Georg Henrik von Wright:
Technosystem Threatening Democracy
Faith that blessings flow exclusively from scientific and technological development has long been solidly rooted in our society. Doubters have been few. One of them, and also among the most respected, is a Finnish intellectual who already half a century ago achieved worldwide recognition as one of the most prominent philosophers in his field. He is Georg Henrik von Wright.
Since his youth, v. Wright, who was only 32 when he succeeded Ludwig Wittgenstein as a professor of philosophy at Cambridge in 1948, has been interested also in questions that strictly speaking are beyond the scope of scientific philosophy. The events that the world has witnessed in the past couple of decades have made these matters feature more and more centrally in his intellectual reflections. In his book "Humanism as a Life Attitude", he posits two permeating themes: "One relates to people and what is best for them. The other relates to science and technology as factors that alter the conditions of people's lives."
When this interview took place in v. Wright's Helsinki home, he was just studying the proofs of his latest publication. It is work that the now 79-year-old academician has done a lot of; his bibliography contains more than 500 titles. He has written his "strictly philosophical" publications in English, some also in German. Very often, his instrument has been a typewriter bought in the USA by his father in 1919, and which still works. "I have an electric typewriter as well," he says, "but no computer."
The lack of a computer is hardly a statement, although the picture on the cover of "Humanism as a Life Attitude" does say a lot: Adam and Eve in the shade of the tree of good and evil. Above them is a confused jumble of microprocessors.
Finnish, in which v. Wright expresses his ideas precisely and clearly, happens to be only his fourth language. "The general optimism relating to development is based on the assumption that the consequences of the development of science and its applications, in other words of technology, mainly serve humankind well. Such a conception is very questionable, and in my view even erroneous."
He does not, of course, deny that industrial development in the Western countries has given better living conditions to tens, even hundreds of millions of people. But there is also another side to that coin. v. Wright argues that the last few decades have seen the emergence of development trends which, if they continue in their present form, will project a horrific picture on the "screen of the future"
v. Wright does not downplay concrete environmental problems, climate change, the d anger of nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and so on. On the contrary, he cites those things as reflections of development trends which do not bode well for people's future if they continue.
However, v. Wright examines the matter more deeply and also considers the alternative possibility that the benign aspects of technological development will outweigh the negative ones after all.
He speaks of alienation. "According to the Christian faith, we in the Western countries have a strong perception that we are the masters of creation. Consequently, we are entitled to use nature for our own purposes. When we do so, the equilibrium between original people and nature is upset. People are alienated from nature and are no longer part of it."
There is also another kind of alienation that threatens people. It, too, is associated with technological development, which, as v. Wright points out, is highly autonomous, self-feeding. Besides that, it is happening so qu ickly and on such a broad front that people find it impossible to keep pace. There is a danger of becoming subjugated to a "dictatorship of circumstances". With organisational structures and especially industrial organisations growing in both size and complexity at the same time, understanding them and explaining the consequences of their activities to people is becoming more and more difficult. "Society is becoming less and less transparent," says v. Wright. "People no longer know where decisions that substantially affect their lives are taken, nor by whom, nor how." As v. Wright sees it, we are heading, as though under a compulsion, for greater and greater mental chaos.
Naturally, this growing lack of transparency and anonymous decision-making power poses a threat to democracy. The term v. Wright uses is "technosystem". He explains that "transnational, gigantic industrial companies no longer operate within political systems, but r ather above them." Politicians can no longer independently discharge their tasks; instead, the thrust of decisions is determined more and more by the interests of the technosystem. Thus the influence wielded by politicians is clearly declining." To a growing degree, it is not governments, but rather quite different forces that decide the fate of humankind."
Such a development, which could be called "technical imperialism", could cause a grave crisis of democracy. Until now, democracy has mainly functioned within a framework of nation-states. Their future, against a background of accelerating integration, does not look at all good." Nation-states are already on the verge of vanishing," says v. Wright.
The European Union was created to accommodate economic aspirations. Because this core of interests needs to be protected, the Union will inevitably become a powerful political and military force as well. The decision-making power of member nation-states will be further narrowed; from the point of view of individuals, non-transparency will increase.
v. Wright returns from his metaphorical "screen of the future", on which projections of current development trends create quite an alarming picture. He has been severely criticised for excessive pessimism, but replies that optimism in its worst form can be no more than trite indifference. "If one is satisfied with things, one doesn't complain about the downsides that exist, either.
"I am a provocative pessimist and my point of departure is that politicians and decision-makers must be made to give serious consideration to the consequences of development and make a real effort to change the direction of certain trends. In that case, we may be able to avoid a truly disastrous outcome for ourselves," says v. Wright, adding that human optimism at its finest is associated with an important and powerful element: a desire to do something t hat would serve some important and good cause.
"That thing that is sometimes called the responsibility of intellectuals is the responsibility of every decent person," says Georg Henrik von Wright.