of the 20th century will have to devote significant space to
explaining one overwhelming influence of the last 100 years — the use
of technology to increasingly raise the living standards of human beings.
The application of reason and science to human problems produced marvels
undreamed of in prior centuries. Thanks to advances in medicine, the annual
death rate declined enormously, leading to a population explosion unprecedented
in human history. Improvements in transportation, communication and other
technologies increased wealth and income to incredible levels and gave
people in many parts of the world more options than kings and queens of
prior eras enjoyed.
And what happened
in the 20th century is just the tip of the iceberg compared
to what’s likely to happen in the 21st century. A study by
the McKinsey Global Institute recently estimated that coming improvements
in information technology could increase productivity a whopping 27 percent.
After stagnating in the 1970s, the rate of productivity has been accelerating
from an average gain of 1 percent a year in the 1980s to 2 percent a year
in the 1990s.
that were once science fiction such as genetically engineering animals
to produce drugs and even replacement organs and tissues are now a reality
and will likely be common place by the middle of the next century. We
are riding the crest of one of the most amazing revolutions in human history.
shares this enthusiasm, however, and NBC talking head Tom Brokaw recently
joined that group of semi-intellectuals who regularly blame technology
for robbing people of their souls as well as causing practically every
bad thing that happened over the last 100 years. Speaking at the commencent
proceedings at the College of Santa Fe, Brokaw told the assembled students
that technology left an “ugly scar on the face of history.” Brokaw went
on to explain that “an ideology designed to empower the masses became
one of the most ruthless instruments of oppression. It is not enough to
wire the world if you short-circuit the soul. Technology without heart
is not enough.”
Is this in fact
true? Was technology really the primary tool of oppression in the 20th
century? On the one hand, of course, this is trivially true since everything
from knives to guns to books are all technologies that were utilized in
various means by oppressive governments. But Brokaw seems to be arguing
that 20th century technological improvements have been at the
root of oppression and this is a patently absurd idea. In fact one of
the many things that stands out about the various repressive regimes around
the world, whether they be Nazi Germany or Communist Cuba, is the extent
to which such governments did all they could to keep technological innovations
out of the hands of their citizens. North Korea, China, Vietnam
and other oppressive countries understand what Brokaw and others choose
to ignore — the main affect of technology in the 20th century
has been to liberate the masses and expand freedom.
technologies such as radio and television, which Western intellectuals
tend to deride and dismiss. Oppressive regimes of both the Left and the
Right have routinely nationalized radio and television stations and heavily
censored the information transmitted by such technologies. When they have
loosened those controls, such regimes often feel their full potential.
As Scott Shane notes in Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the
Soviet Union, when Mikhail Gorbachev loosened controls on Soviet television
the result was an upsurge of thinly veiled anti-Soviet programs that eventually
led the Communists to attempt to reimpose censorship. But it was too late
— technology had already worked its subversive magic.
In fact the Soviet
Union is a paradigm of the liberating value of technology. As Shane points
out, the USSR actually required photocopiers and paper to be registered
with the state in an attempt to prevent the illicit copying of books banned
by the Soviet state. Nonetheless a thriving black-market in photocopied
manuscripts survived and numerous dissident commentaries were reproduced
and covertly distributed thanks to a technology most of us in the United
States take for granted.
the real story — it is not the embracing of technology in the 20th
century but authoritarian governments often successful attempts keeping
technology out of the hands of their citizens that has been partially
responsible for the great tragedies of the 20th century. If
the technology available in the West had been in the hands of those living
under dictatorial regimes, the history of the 20th century
would have been vastly different.
than Brokaw’s misrepresentation of the role of technology is the vision
that Brokaw would like the United States (and presumably the world) to
emulate — the era of the Great Depression and World War II.
Now the people
who fought and defeated the Fascists during World War II certainly deserve
the respect and gratitude of people around the globe, but Brokaw’s vision
is more than just an acknowledgement of the debt we owe that generation.
Rather, it is part of an ongoing glamorization and glorification of the
hard, often desperate times that war and economic crises bring contrasted
with the supposed laziness and lack of unity that emerge during times
of peace and prosperity.
In Brokaw’s version
of history, the generation that came of age in the 1930s and the 1940s
was the greatest generation because America was united to fight the Great
Depression and World War II. Brokaw contrasts this with today’s social
climate in which “we have political leaders to eager to divide [people]
for their selfish ?? rather than unify [people]. We have a mass media
much too inclined to exploit these interests.”
In this very
New Age interpretation of the era, Americans came together as part of
some grand collective experience, thinking and acting as One rather than
as selfish private individuals. To Brokaw and others this was the height
of human history that was unfairly destroyed with the end of the war and
the post-war return to private (and hence) selfish concerns. Other intellectuals
have made similar arguments for the 1960s, missing the collective experience
they felt opposing the Vietnam War and fighting for civil rights. The
mass media, in Brokaw’s world, was largely responsible for this by appealing
to our crass interest to improve our own lives and the lives of our immediate
families and circle of friends rather than continuing with the ethic of
constantly sacrificing ourselves and engaging in personal denial to serve
some greater cause.
For Brokaw and
others the privation felt during World War II such as rationing of food
or energy was not a temporary hardship to be endured while facing a global
crisis but a mystical experience that united a nation.