowledge in terms of their respective ends, which is metaphysical, mathematical and scientific knowledge (of nature, physis) itself in the case of science; ethical and political action for praxis; and production, or techné, regarding technical knowledge.

Importantly, Glazebrook argues, while these distinctions were clear for Aristotle, they are “blurred” in modernity (evident already in the 17th century, in Descartes’s notorious statement, that the “new science” would render humans “masters and possessors of nature”). She notes the ambiguity in the concept of techné, which denotes both technical knowledge — something compatible with Heidegger’s conception of technology as “a way of revealing” — and the objects produced through it, and raises the question concerning the difference between such artifacts and natural entities. Aristotle answered this question by referring to the teleology of nature, or the fact that natural things are “self-moved” towards “some end” (“final causes”), in contrast with technically produces objects, that lack an “internal” principle of change, and depend instead on the artist or artisan as “efficient cause” imposing the “end” or “final cause” on materials that are technically transformed.

“The point to draw from Aristotle’s analysis,” says Glazebrook, “is that technology depends on nature in a way that nature does not depend on technology. For an artifact must always be made from some material appropriated from nature … Thus, technology is a derivative way of being, and control of natural processes is at best partial and temporary. Yet modern technology is an ideology of control and manipulation that has lost sight of this Aristotelian truism”.

It may come as a surprise that Glazebrook cites Christianity as one of the two conceptions of nature that promote the illusion of control over nature, the other being science. This is partly because both conflate nature and artifacts, encouraging the view that humans can overcome nature — in Christianity partly because of the mythical account of nature as an artifact of divine origin (an account paralleled in Plato’s Timaeus, incidentally), and secondly the divine injunction, that, having been expelled from paradise, humankind should establish dominion over nature. Glazebrook stresses that modern science is rooted in this anthropomorphic Christian cosmogony, and further that Francis Bacon’s (one could add Descartes’s) modern account of “technological science” is predicated on a similar logic of domination (articulated in horrifying metaphors of torturing “Mother Nature”). The mechanistic “worldview” that emerged from this, and found its apogee in Newton’s work, had the effect of stripping nature of Aristotelian teleology (having its ends in itself) and promoting the idea that nature conceivably serves only one end, namely human use and exploitation.

Although Newton’s work lacks Bacon’s metaphors of torment, Glazebrook remarks, it entrenched the mechanistic world-picture, and moreover, established physics as the paradigmatic science. This is significant, insofar as its abstractions could not do justice to biology, the science of living things (which had figured prominently in Aristotle’s work). As physics developed, it moved even further away from living nature through mathematical idealisation, so that contemporary particle physics is light-years removed from the social lifeworld. (It is interesting to note that Goethe already polemicised against Newton’s reductive view of nature.)

Hence, Glazebrook concludes (in agreement with Heidegger), that technological control of nature is merely the logical conclusion of modern “techno-science”, and observes that political and ethical questions (so important for Aristotle) were displaced from the supposed (modern) project of knowledge, because they do not lend themselves to being quantified or objectified. Yet, as many thinkers have argued, science does not have “exclusive rights” to truth and falsity — in ethics and aesthetics, for instance, they have a different, but equally valid meaning.

The increasing cultural dominance of techno-science understandably showed in Western attitudes to indigenous or local knowledge(s), such as scientist and governor Robert Boyle’s colonialist execration of New England natives’ reverence for nature as “primitive” and “unscientific”. However (lest some may argue that technology has benefitted humanity as a whole) Glazebrook argues that the globalisation of technology that accompanied such condescending attitudes has been an unethical practice worldwide: ” … globalised technology is entangled in a web of corporate interests and government policies in which vested interests have precluded democratic distribution of the promised benefits. In short, technology has not been globally implemented for the benefit of humanity, so much as for the benefit of an elite”.

She substantiates this claim, first, through a discussion of how reforestation programmes in India were based on selectively chosen data, and serve the interests of the global pulp industry, but not those of local farmers. Secondly, closer to home, she argues that the implementation of the Bantu education policy in South Africa in the 1950s was equally a case of giving selective access to global technology, reserving high-end scientific-technological education for whites. From this she concludes that Heidegger was prescient with his warning, that humans, too, would become a mere “resource” for certain (political and economic) ends. Needless to stress, it has not ended there.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.