Machines maketh man. Public faith in science has never been stronger - yet the products of the scientific imagination elude attempts at public control

Visions of Technology

Richard Rhodes (editor) <em>Simon & Schuster, 400pp, £20</em>

ISBN 06848

In The Scientific Outlook, a virtually forgotten book he published in the early 1930s, Bertrand Russell inquired what might happen if the scepticism about science that was being expressed by some scientists were to spread to the mass of mankind. Influenced by the advances in quantum theory that were being made at the time, scientists such as Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans were casting doubt on the power of the scientific method to understand the physical universe. Russell feared that if this scepticism became widespread it would destroy "the only constructive creed of modern times" - faith in science.

Russell's fears were needless. The prestige of science has never been greater than it is today. The almost inconceivably strange world disclosed by physicists such as Schrodinger and Heisenberg has done nothing to weaken popular faith in science. Instead a flood of invention has made science the dominant cultural institution - the only one, perhaps, whose authority is not widely questioned. Science has come to serve the needs for hope and certainty that once were met by religion, while the churches have become repositories of doubt. One reason for the immense popularity of science is that it is now the only institution that can effectively outlaw heretics. Another is that the astonishingly rapid advance of scientific knowledge nurtures the hope of progress, which is supported unequivocally by little else in contemporary experience. In a time notable for its credulity and loss of nerve, this conjunction of censorship with optimism is a winning combination.

But by far the most important reason for public faith in science today is the explosive development of technology. When life is being daily transformed and in many ways palpably improved by new technologies, any metaphysical doubts there may be about the ultimate powers of science are easily stilled. New technologies are - or seem to be - proof of the growing powers of the human species. The ability to store, process and transmit vast quantities of information, to decipher the human genetic code and to alter the genetic constitution of natural life forms is seen, by the public and by many scientists, as an unambiguous extension of human powers. At the end of the 20th century, during the course of which so many hopes of human progress have been repeatedly confounded, the faith that humanity can master nature and control its own future has been revived by the new technologies that the growth of scientific knowledge has made possible.

Many of the contributors to Richard Rhodes' Visions of Technology are missionaries of this humanist faith. Among the more than 200 selections that make up this absorbing anthology of speeches, poems, articles, novels and scientific reports, there are some uncompromising affirmations of humanist hopes for technology. Marvin Minsky, the pioneer of artificial intelligence, declares that "the world was terrible before people came along" and predicts that "eventually, robots will make everything". Visions of Technology contains many more subtly nuanced statements of the same general outlook. But this varied and balanced collection also features many statements of a contrary view, in which technology is seen as a threat to humanist hopes. Lewis Mumford anticipates a future in which the use of machines for tasks that can be performed by humans will be renounced. Once "the period of indiscriminate mechanical experiment" is passed, machines will assume their proper place in our lives - as our servants, not our masters. And, in an excerpt from a speech he gave at Berkeley in 1964, the student activist Mario Savio takes a Luddite stand, insisting that stopping the machine may be a condition of human freedom.

What is noteworthy about nearly all the pieces in this book, whether they celebrate technology or damn it, is that they think of it as a set of tools for achieving human purposes. In this the book faithfully reflects the shallowness of most contemporary thought on the subject. For Luddites as much as for techno-Utopians, technology is - or should be - an instrument of human will. Yet little or nothing in human experience supports this humanist aspiration. In a statement collected here, Isaiah Berlin observes that we should be aware that new discoveries and inventions are likely to have some deleterious consequences. It is a characteristically wise observation; but the truth that new technologies are never simply instruments of human purposes has sources deeper than their unintended consequences.

Once a new technology has entered our lives it changes them in ways we only dimly understand. The automobile may have been invented to facilitate movement from place to place; but cars have long since ceased to be used chiefly as aids to mobility. They have come to express submerged erotic fantasies, the need for privacy and a pervasive longing for escape. Radio and television may have been developed as means of communication, but their role in our lives today is to shape society, not to convey information. These technologies are not servants of our conscious desires, but unacknowledged embodiments of our dreams.

An illusion of human autonomy pervades nearly all contemporary reflection on our relations with technology. Greens have been in the vanguard of thought in their understanding that humans cannot hope to master the natural world but must instead seek a balance with the Earth; yet some Greens talk as if we can subject technology to human will, controlling the uses to which it is put and suppressing those that are destructive or unsafe. We are right to resist new technologies, such as those involved in genetically modified food, that carry potentially large risks to the environment without contributing anything to human well-being. Even so, the prospect of a world in which machines have become our servants is a mirage.

The notion that technology is an instrument that humankind uses to achieve its purposes recalls the apocryphal examination question: "Did the Roman Empire succeed in its objectives?" The truth is that humanity has no objectives; only human beings do, and they are varied, conflicting and often highly destructive. Those who believe that collective action can restrain technology so that it serves purely benign purposes should consider the record of attempts to stem the spread of technologies of mass destruction. Fifty years of efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons have succeeded only in slowing it. With almost 200 sovereign states in the world, many unstable or locked in life-and-death conflicts, and many parts of the globe in which states have collapsed altogether, the battle to control the new machineries of war is a losing one.

It would be wrong to conclude that nothing can be done. Yet it would mark an advance if we could give up the humanist illusion that technology is just a tool, which we can use as we will. The belief that we can make machines our servants is not a product of science but a relic of magic. In truth, neither the liberating effects of new technologies nor their horrifying risks will ever be under the control of the human will. Humans are no more masters of their machines than they are of the Earth.

12 issues for £12