CSE268D: Social Aspects of Technology and Science
Notes for the Third Meeting
3. Inseparability of the Technical and the Social (continued)
        (This discussion begins in the notes for the second meeting.)

A famous example of how politics and technology mix is the bridge from Manhattan to Staten Island, built in the 1950s with its height limit deliberately chosen to prevent buses from using the bridge. The purpose was to keep the poor people (e.g. in Harlem) who don't have cars from using the beaches in Staten Island (which is a rich commuter community). Here the politics is, metaphorically speaking, right in the steel. There are many less dramatic examples of a similar kind.

There is a myth, which most of us know is not absolutely and fully true, but which we still have somehow internalized, that technological progress is inevitable, and inevitably leads to social progress. Of course, technology has continued to evolve for a long time, but whether its results can always be called progress is open to question, in many different ways. One problem is defining progress. But if we look at specific cases, most of us can probably agree about the outcomes. Because it is all too easy to think of examples where technology has had positive outcomes, lets consider some cases where the outcome is (most likely agreed to be) negative.

Weapons have certainly evolved enormously over the last few centuries. But are their effects on human society positive? For an extreme case, imagine that each adult human has a hydrogen bomb, with detonator built into their hand (or mouth or whatever); most of us probably get mad enough occasionally that we might actually use such a weapon to get rid of someone who really annoys us, even though it also gets rid of us and a few million others at the same time. Are the availability of handguns, assult rifles, Uzzi's, AK-47's, the ease of making chemical and biological weapons, etc., really contributing to the general health and happiness of humanity? (I just heard on the radio that the ongoing development of lighter weight automatic weapons has made it possible for younger and younger children to participate in warfare, so that there is now a higher than ever death rate for children in war, especially in Africa.)

Or how about the recent very rapid progress in addictive drugs (e.g., crack cocaine)?

An article by an (anonymous!) lawyer in the Summer 1998 issue of In Formation (p.69) discusses some effects of technology in law, including: (1) elimination of many support personnel, particularly typists and legal researchers; and (2) making it more difficult for poorer people (meaning most of us, to say nothing of homeless people, prisoners, etc.) to match the quality of legal work done for wealthy clients, such as large corporations. This example illustrates another common phenomenon, which is that people at the bottom of the social hierarchy often suffer the most from negative effects of technology (e.g., consider the chemical plant at Bhopal, India - and consider that even in the US, poor people much more often live near hazardous waste dumps, etc.)

It is also interesting to consider the effects of modern medicine and agriculture on many developing countries, e.g., Bangladesh, where millions of people live in incredible poverty. (Does anyone know a good reference for this?)

The paper Effects of Technology on Family and Community, by J.A. English-Lueck, is a recent report on a study of the effects of technology on family life in Silicon Valley, claiming that it has actually decreased the quality of life of people.

Despite all the examples above, and many others which are very widely known (such as the Titanic, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island), our culture inclines us to give the benefit of the doubt new to new technologies. Hence the myth of progress has a strong synergy with the myth of technological determinism in making the kind of high tech advertisements that we have been studying work effecitvely.

Requirements engineering is the name for an early phase of system development (including but not limited to software systems) which determines what properties the system must have in order to succeed. This area is more practical rather than academic, and until recently has mainly been carried out in a very technical way, largely ignoring social aspects of the system. However, it has become more and more clear that ignored social factors have been a major cause of many large failures, and current practice, under some pressure from the academic world, is starting to take social aspects more seriously.

4. Science and Technology

One theme for this section is that science and technology are inseparable, from which (given the previous section) it follows that science, technology and society are inseparable. For example, society determines what basic research gets done, which in turn influences what technologies can exist, which then again influences the social choices of what basic research to invest in. But before pursuing this, we need a deeper understanding of science. This is a very nontrivial task. Each of the history, philosophy and sociology of science are huge areas, in fact, each is a whole department (or at least a program) in most major universities, with dozens of courses, and with degrees at all levels. We will have to get along with at most one hour for each. Some of you may find parts of this rather tough going, a fast trip through some dense, deep material. Sorry! Fasten your seat belts!

I want to begin rather gently, with some of the stories that are often told to justify the existence of science as it is currently practiced. (Later, we will consider some aspects of such stories more critically, and later still we will consider the roles that are played by myths and stories.)

Characters like Bruno and Galileo typically play an important role in these stories; they are heroes, who showed courage standing up against the Catholic Church for their beliefs, and who died, or might have died, for doing so. Giordano Bruno (born circa 1548) was burned at the stake in Rome on 17 February 1600, for saying things like

Innumerable suns exist; innumerable earths revolve around these suns in a manner similar to the way the seven planets revolve around our sun. Living beings inhabit these worlds.
Today nearly all educated people believe essentially the same things (though we know that there are more than 7 planets around our sun), and it is hard for us to understand why Bruno got such harsh treatment at the end of the seventeenth century. (The SETI web page on Bruno has a picture of the monument to intellectual freedom erected on the site of his martyrdom; I have been there, and noticed that the local people place ashes and flowers at the base of the monument. By the way, SETI stands for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.)

Bruno was a mystically inclined monk, not a scientist in the modern sense, despite his interest in astronomy. But Galileo Galilei (1561-1626) was a scientist; he arrived at his theories far more rigorously than Bruno did, and he too had trouble with the Church's Inquisition, in particular, for his belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than vice versa. If he had been as stubborn as Bruno, he too would probably have been killed, instead of merely sentenced to life imprisonment (though he spent most of it in his country villa.) Galileo is famous for his experiments with falling bodies, done from the Leaning Tower of Pisa; what is not well known is that the experiments were a failure, and as a result he was run out of town! For more information on Galileo, see the 3 Galileo sections of Joseph Dauben's Art of Renaissance Science.

