Notes on "The Role of Technology in Society," by Emmanuel G. Mesthene (in Thompson, pp. 166 - 188)
by Gordon L. Ziniewicz


Three Unhelpful Views about Technology

  1. Technology is a good thing. It liberates human beings and brings about prosperity (utopia).
  2. Technology is a bad thing. It is an autonomous force that threatens individuality, freedom, and the environment.
  3. Technology is not as important as the first two groups think. History has shown that people can and have adapted to changes in technology.
All three of these views are oversimplifications that fail to grasp how technology causes social change and how it affects the future.

Some Countervailing Considerations

How Technological Change Impinges on Society
  1. New technology creates new opportunities for men and societies.
  2. New technology generates new problems for men and societies.
Any given technological development has both positive and negative effects. This is the mechanism:
  1. Technological advance creates a new opportunity to achieve a certain goal.
  2. Taking advantage of this new opportunity requires changes in social organization.
  3. These changes interfere in the functions of existing social structures.
  4. Goals which were achieved by means of the older social structures cannot be adequately achieved any more.
Q: How has this mechanism been demonstrated in the effects of the automobile on city life?
Q. How has it been demonstrated in advances in medical technology and delivery of health care?

How Society Reacts to Technological Change

Our challenge is to profit from the opportunities opened up by technology and to contain its dangers.

Existing social structures often get in the way of taking advantage of advances in technology.

Government and education have not made the public aware of the potential benefits of technologies such as urban policy techniques.

Containing the Negative Effects of Technology

Private individuals and large corporations who develop new technologies because of their perceived benefits otfen do not think about benefits or harms that may affect many people in sociey. Many negative consequences of technology are due to the fact that particular technologies are developed by individuals (or individual corporations) for particular purposes without attention to the effect of their decisions on society as a whole.

The rights of individual decision-makers which have been traditionally politically protected may be the source of the problem. Technologies may be out of control to the extent that human institutions are not adequately controlling them.

Thus, there is tension betwen the need to control technology and values of market freedom, private enterprise, scientific freedom, and individual autonomy. This tension makes it difficult to use social organizations to control the opportunities and the problems of technology.


Technology's Challenge to Values

Social planning reveals conflicts in values. Economic values of leisure conflict with increase in productivity. Education values of equality conflic with values of achievement (merit).

Social planning (based upon knowledge) and changing technology confronts traditional values and requires that they change (accommodate themselves).

Technology as a Cause of Value Change

Technology can change values by --

  1. creating new attainable goals (new options) and
  2. making old goals easier to attain.
When society fails to take advantage of these opportunities, tension arises. For example, representative democracy has been thought to be necessary since it has been impossible for all citizens to have a direct say or vote in policy. Does technology which would allow immediate electronic voting change all that? On the other hand, technology also makes it easier to use technical expertise in decision-making (and thus diminish the role of citizens).

The Value Implications of Economic Change

Private profit motives cannot meet the expectations of society for public goods. Increased government intervention is required in social and economic affairs. This conflicts with a value system which has been primarily individualistic rather than collective or "societal." In order words, control of widespread consequences of technologies must be on a social or governmental level.

Religion and Values

Q: How does traditional religion conflict with new values effected by technological change?
Q. According to Harvey Cox, why has traditional religion been unable to cope with new values?

According to Cox, there are three inconsistent traditions in religion:

  1. Apocalyptic tradition: the end of the world is at hand, pessimism.
  2. Teleological tradiiton: everything is destined to turn out all right; there is a fixed purpose being realized.
  3. Prophetic tradition: the future is in our hands and will be what we can make of it.
Technology seems most amenable to the third tradition -- the prophetic. Religion is challenged to account for the creation of new values [and a future which is not determined in advance].

Individual Man in a Technological Age

The impact of technology on the individual has both positive and negative sides. The balance sheet might look something like this:
Negative Positive
Pressure on the individual to conform or adjust. [Loss of individuality] Economic productivity, education, and modern means of communication have helped the individual to develop his individual potential.  People feel like individuals more than ever before.
Decline in personal privacy with sophisticated eavedropping and surveillance devices. Privacy was not always a good thing, especially if it meant one died alone. Social security, public education, and public health measures would not be given up for privacy.
Increasing power of government. Government is more lacking in confidence than ever before.

According to Professor Shils, technological change has implications for the balance that individuals find between individual or private goals and responsibilities as a public citizen. The political requirements of a modern technological society seem to call for more emphasis on public responsibility.


The Enlarged Scope of Public Decision Making

The political "encompasses all of the decision-making structures and procedures that have to do with the allocation and distribution of wealth and power in society."

A society that fosters great advances in technology has to accept that it will have to "enlarge the scope of public decision-making," probably because --

  1. the development of technology leads to bigger and bigger social concentrations such as corporations, universities, and government or leads to increased centralization of larger social units such as cities and
  2. the effects of advanced technology cover large distances (are widespread).
The power blackout in the northeastern United States showed how widespread and concentrated the effects of advanced technology can be.

Private Firms and Public Goods

Corporations play a key role in developing technology. According to Galbraith, corporations and market forces are better at providing for and creating private wants than they are at satisfying public needs. Technological change seems to require a shift of emphasis from corporation to government.

The Promise and Problems of Scientific Decision Making

More and more emphasis is being put on technical processes of decision-making by using sophisticated computer and statistical technologies. This seems to put more and more administrative control in the hands of technical experts. However, this cause difficulties for tradiitonal values of popular and participatory democracy. Scientific management of the opportunities and problems arising from technology has both positive and negative consequences.

The Need for Institutional Innovation

We need new institutions and social structures to deal with the management of the opportunities and problems of technology. These would call for a collaboration of government, corporations, and social organizations.

Q: How are new social structures needed to solve the problems of the ghetto, according to Mesthe?


  1. "...the creation of new physical possibilities and social options by technology tends toward and appears to require the emergence of new values, new forms of economic activity, and new political organizations." (p. 187)
  2. "...technological change also poses problems of social and psychological displacement." (p. 187)
"Individuals will be fully integrated into society only hwen we can extract from our knowledge not only its technological potential but also its implications for a system of values and a social, economic, and political organization appropriate to a society in which technology is so prevalent." (p. 188)

 Return to Course Calendar for PL212