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Technology and Individual - Journal Essay

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December, 2012

The journal entries examine the following undamental paradox of modern society: "Technology has made enormous powers available to society, yet we as individuals exert very little of that power". The journal will address the paradox in the context of engineering. Engineering produces technology, by understanding the intent of engineering decisions, the choice of problems by engineers, and to the degree to which engineers exercise "power" of technology the paradox can be examined in a finite manner.

Before that, what does the statements in the paradox imply. What does it mean to say "technology has made enormous powers available to society"? The following lists the important endeavors made possible by technology:

  • production of chemicals and synthetic materials such rubber, and textile based on the     understanding of chemistry
  • use of nuclear energy as an inexpensive source of energy and the ultimate weapon
  • mass use of communication devices such as telephone, radio, television, and internet
  • personal and expedient transportation
  • development of computers, and its various application in ordering modern life
  • exploration of space and establishment of international space station
  • development of surgical procedures, vaccines, anti-bodies, and genetics

No one denies that social potential is expanded by technology. Then, what is there to the claim that "individual exert very little of that power". A series of questions arise in addressing that claim. Who is an individual? An ordinary Western man, Eastern man, or world citizen? Do we exclude individuals from elite groups who exert tremendous power made possible by new technologies? How exactly can an individual or all individuals exert "new powers"? Is it necessary or desirable that individuals exert a high degree of "new powers available to society"?

If individual able to live healthier, longer, materialistically wealthier, and politically freer lives because of new technology, then I consider him to exert at least partial power extended by technology. I argue, technology making new powers available to society and makes its members more powerful as a whole, but not so in relative to one another. Further, enabling individual to use the "enormous new powers" is not necessary and undesirable. However, the paradox "individuals exert very little of the power" extended by technology is true in considering the inequalities between individuals, and groups. An elite class develops, controls, and monopolizes technology that does not extend the benefit to the masses.

I examine the five articles, news item, two movies, and a "personal experience" from the position stated above. In examining the sources I show how the sources support, oppose, or otherwise relate to the topic and the theme. In general, Ursula, Ashis, Philip, Postman agree with the topic, while Kroker and V.Street examine different dimensions of the topic. The movies strongly illustrate the topic statement, but at end portray the individual triumph.


Ursula Franklin, in "The Real World of Technology" asserts that "technology has built the house in which we live", warns against the trend toward more "control related technologies" and "prescribed technologies", and argues for radical "social transformations." Her distinctions of work versus control related technologies, and "holistic" versus "prescribed" technologies addresses the paradox and the theme of the journal.

Work related technologies reduce the mundane labour involved in a task. One of the ideals of engineering is to engineer products that release individuals of mundane tasks, so she/he could pursue other avenues of life. Thus, work related technologies empower individuals. Ursula identifies "control related technologies", which aim to monitor and control the process of work. Further, she notes how "new control related applications have increased mush faster than work related ones." Note the irony, while work related technologies liberate the workers-individuals, at a faster rate she/he is being controlled.

Ursula's above classification of technologies are linked to her distinction of "holistic" and "prescriptive technologies". Holistic technologies are described as artisan controlled, specialized by product, and subscribe to personal decisions and care. In contrast, "prescriptive technologies" are described as outsider controlled, "specialized by process", employing division of labour, and enabling mass production. She asserts, that industry, government, and even education and health care systems are predominantly prescribed.

She is correct. The growth of industrial engineering, and the demise of individual inventors and experimenters mark the same trend. If anything engineering is the wheel of prescribed technologies. Engineers are trained to work as a "team", to develop designs that can be "industrially produced", and to seek optimum solutions that will be superior to any holistic substitutes. They are instructed upon their place in the system: a cut above the workers and a cut below the managers. While industrial engineering is the masterpiece of modern technology, the average industrial engineer is the tragedy of modern technology. He is an example of the paradox of technology.


Philip Bereano, in "Technology and Human Freedom" explores how technology hides its true nature. From Philip's prospective this journal's topic statement can be rephrased as follows: technology makes it appear that new powers are available to all members of the society, but only small segments exert the real power. For Philip, there is no paradox, but only a misconception.

He argues that technology is presented as neutral and decentralized, but actually technology is "imbued with intentions", and a small group of "academics, government, and corporate officials" control it. He uses the example of television, which is available to all Americans, but controlled and directed by "a very small number of people." Moreover, technology appears to give choices, but the important choices are already made. Modern technology appears to extend the luxuries to common man, but in the process it devalues and even degrades the quality of the products.

Philips's observation is understandable. Various modern technologies are marketed to amplify their use and access. But, does Philip hold unfair expectations for technologies? What more can one expect from a dumb television. Does one really believe that being able to vote on the internet is going to improve democracy or government. Moreover, the control of technology is by a minority, as power always has been in human history.

Although the generalization is appropriate for a lot of modern gadgets, it is not appropriate for all technology. For example, electricity is available to all in Canada, and has improved the quality of life for all Canadians. Thus, vilifying all technology is unfruitful.


"Technology always contained paradoxical tendencies to freedom and domination simultaneously." - Harold A.Innis paraphrased by A. Kroker

Technology empowers society, yet denies the individual the full extent of that power. How can we explain this, and is it possible to engineer technology to be otherwise. In "Technology and the Canadian mind" Kroker examines three strands of Canadian prospectives about technology.

Kroker contrasts the ideological polarities of McLuhan and Grant, and identifies a third prospective. He contrasts McLuhan's technological humanism marking its attempt to "renew technique from within by releasing the creative possibilities inherent in the technological experience" with that of George Grant. Kroker states the Grant prospective as: ""technique is ourselves", and that, consequently, our permanent condition as technical beings is to endure "intimations of deprival": the loss even of a sense of loss of the human good which has been expunged by technological society." Then, Kroker points to Innis and his prospective of push-pull tendency toward technology.

As Innis would suggest, the paradox of technology to empower and deny is inherent. I share the prospective that technology cannot be held back, but it can be directed. And the direction of technology will be a "political struggle" mainly between those who finance and engineer technology, and all affected by it. As individuals, we must be active in the political struggle, and seek to direct technology as we see fit.


If technology enables the world population to be fed, clothed, and sheltered properly, then why do famine and poverty exist? If famine and poverty could not be addressed by modern technology, then should society's resources be continue to be devoted to develop modern technologies? Pointedly, can we engineer, or is there technologies that can address problems such as hunger and poverty. Ashis Nandy in "The traditions of technologies" considers "alternative traditions of technologies" as a possible answer.

First, Nandy points toward influential literary works such as Mary Shelly novel depicting "Franskenstein" and Karel Capdels "robot", and political movements such as Ludits which expressed "self-doubt" and objections to modern technology. Nandy agrees that modern technology does have a major "alienating, exploitative, and dehumanizing" element.

Nandy questions the prestige modern technologies hold. Doing so he questions the work of those who work on producing the "cutting edge" technologies. Nandy notes modern technologies are not useful to individuals immediately or directly, and usually are not accessible to her/him. Nandy considers the traditional technologies sometimes used by more than "85% of the population" of Asiatic societies not as inferior, but powerful, since these are technologies that "Western technology is trying to supplement."

Individuals and agencies must consider traditional technologies as "autonomous, culturally valid, competing models of universality", by doing so we widen the area of possible solutions for problems. Modern technology or technology itself is not the full answer to human problems, to think we dangerously limit our self.


The question of whether politics determines technical change or technology determines political change is explored in "political change and technical change" by V.Street. The question is relevant to individuals, because an individual is a factor in inducing political change through electoral process or protest. An individual needs to know whether she/he can maximize the benefit from technology through political change.

V.Street describes technical change as consisting of two stages: "innovation and invention", and "implementation and regulation". The first stage refers to the creation of technology, the second stage refers to how a certain creation actually manifests in society. He identifies the theories of "autonomous technology" and "technological determinism", which hold technology to be the driving factor in determining political change. Autonomous technology theory holds "politics are dictated by a technological rationality". Technological determinism claims the same with less emphasis on internal rationality, but claiming that technology sets the "conditions for the operation of the political system." V.Street then considers the polar theory of politics determining technical change. At the end he admits there is no single approach to explain the relation, but considers various hypotheses, which in general forge flux relations between technology and politics.

V.Street shows that the relation is not one way, and that political change can induce technical change. If certain technology is harmful or less useful than another, then an individual or public should consider political action to call for technical change. One should be also warned of how "internal dynamics of technical innovations and development" may manifest in evil forms. Thus, engineering activities in military, university, and industry must be carefully monitored and regulated.

The Net

Bennett - a software analyst receives a disk from a friend working for Gregg Micro Systems containing unusual mainframe programs. As he pilots to meet her, he mysteriously dies. She gets targeted for hitting upon dangerous information. Her predator is the software company. Her identity in the computer system: financial, health and family information gets replaced by an arbitrary profile. She manages to learn who her predators are and how they profited by controlling cities computer systems for health care, stock exchange, police systems, traffic control, and financial systems. She manages to enter the company, copy the program, and destroy the evil software empire using a virus, all the while avoiding the assassins set against her.

The computer is credited with extending the organization, communication, and information storage capacities of the society. The individual places trust in companies and government when she/he gives private information, but if the information is misused, what power or avenue does the individual has in protecting her/him self. According to this film, the individual's power is very limited. Imagine, what if Bennett was not a computer geek, but an average girl. The film seems to support the topic statement, at the same time, it was an individual, it was her and her virus that destroyed a evil corporation.

The film points to various ironies of the technology enabled life. She if connected to everyone, except that she is a loaner who does not get to know her neighbors. She is a success, but was unable to take a vacation in six years or leave her work at home during her leisure.

We need technologies that localize control, and that enable man to experience the life's various spectrums. Technologies that centralize control, and limit diverse life experiences are dangerous and need to be avoided.

2001: A Space Odyssey

In many ways classic futuristic movie "2001: a space odyssey" accurately portrays many of the possibilities and dangers of technology. The movie itself is a historical and technological landmark. It was released on 1968, and it reflects upon the creators well for their accurate and imaginative predictions about the future. For instance, the voice print identification, video conferencing, intelligent machines, international space station have come to past.

Before considering the relevance of the movie to the topic and the theme, a summary of plot is provided. Five astronauts three hibernating and two active were send on a space mission. The space ship was completely controlled by a highly intelligent and arguably conscious computer system-HAL9000. The computer system was marketed to have error less performance record. During the mission the system detects an error, which proves to be erroneous upon comparison with a base station duplex system. Fearing malfunctioning of the computer system the astronauts decide to disconnect the system and manually direct the ship. Before that one of the astronauts goes on a space walk to replace some part, and suddenly he was thrown into space. His partner goes out on a small ship to rescue him, but the computer system refuses him to return. It reasons that it knows of their decision to disconnect the system, and it does not want to jeopardize the "important mission" by letting them back in. At the same time, the system malfunction and the three hibernating astronauts die. The astronaut manages to get into the ship, but he has to let go his partner into space during the process. After entering, he attempts to disconnect the HAL9000 system. As he disconnects he views a pre recorded message about their true and hidden mission, which was toward Saturn to explore certain ancient device . Suddenly, the astronaut enters into an indescribable continuum and finds him self in a lighted home, inhibited by an old man-a shadow of his old self.

The image when the astronaut in his small vehicle holding his partner requesting the system to open the door, and being refused symbolizes the man-technology relationship. The mammoth ship, product of a technocratic society makes an independent or programmed decision not to let the individual in. Like the astronauts' dependency on the HAL-system, modern man relays on computer, electrical and biotechnological systems, and when they fail, we have no manual backup.

The society decided that mission was more important than the individual. In our daily life the society decides that the technological progress is more important than individual concerns. The individual does not only feel he exerts little power extended by technology, he feels he exerts no control over technology. Engineering decisions are made in corporate, military, university research centers that average individual has no access to or influence over. Only when new weapons are showcased or when spaceships are launched or when genetic breakthroughs are made the average man hears it in the news, he is a spectator.


"Informing Ourselves to Death", is a speech by Neil Postman documented in "Media Literacy Review". He sets out to critically talk about computer technology. His speech reflects the topic statement, and addresses the theme subject.

He describes technological change as a "Faustian bargain: technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure". He asserts that technological change "always results in winners and losers." He notes that computer technology has "increased the power of large-scale organizations", and aids in controlling, exploiting, and striping the privacy of the masses. However, Postman dismisses conspiracy on part of the technological developers.

Postman's remarks partially explain the source of the paradox of the topic statement. Technology empowers segments of society, thus overall increasing the "powers available to society", but it is irrelevant or even harmful to masses.

Despite technology and science, Postman argues that modern men are not smarter or able to comprehend the world better than his ancestors. He agrees with George Orwell "that the average person today is about as naive as was the average person in the Middle Ages." Further he states, "In the Middle Ages people believed in the authority of their religion, no matter what. Today, we believe in the authority of our science, no matter what."

