When science is governed by a conviction that the world
is a machine, the distinction between science and technology
naturally grows tenuous. Indeed, the influential philosopher,
Daniel Dennett, has argued even of biology that it "is
not just like engineering; it is engineering. It is the
study of functional mechanisms, their design, construction,
and operation." And the University of Texas historian
of science and technology, David Channell, argues that we
should no longer think of technology as applied science;
rather, "science is just applied technology."
The study of technology is therefore essential to an understanding
of what science is becoming today. You might say that all
the work of The Nature Institute relates to technologythat
is, we are concerned to rise from a technological or mechanistic
view of the world to a living, qualitative, and contextual
understanding of it. In order to achieve this, we must understand
the character of technological thinking as deeply as possible,
and learn how to transform it. Here is some of our work
aiming in this direction:
This freely distributed, online newsletter was inaugurated in 1995, and
has gained wide influence as (in political scientist Langdon Winner's
words) "one of the few places on the Net
where wisdom finds a voice." The publication focuses heavily,
but not exclusively, on technological issues and the contrast between
mechanistic and organic thinking. Its readership extends heavily into the
engineering community as well as into academic, general-interest, and
More recently, NetFuture has focused on mechanism and holism in
biology. See "Organisms and Machines" below.
For more information about NetFuture, including subscription
information and an index to its several hundred articles, please see the
NetFuture home page.
Organisms and Machines
The era of molecular biology was marked near its beginning by the
triumphalism attending the discovery of the double helix and by the
seemingly unstoppable ascendence of the mechanistic view of organisms.
Against all expectation, this same era is now culminating in a (still largely
unheralded) revolution that is rapidly overturning the mechanistic
prejudice. Particularly in genetics and epigenetics — but extending
into every field of molecular biology — the flood of research findings
points to the importance of context, plasticity, coordination,
integration, unity, and, in general, the irreducible centrality of the
living organism as a whole for our understanding of all its parts.
Steve Talbott's main work today focuses on this renewed appreciation for
the whole organism and its profound implications for our own life and
that of the earth. To follow this work, see What Do Organisms
The tensions between a mechanistic understanding and true science are most
immediately evident in the attempts to reengineer organisms. Here the
threat is that, by treating the organism as if it were a collection of
interchangeable machine parts (for example, genes), we will progressively
render it less alive and more machine-like.
A radically different view of the organism results when you view it
qualitatively and in its full ecological context, as Craig Holdrege does
in his whole organism
studies. For criticisms of the science and policy driving
biotechnology today, see our program on Genetics and Biotechnology. For a book that analyzes the
one-sidedness of current, technological thinking in genetics and shows the
way toward a more balanced approach to heredity, see Craig's Genetics and the
Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context.
The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in
The networked computer and digital technologies in general
have rapidly come to define the quintessential "machine"
assumed by the theoretical constructions of mechanistic science.
In his 1995 book, The
Future Does Not Compute, Steve Talbott looks at a
broad range of issues, including:
- how computers and the Net can distort the education
of the child;
- the relation between technology and environmental concerns;
- the power of computer-based organizations to sustain
themselves in a semi-somnambulistic manner, free of conscious,
- the tendency of the "global village" to dissolve
- the role of computers in supporting group activity;
- the hollowing out of language by technology;
- how to understand computers within the context of the broad evolution
of human consciousness;
- the connections between high technology and a new kind of mysticism.
See the book's main page for the full text of the book, along with an
annotated table of contents and excerpts from reviews.
Technology and the Handicapped
Our booklet, Extraordinary Lives: Disability and Destiny in a
Technological Age, explores the role of technological assists in
the life of the handicapped, and by this means throws light on the larger
role of technology in modern society. Written by Steve Talbott, the
booklet is part of our series of "Nature Institute Perspectives." Here is a fuller description of the book.
A Few Places to Start
From among the several hundred articles on various aspects
of technology that have appeared in NetFuture and elsewhere,
the following rather arbitrary selections may suggest wider
horizons to explore:
"Computers, the Internet,
and the Abdication of Consciousness," an interview of Steve Talbott for
the C. G. Jung web page, conducted by Dolores Brien.
In her introduction to the interview, Brien writes, "The thrust of Stephen Talbott's deeply thought
and deeply felt work is to awaken us from our psychological somnambulism
vis à vis the technology which permeates our personal life and
"The Trouble with Ubiquitous
Computing," Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, in NetFuture.
By letting their work develop out of a one-sided preoccupation with
the technological milieu rather than immersion in the meaningful contexts
affected by their inventions, high-tech engineers inflict technological
"answers" upon us without any serious reference to the supposed
problems they are the answers for. Anything that can be automated should
be automatedso runs a common sentiment within the high-tech world.
What is right about this, and what is just plain foolish?
"Children of the Machine," chapter 14 in
The Future Does Not Compute.
Through education based on
computer programming, the child losesnever having fully developed it
in the first placethat fluid, imaginative ability to let experience
reshape itself in meaningful ways before she carves out of it a set of
"Sowing Technology" in NetFuture
Written by Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott, this article
first appeared in Sierra (July/August, 2001). It looks at the
problems of agricultural biotechnology from an ecological vantage point.
"Who's Killing Higher Education? (Or is It
Suicide?)" in NetFuture #78.
For a long while now we have slowly been reconceiving education as the
transfer of information from one database or brain to another. In the end,
we will realize that this makes not only the teacher but also the student
"Is Technological Improvement What We Want?"
in NetFuture #38.
Technical improvements in the intelligent machinery around us tend to
represent a deepened threat in the very areas we began by trying to
improve. This, so long as we do not recognize it, is the Great Deceit of
intelligent machinery. The opportunity to make software more friendly is
also an opportunity to make it unfriendly at a more decisive level.
Finally: go to the NetFuture topical index for a list of
several dozen subject headings, each of which links to the appropriate
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