Technology and Social Inequality

Caroll Pursell


In the Fall of 1977 I gave a paper at a conference organized by the Center for Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. The title of the paper, published in 1980, was “The American Ideal of a Democratic Technology.” Reading it over now, some thirty-seven years later, I am excited all over again by the debate over the nature and role of technology which was so prominent a part of the 1970s, but actually had its roots in the 19th century. But I am also profoundly dismayed by the ways in which America has squandered the insight and the momentum of that debate. Today there are issues with large components of technology and science on the political agenda; fracking and coal seam gas extraction, the spread of crops of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the vacuuming up of masses of private electronic data by the National Security Agency (NSA) for example. By and large, however, they are not understood to be part of the same political issue of social inequality. And of course there is still the obfuscating, and therefore dangerous, insistence on using the terms “science” and “technology” strategically when discussing these topics, and still the Sacred Cows such as space exploration and the dream of unlimited energy through fusion which seem to float above any consideration of opportunity costs where real social needs are concerned.

Full Text: