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Technology as a Cultural Force: For Alena and Griffin

From: The Canadian Journal of Sociology
Volume 31, Number 3, Summer 2006
pp. 351-360 | 10.1353/cjs.2006.0050

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Technology as a Cultural Force For Alena and Griffin

To various degrees, the citizens of the advanced industrial countries are suffering from a crisis that is as profound as it is vague and therefore hard to deal with. The problem is particularly acute in the United States, however, and in what follows, some of the illustrations pertain particularly to that country, the one I live in and know best. In any case, though vagueness obscures the crisis, there have to be symptoms of some sort; otherwise we would not feel troubled. What are the signs of trouble in the culture of technology and democracy? First there are economic problems — national budget deficits, problems of international trade, newly emerging and powerful competition, viz., India, and China, and the dwindling supply of oil.

The last issue connects with the environmental worries. We could easily increase the supply of energy by burning coal and splitting atoms. The problem with the environment is not that it has run out as a source, but that it is overflowing as a sink. We don't know what to do with harmful emissions or how to store nuclear wastes. Hence global warming has become a looming threat. But pollution and species extinction remain problematic as well.

In the political sphere, we face foreign and domestic issues. There are people that bitterly hate the liberal democracies and terrorize them as best they can. There are also people around the globe who are in bitter need of aid. Domestically, the distance between the rich and the poor and between conservatives and liberals is wide and has been growing in some cases. The sense of national unity and cooperation is weakening. [End Page 351]

These are obvious and grave problems. But the problem with these problems is that we can solve them, and one gets the depressing feeling that even if they were solved, the deep and troubling malaise would remain. With the problems solved we might be in the position of the person who had ambitious goals and succeeded — the advanced degree, the appropriate spouse, the successful career, the children studying at elite universities, the retirement provided for, and still the sense of a life misspent.

The industrial democracies could address their budget woes and stimulate innovation, production, and export. They could stretch their energy resources through technological sophistication and conservation and push the advancement of clean energy. They could improve on the Kyoto protocol and embrace the Millennium project. They could make taxes more progressive and increase welfare spending. They could increase domestic security and pursue a foreign policy that would decrease the resentment of so many Muslims. They could do this without severe consequences to their standard of living, and they would certainly be better countries as a consequence, more stable, more secure, more just. But we, the citizens of these democracies, would still be in a position of the person who to all appearances did everything right and yet feels empty, forlorn, and aimless. The overt problems having been resolved or at least addressed, we might eat well, but we would not sleep well.

Something must be amiss in this analysis, however. If the signs of trouble in fact turn out to be overt problems that can be solved, where are the symptoms of the deeper troubles to begin with? There are, I believe, indicators in the economy, the environment, and politics that point to more profound issues. An economy whose prosperity has been set on a stable footing will fail to make us happy. An environment that is sustainable and benign will not give us a sense of belonging. And politics of social and global justice will leave us morally abandoned.

There are people who have recognized and are concerned with these issues. Social scientists have observed that our economy is not designed to help people pursue happiness successfully. The deepest concern of most environmentalists is not just to secure a sustainable setting for our way of life, but to bring about a wider and more meaningful way of life. Finally, there is a hunger for a moral vision that liberals are desperately trying to understand and conservatives warmly embrace but largely misunderstand...