The moral of such stories is usually taken to be something like this: we need science in order to find out objectively what is really true, independently of all religious, political, and commercial interests. Science is the search for truth, and its results are far more reliable that results found by other methods, which tend to be tainted by various special interests.

But we should go back to the Greeks to find the orgins of modern science, or even further back, to the ancient Egyptians, who used applied geometry for very complex engineering projects (like the pyramids). The contribution of the Greeks was to systematize this knowledge, by showing how it could be derived from a number of basic principles, called axioms; this development reached its peak in the famous Elements of Euclid. (The Egyptians also had sophisticated schemes for doing arithmetic, as did the Babylonians, Assyrians, etc., who used theirs mainly for accounting.) The distinctive feature of Greek geometry is that it is deductive; this was a major advance, and the beginning of modern mathematics. But because there was less emphasis on experiment than on rationality, modern empirical science was not yet visible.

Moving very quickly through time now, the Romans did little to advance mathematics or science; their interests were largely practical, and their contributions were more in law, warfare and engineering. After the sacking of Rome by the (so called) barbarians came the period called the "middle ages" or sometimes the "dark ages", during which only a few monks had any knowledge of what the Greeks had achieved, and no major advances occurred. During the period called the "renaissance", and mainly in Italy, things began to change. Bruno and Galileo were among those in the forefront of this; there were also of course many very great artists, like Michaelango, Gioti, and Leonardo da Vinci.

Rene Descartes (1569-1650) is another important figure in the development of modern science; his ideas provide philosophical foundations for much of modern thought. His aim was to justify the separation of science from theology, so that science could proceed without interference from the Church. He did this by asserting that matter and spirit were two completely different realms, which he called res extensa and res cogitans (things with extension in space, and things of thought); this doctrine is called dualism. The Church has authority over the spiritual realm, while the material realm remains open to empirical investigation. Of course Descartes could not state his goal publicly, or he would have had as much trouble as Bruno, or at least Galileo; but he states this goal in a letter to a friend. Galileo and Descartes appear early in the period called classical or enlightment, the age of rationalism, and of mechanism. Descartes made major contributions to mathematics, especially his algebraicization of geometry, called "analytic geometry" and enshrined in the phrase "Cartesian coordinates."

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is undoubtedly the greatest scientist of the classical period. He is best known for his physics, including his laws of motion, his theory of gravitation, his proof that the orbits of the planets are elliptical, his work in optics, and more. He was the Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, and also served as Master of the Mint for England, and hence was an important public figure. It is not so well known that most of his written work consists of attacks on orthodox theological positions, especially the Trinity; this was long kept secret, because his professorship was at Trinity College. It is even less well known that most of his experimental work was not in physics at all, but in alchemy! (He died of mercury poisoning, contracted from his alchemical experiments.) So Newton is not the right person to look to for writings on scientific metholology.

In fact, early scientists had little understanding of what science is; this only developed gradually, and is still hotly debated today, as we will see. Sir Francis Bacon (1551-1626) and Robert Boyle (1627-91) were early promoters of the experimental method; Bacon was Lord Keeper of the Seal and later Lord Chancellor of England; he too died of effects of his experiments, bronchitis after stuffing a foul with snow (pun: he died of foul play). He is also one of the people claimed to have written the plays of Shakespeare. Boyle is famous for Boyle's law, and is one of the most important founders of modern chemistry.

Later, a split developed between rationalism and empiricism, the latter championed by two British philosophers, John Locke (1632-1704) and David Hume (1711-1776), the former by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), following Descartes. Roughly speaking, rationalism is the view that we can study nature using logical inference, and empiricism is the view that we can study nature by use of our senses, i.e., that our senses give us information that corresponds to reality. Both of these presuppose realism, the view that there is an objective reality, independent of our ability to perceive it. Today, rationalism and empiricism are not longer considered to be at odds, and all three views are important epistemological assumptions underlying modern science (epistemology is the area of philosophy devoted to studying how we come to know things).

Dualism seems entirely consistent with the traditional physical sciences (physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc.), but recent advances in sciences of the mind, especially various branches of neuroscience, call dualism into doubt. If science is devoted to material reality, then it must study the mind from a material point of view, and hence it cannot accept the assumption that the mind is non-material. Monism is the opposite of dualism; it asserts that there is just one thing in the world; that one kind of thing might be material, in which case we have materialism, or it might be spirit, which, for example, was Plato's view. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an important early proponent of materialism (he is also famous for his political philosophy). Modern neuroscience accepts the view of materialist monism. This has the effect of eliminating Descartes' mind/body dualism, but it also seems to exclude a lot of what actual living breathing human beings regard as important.

Both Descartes and Hobbes were said to have had mystical insights about the certainty of mathematics, and the profound role that this might play in science, inspired by Euclid's axiomatic geometry, and Galileo's mathematical theories of falling bodies and moving planets, which were the beginnings of modern mathematics and physics, respectively. Let me emphasize that the quantitative, mathematical deterministic character of Galileo's laws was of absolutely fundamental importance. Hobbes also tried to extend this kind of rational determinism into the social, with mixed success, but enormous influence, particularly in theories of government and law.

Another absolutely fundamental characteristic of science is its attempt to achieve objectivity, excluding all merely subjective factors, such as the beliefs, hopes, fears, prejudices, etc. of the experiments, and of others (especially the Church). There is a strange play on words here, since we say that the subject of the experiment is regarded as an object, while the experimenter bans his subjectivity by becoming objective. This duality between the experimenter and the experimented upon is exactly parallel to the Cartesian duality between mind and body, so that these two reinforce each other.

        (This discussion continues in the notes for the fourth meeting.)

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