Technology and Social Change
reviewed by Seymour L. Wolfbein - 1965
"The difference between a medicinal dose of strychnine and a fatal one is also one of degree," remarked Norbert Wiener in The Human Use of Human Beings as he commented on the question of whether recent technological advance is really different in kind rather than in degree from what we have experienced in the past. That highly relevant, if acid, remark was made more than a decade ago, but the debate, of course, continues without any signs of letting up. The dialogue also goes on concerning the related question of whether automation and technological change are accelerating in their advance and in their impact or are just continuing on their steady course as the official government productivity statistics seem to show.
These dialogues and debates go beyond great exercises in economic theory or in the review and analysis of statistics. They can go to the heart of the design of both the strategy and tactics of public policy and program in the realm of economic growth employment-unemployment-poverty arenas. The answers provide the context for some of the major dimensions of labor-management contracts dealing with job security and the sharing of the dividends from productivity increases; and they can shape the philosophy and practice to be used in educational and training programs.
These issues are highlighted in the presentations and discussions by members of that unique and useful system of university seminars which prevails at Columbiathis one on technology and social change. The papers were prepared by a group of front-runners in their respective fields: Sociology Professor Bell of Columbia, Education Director DeCarlo of IBM, Executive Vice President Johnson of Delta Airlines, Executive Vice President Baker of Bell Laboratories, and Research Director Fabricant of the National Bureau of Economic Research. True to form, no consensus developed. As Eli Ginzberg indicates in his summary, ". . . the discussions which follow the first five formal presentations contain viewpoints that are rich, diverse, repetitious and extreme . . ." To my own eye, Dr. Baker's discussion of "The Dynamism of Science and Technology" won the day with its impressive evidence on the rate of growth of scientists, the enormous compression since the last century in the time interval between an invention and its practical application, and the exponential growth in research and development. At any rate, the papers are good and the discussion is lively. This slender volume is well worth reading.
Exactly half a century separates this book from Veblen's, and The Instinct of Workmanship does show its age. Some of the words and phrases have an archaic ring; a good part of Veblen's psychological theory would have a hard time passing muster today, and his politics seem naive from the current vantage point. But 50 years are a long time, especially when the period is pockmarked by two world wars and a devastating decade of depression, combining to alter a substantial number of the social and economic parameters of the times.
In one surpassingly important way, Veblen's book is timeless, i.e., in its perception and discernment of the impact of science and technology. "The ideal mechanical contrivance in this technological system is the automatic machine." "It follows as a consequence of these large and increasing requirements enforced by the machine technology that the period of preliminary training is necessarily longer and the schooling demanded for general preparation grows unremittingly more exacting." "At no earlier period has the correlation between science and technology been so close."
Each of these statements could easily appear in the current literature, and each actually does in slightly different language in our other volume under review. And it is right here that the nub of the matter really lies. What both books tell us is that the alliance between science and technology, different in kind or degree from the past or not, accelerating or not, does alter the relationship between learning and the world of work; and the artistry if not genius of any given generation lies in comprehending these changes and putting them to use in the mainstream of the educational process.