“The anguish of artists and poets is celebrated by societies that expect justice and happiness in the future regardless of their current conditions. Anguish is accepted and endorsed not so much as a judgment about the present but as a means to envision and usher in a different future. Oddly enough, those who are members of the technoscientific community are discouraged from playing the same social role as do artists and poets; their anguish is neither acknowledged nor displayed. On the rare occasions when they express professional anxiety, personal anguish, or cultural angst, they are invited to leave the technoscientific community. I find this situation unfortunate, disturbing, and socially harmful. It is reasonable to believe that if members of the technoscientific community were encouraged to display their concerns publicly and thereby enhance the critical involvement of society as a whole (as did, for example, Joseph Rotblat, the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize laureate), we might be spared in the future the horrors of the past, like those of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.”
From the Preface of Raphael Sassower’s Technoscientific Angst: Ethics And Responsibility (1997). Compare Don Ihde’s remarks discussed here.
5 thoughts on “Technoscientific Angst”
Isn’t this a variation on the old CP Snow “Two Cultures” idea?
The issue is complicated by the monetization of science. If a technoscientific development will make money or satisfy a market, ethical considerations from any quarter will take a back seat. That certainly was true of the atomic bomb–it’s use at the time was seen by decision makers (i.e, not scientists or artists) to use it. And it’s true today of handguns and assault weapons. And, if you think about it, iPads and Google Glass.
The mention of both “artists and poets” on the one hand and the technoscientific community on the other certainly brings Snow to mind (although, I’d not of it until you mentioned it). I think, though, that Sassower’s point is not so much that the poets and artists see a truth that those in the technoscientific community don’t. Rather, I think he is saying that angst among the former group is permitted and recognized as part of the artistic project or process, while among the latter it seems to be positively discouraged.
That said, your point about the monetization of money seems quite right to me. I tend to think that much of what looks from a certain angle like technological determinism stems from what might more appropriately be called profit-driven determinism, or it’s political twin, power-driven determinism. Of course, that’s still not determinism in any strict philosophical sense, only a recognition of the force of power and profit as motives of human action.
Maybe one element of this resistance to criticism is that being a scientist is seen as a kind of privilege. One gets the opportunity to have a career in which one follows one’s interests and has a certain amount of freedom in this. One is supported by society for this, and thus it is seen as going against the agreement if one criticizes the whole enterprise too strongly. Artists, writers and poets are for the most part much less supported monetarily in a formalized way and so perhaps this allows them a more free critical voice.
Actually, I think money works in another way to limit criticism of different scientific and technical pursuits. On the one hand, scientists are paid for their work and given a certain amount of freedom. But for the most part, they really aren’t paid all that well. The freedom to pursue their research interests is seen as a kind of payment of its own. So to someone who starts complaining too much about the field they are working in, it shows that they don’t enjoy it enough, and are invited to seek a different type of job with less freedom, but likely more pay—leaving the technoscientific community, in a sense, as Sassower puts it.
Sassower actually makes some related points. I may post some of those in the coming days.
I’d be glad to read more, Michael. This topic of the responsibility of scientists and the relationship to the rest of society is one I’ve long been interested in.