It is hard to resist technology's endless landslide, but people keep trying. Why? One discerns four possible reasons:
FIRST CASE: The new technology threatens the material interests of some groups. An esoteric example, now largely forgotten, arose from the sudden popularity, early in the last century, of margarine. Based on vegetable oils, the new spread obviously represented big trouble for butter. The dairy industry responded by attacking margarine as a threat to healthy diets–this was before Americans had heard of cholesterol–and, since the new stuff looked like butter, as an exercise in consumer fraud. Allegedly to forestall fraud, but actually to make the new competitor seem as weird as possible, dairy lobbyists persuaded many state legislatures to outlaw yellow margarine, and so many a consumer had to take home white vegetable fat and add yellow food coloring on the kitchen counter.
Less esoteric and more pervasive were wars against new technologies that threatened jobs. A typical union reaction was to demand that new work be found for the suddenly redundant employees, even if the new work was of no economic value. So we entered the era in which newspaper publishers were stuck with typographers whose job was to set "bogus" type. Or sometimes not even that. Thirty years ago there was a place in the New York Times building called the Rubber Room. The reference, you will (possibly) be relieved to hear, was to rubbers of bridge. It seems that members of the printing-trade union would report for work, play bridge for eight hours, then go home.
The Rubber Room was made possible by two French inventors, René Higonnet and Louis Moyroud, who developed a machine, ultimately called the Photon, that set characters electronically on film. It eliminated the need for the kind of artisans who had, for the previous 500 years, moved metal type around. Unable to get financing in France, the inventors crossed the Atlantic, and soon had American newspaper publishers panting to get in on the Photon. The device could spin out type at least four times faster than the Linotype machine. It could be operated by inexpensive clerical workers hired off the street in place of the high-paid members of the International Typographical Union. The Photon represented disaster for the ITU, and the union's New York Local 6, run by hardball player Bertram Powers, led a strike from 1962 to 1963 that shut down all New York City newspapers for 114 days and terminated the life of New York's Mirror. The union ultimately won lifetime employment contracts for printers, many of whom took up bridge.
SECOND CASE: The new technology is thought to be unhealthy. Here the paradigmatic examples were DDT and other pesticides, and their principal adversary was Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 bestseller Silent Spring. The book inspired the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the environmental philosophy of Al Gore. Carson, a marine biologist by training, wrote with a kind of poetic power and scared the socks off thousands of readers with apocalyptic passages like: "One of the most sinister features of DDT and related chemicals is the way they are passed on from one organism to another through all the links of the food chain. … The breast-fed human infant is receiving small but regular additions to the load of toxic chemicals building up in his body. … There has been no such parallel situation in medical history. No one yet knows what the ultimate consequences may be."
Fortifying this dreadful storyline was the fact that Carson died two years after the book's publication–of breast cancer. Many environmentalists think that toxic chemicals are an important cause of breast cancer. DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972.
But today the Carson argument is seriously suspect. DDT has been enormously successful in wiping out malaria in undeveloped countries worldwide–no other pesticide does the job as well–and there is no evidence that this huge benefit has been offset by increased cancer rates. It is not clear that DDT is carcinogenic to humans, and if it is, the effect is clearly weak. The World Health Organization has found that "the only confirmed cases of injury [from DDT] have been the result of massive accidental or suicidal ingestion." An interesting question is whether Rachel Carson's policy influence might actually have increased the incidence of cancer. It now seems clear, at least, that the pesticides she was concerned about had little if any effect on cancer, while restricting use of pesticides raises the price and reduces the consumption of fruits and vegetables–which are important inhibitors of cancer.
Echoes of these 40-year-old arguments may be picked up nowadays in the worldwide debate over the safety and legitimacy of genetically modified foods. While few would deny that we need to pursue research on the long-term health effects of such foods, the evidence thus far plainly shows that the new technology holds considerable promise of lowering fruit and vegetable costs, and thus enhancing human health.
THIRD CASE: New technologies are resisted because they are viewed, correctly, as fostering economic growth, and growth is viewed, incorrectly, as bad for the human species.
Prominent on the antigrowth track was Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute. Another famous member of the school was Paul Ehrlich of Stanford, a tireless pessimist who was endlessly arguing, just like Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), that natural resources are limited but there is no natural limit to human populations–so it is only a question of time before we have overcrowding, famine and pestilence. In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Ehrlich said it was already too late to prevent huge worldwide famines in the 1970s. ("The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.") Ehrlich had an equation to prove it: I = PAT. That means the Impact of growth can be quantified by looking at Population multiplied by Affluence (i.e., consumption) and multiplied again by Technology.
The grim Malthusian argument that growth means starvation climaxed in a 1972 book by the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth, spelling out the timetable on which the world would run out of this or that essential raw material. It sold 12 million copies in 37 languages.
But it was all involved nonsense, and Ehrlich had the bad luck to demonstrate his folly by making a bet guaranteed to get extensive media coverage. The bet was with economist Julian Simon of the University of Maryland. Both men agreed that if Ehrlich's model of the problem was valid, then basic commodities would be increasingly scarce and rising in price. Simon's data told him that, on the contrary, commodity prices were in continual decline, and he offered to bet $1,000 that any raw materials one picked would decline in price (in real, inflation-adjusted terms) over a period of at least a year. Ehrlich and two of his colleagues sprang for the deal and said that a "basket" of chromium, nickel, copper, tungsten and tin would rise in price over a ten-year period. They lost ignominiously: The real price of every one of the metals declined during the decade. Far worse, from Ehrlich's point of view if not humanity's, was the subsequent relentless improvement in living standards worldwide. In place of famine and death, the global population has seen a steady increase in per capita calorie consumption (up 24% since 1961 and up 38% in developing countries). Life expectancy has also grown steadily, from around 30 years in 1900 to 67 in 2000.
FOURTH CASE: The technology is said to offend religious faith. It is always possible to find a certain number of environmentalists identifying their own policy prescriptions with God's will, or to find preachers in pulpits with strong views about our need to embrace the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. Right now the religion/technology nexus is conspicuously embodied in a much-hyped coalition of Christian and Jewish groups that is "linking fuel efficiency to morality," as the New York Times put it, and positing that Jesus would not drive a sport utility vehicle.
And yet it is possible to point to at least one religious group that has had a fair amount of success in resisting technology. Not total success, but definitely above average. The group in question is the Pennsylvania Dutch–the Mennonites of Lancaster County, and especially the Amish. Back in 1919 the Amish made a fateful decision to turn their backs on electricity and declined to connect their farms to the power grid. They still do without electricity, cars or flush toilets, and their principal farm equipment is a horse-drawn tractor with metal wheels. They resist modernity because easy access to the outside world could, in the words on an Amish Web site, "lead to many temptations and the deterioration of church and family life."
The Amish and other Mennonites make up a small fraction of the population, but a sizable number of people embrace environmentalism with a quasireligious fervor that opposes technological progress on the theory that the good old days of horse-drawn sleighs were less sinful. Whether such believers would be willing to accept 30-year life spans as a price for turning the clock back is another matter.