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Alvin Toffler's description of techno-rebels from The Third Wave

The Techno-Rebels

The magnitude of such an advance—its importance for the future of evolution itself—makes it critically necessary that we begin to guide it. To adopt a hands-off, damn-the-torpedoes approach could spell doom for ourselves and our children. For the power, scale, and speed of the change is like nothing before in history, and our minds are still fresh with news of the near-catastrophe at Three Mile Island, the tragic DC-10 crashes, the hard-to-plug massive oil spill off the Mexican coast, and a hundred other technological horrors. Faced with such disasters, can we permit the development and combination of tomorrow’s even more powerful technologies to be controlled by the same shortsighted and selfish criteria used during the Second Wave era?

The basic questions asked of new technologies during the past three hundred years, in both capitalist and socialist nations, have been simple: do they contribute to economic gain or military clout? These twin criteria are clearly no longer adequate. New technologies will have to pass far stiffer tests—ecological and social as well as economic and strategic.

When we look closely at what a report to the U.S. National Science Foundation has called “technology and social shock”—a catalog of technological calamities in recent years—we discover that most of them are associated with Second Wave, not Third Wave technologies. The reason is obvious: Third Wave technologies have not yet been deployed on a grand scale. Many are still in their infancy. Nevertheless, we can already glimpse the dangers of electronic smog, information pollution, combat in outer space, genetic leakage, climatic intervention, and what might be called “ecological warfare”—the deliberate induction of earthquakes, for example, by triggering vibrations from a distance. Beyond this lies a host of other perils associated with the advance to a new technological base.

Finder these circumstances it is no surprise that recent years have seen massive, almost indiscriminate, public resistance to new technology. The early period of the Second Wave also saw attempts to block new technology. As early as 1663, London workers tore down the new mechanical sawmills that threatened their livelihood. In 1676 ribbon workers smashed their machines. In 1710 rioters protested the newly introduced stocking frames. Later, John Kay, inventor of the flying shuttle used in the textile mills, saw his home wrecked by an infuriated mob and ultimately fled England altogether. The most publicized example came in 1811 when machine wreckers calling themselves Luddites destroyed their textile machines in Nottingham.

Yet this early antagonism to the machine was sporadic and spontaneous. As one historian notes, many of the cases “were not so much the result of hostility to the machine itself as a method of coercing an obnoxious employer.” Unlettered workingmen and women, poor, hungry, and desperate, saw in the machine a threat to their individual survival.

Today’s rebellion against runaway technology is different. It involves a fast-growing army of people—by no means poor or unlettered—who are not necessarily anti-technological, or opposed to economic growth, but who see in the uncontrolled technological thrust a threat to themselves and to global survival.

Some fanatics among them, given the chance, might well employ Luddite tactics. It doesn’t take much to imagine the bombing of a computer installation or a genetic laboratory or a partially constructed nuclear reactor. One can even more easily picture some particularly hideous technological disaster triggering a witch-hunt for the white-coated scientists who “caused it all.” Some demagogic politician of the future may well rise to fame by investigating the “Cambridge Ten” or the “Oak Ridge Seven.”

However, most of today’s techno-rebels are neither bombthrowers nor Luddites. They include thousands of people who are themselves scientifically trained—nuclear engineers, biochemists, physicians, public health officials, and geneticists as well as millions of ordinary citizens. Again, unlike the Luddites, they are well organized and articulate. They publish their own technical journals and propaganda. They file lawsuits and draft legislation, as well as picket, march, and demonstrate.

This movement, often attacked as reactionary, is actually a vital part of the emerging Third Wave. For its members are the leading edge of the future in a three-way political and economic battle that parallels, in the field of technology, the struggle over energy that we have described earlier.

Here, too, we see Second Wave forces on one side, First Wave reversionists on the other, and Third Wave forces struggling against both. Here the Second Wave forces are those who favor the old, mindless approach to technology: “If it works, produce it. If it sells, produce it. If it makes us strong, build it.” Imbued with obsolete, indust-real notions of progress, many of these adherents of the Second Wave past have vested interests in the irresponsible application of technology. They shrug off the dangers.

On the other side, we find once more a small, vocal fringe of romantic extremists hostile to all but the most primitive First Wave technologies, who seem to favor a return to medieval crafts and hand labor. Mostly middle-class, speaking from the vantage point of a full belly, their resistance to technological advance is as blindly indiscriminate as the support of technology by Second Wave people. They fantasize about a return to a world that most of us—and most of them—would find abhorrent.

Ranged against both these extremes is an increasing number of people in every country who form the core of the techno-rebellion. They are, without knowing it, agents of the Third Wave. They begin not with technology but with hard questions about what kind of future society we want. They recognize that we now have so many technological opportunities we can no longer fund, develop, and apply them all. They argue, therefore, the need to select more carefully among them and to choose those technologies that serve longrange social and ecological goals. Rather than letting technology shape our goals, they wish to assert social control over the larger directions of the technological thrust.

The techno-rebels have not as yet formulated a clear, comprehensive program. But if we extrapolate from their numerous manifestos, petitions, statements, and studies, we can identify several streams of thought that add up to a new way of looking at technology—a positive policy for managing the transition to a Third Wave future.

The techno-rebels start from the premise that the earth’s biosphere is fragile, and that the more powerful our new technologies become, the higher the risk of doing irreversible damage to the planet. Thus they demand that all new technologies be prescreened for possible adverse effects, that dangerous ones be redesigned or actually blocked—in short, that tomorrow’s technologies be subjected to tighter ecological constraints than those of the Second Wave era.

The techno-rebels argue that either we control technology or it controls us—and that “we" can no longer simply be the usual tiny elite of scientists, engineers, politicians, and businessmen. Whatever the merits of the antinuclear campaigns that have erupted in West Germany, France, Sweden, Japan, and the United States, the battle against Concorde, or the rising demands for regulation of genetic research, all reflect a widespread passionate demand for the democratization of technological decision-making.

The techno-rebels contend that technology need not be big, costly, or complex in order to be “sophisticated.” The heavy-handed technologies of the Second Wave seemed more efficient than they actually were because corporations and socialist enterprises externalized—transferred to society as a whole—the enormous costs of cleaning up pollution, of caring for the unemployed, of dealing with work-alienation. When these are seen as costs of production, many seemingly efficient machines turn out to be quite the opposite.

Thus the techno-rebels favor the design of a whole range of “appropriate technologies" intended to provide humane jobs, to avoid pollution, to spare the environment, and to produce for personal or local use rather than for national and global markets alone. The techno-rebellion has sparked thousands of experiments all over the world, with just such small-scale technologies, in fields ranging from fish farming and food processing to energy production, waste recycling, cheap construction, and simple transport.

While many of these experiments are naive and hark back to a mythical past, others are more practical. Some reach out for the latest materials and scientific tools and combine them in new ways with old techniques. Jean Gimpel, for example, the historian of medieval technology, has built elegant models of simple tools that might prove useful in non-industrial countries. Some of these combine new materials with old methods. A surge of interest in the airship provides another example—use of a by-passed technology that can now be made with advanced fabrics or materials that give it much greater payload capacity. Airships are ecologically sound and could be used for slow but cheap and safe transport in regions where there are no roads—Brazil, perhaps, or Nigeria. Experiments with appropriate or alternative technologies, especially in the energy field, suggest that some simple, small-scale technologies can be as “sophisticated" as complex, large-scale technologies when the full range of side effects is taken into account and when the machine is properly matched to the task.

The techno-rebels are also disturbed by the radical imbalance of science and technology on the face of the planet, with only 3 percent of the world s scientists in countries containing 75 percent of the global population. They favor devoting more technological attention to the needs of the world’s poor, and a more equitable sharing of the resources of outer space and the oceans. They recognize that not only are the oceans and skies part of the common heritage of the race, but that advanced technology itself could not exist without the historic contributions of many peoples, from the Indians and Arabs to the ancient Chinese.

Finally, they argue that in moving into the Third Wave we must advance, step by step, from the resource-wasteful, pollutionproducing system of production used during the Second Wave era toward a more “metabolic” system that eliminates waste and pollution by making sure that the output and by-product of each industry becomes an input for the next. The goal is a system under which no output is produced that is not an input for another production process downstream. Such a system is not only more efficient in a production sense, it minimizes, or indeed eliminates, damage to the biosphere.

Taken as a whole, this techno-rebel program provides the basis for humanizing the technological thrust.

The techno-rebels are, whether they recognize it or not, agents of the Third Wave. They will not vanish but multiply in the years ahead. For they are as much a part of the advance to a new stage of civilization as our missions to Venus, our amazing computers, our biological discoveries, or our explorations of the oceanic depths.

Out of their conflict with the First Wave fantasizers and the Second Wave advocates of technology iiber alles will come sensible technologies matched to the new, sustainable energy system toward which we are beginning to reach. Plugging the new technologies into this new energy base will raise to a wholly new level our entire civilization. At its heart we will find a fusion of sophisticated, science-based “high-stream” industries, operating within much tightened ecological and social controls, with equally sophisticated “low-stream” industries that operate on a smaller, more human scale, both based on principles radically different from those which governed the Second Wave techno-sphere. Together, these two layers of industry will form tomorrow’s “commanding heights.”

But this is only a detail of a much vaster picture. For at the same time that we are transforming the techno-sphere we are also revolutionizing the info-sphere.

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