Postman's claim is an insult to modern man. Modern man conceptualizes himself to be more rational, and with greater capacity to reason than his ancestors. His scientific mindset and institutions allow for greater exploration and criticism. How else are we to explain our tremendous technological march? But, if an individual does feel powerless, then why?

For Postman, we are lost in the information overload, which was enabled by technological developments such as the printing press, and the computer. "We don't know what information is relevant, and what information is irrelevant to our lives." He affirms that "computer and information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane." Postman warns of the "dangerous waste of human talent and energy" in the field of technology at the neglect of other fields.

Today, education is specialized and fragmented. That is the only way to comprehend something valued in the market, and thus make a living. In the process we have less time to seek a comprehensive view about the world. Even if we find time, where will we find a comprehensive view in this mass of information. Information overload is a symbol of the paradox of technology. So much information, yet for an individual so little of value.

Random Engineering and Needless Pursuit

Man no more engineers what he needs or wants; rather he engineers, then attempts to find or produce a market for his production. With the art of marketing and advertising he often succeeds in artificially creating a market. Without a need such as war or material wealth it is greed that fuels the development of excess technologies. Greed and excess of technologies bring less meaning to Western individuals' life.

I am not against technology. If technology could truly cure diseases, and perhaps even make death elusive, then I am for that technology. If technology could lead to exploration of new frontiers then I am for that technology. If technology could be used to better the environment, and to lessen the hardship by natural disasters, I am for that technology. If technology could tell us more about ourselves, why we are here and now, and more about the meaning of life, then I am for that technology

But sadly such high endeavours seem less and less aim of any new technology. As an engineering student I know this first hand. We learn how to improve speed, efficiencies, and to obey standards. We bet on fashionable courses, at times its internet protocols or digital communications. But we rarely think about why or whom we serve. Upon graduation, most engineers will be working to improve some stupid product x. Engineering was lured as a flashing career choice with great financial reward, but that claim is a deception driven by greed. Perhaps, I am expecting too much from technology, or bringing my imagination and values to it. Technology demands so much of our energy and talent, and we must invest it selectively and creatively to maximize our benefit.


All sources identify controlling, alienating, and limiting elements of technology. For Philip and Nandy modern technologies and for Ursula "prescriptive technologies" express the dark side of technology. The movies "The Net" and "2001: a space odyssey" show that individual is under grave danger when technology gets abused or fails. Postman is clear that the masses are the "losers" of computer technology. Thus, the individual does not just fail to exert power extend by new technologies, rather he is harmed or threatened by it.

All sources recognize "new powers" made available to society; defining society without considering the inequalities. Ursula recognizes the "new products" and "higher standard of living", Kroker points to McLuhan "technological humanism", and Postman points to "increased power of large-scale organizations" and others as well agree that technology does extend new powers to the society. The film "2001: a space odyssey" captures our longing for space exploration, and "The Net" captures the possibilities of computer enhanced life. Thus, one of the premises of the topic that "technology has made enormous new powers available to society" is valid. However, all sources without exception point to the concentration of control of the technology by a small segment of the population. The films, Ursula, Nandy, Philip imply that the control of the technology by a minority makes possible the abuse, and monopolization of technology. For Kroker, and V.Street man-technology relationship reflects that of power relation between man to man. The relation is inherently a flux or push-pull relationship. Taking the inequalities within society into account all sources validate the technological paradox.

Although, engineer is classified as a technophile she/he is merely a tool employed by the financier who truly holds the power. Today's engineer is a specialized narrowed entity, who symbolizes the failure of the individual to exert the power extended by his own creations due to an inherent arrangement of the society.

References and Works Cited

Note that I do not have complete bibliographical information on all the articles that I used. I have tried to include sufficient information to track the articles.

Ursula Franklin. The Real World of Technology.
Toronto: CBC Enterprises, 1990.

Philip Bereano. "Technology and Human Freedom".

A. Kroker. "Technology and the Canadian Mind".

Ashis Nandy. "The Traditions of Technology".

J. Street. "Political Change and Technological Change".


The journal essay was written for class on "power and change in technological society". At present, I do not hold the same views and will not reach the same conclusions. However, I present the essay in its original form without editing for opinion or structure.

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