‘Science and technology have ushered [us] into a new cycle of civilization’


Technology has disrupted our society, upended our economy and caused a crisis of faith in our politics. We are unprepared and don’t know where to turn. This is unprecedented. Or at least it feels unprecedented, until you look back at history. Read this extended quote from 1949:

Science and technology have ushered man into a new cycle of civilization, and the consequence has been a terrifying problem of adjustment. In two centuries science and technology have narrowed the seas, ravaged the forests and irrigated the deserts. They have leveled national frontiers, undermined self-sufficiencies and infinitely increased man’s power to build and to destroy. The velocity of life has entered into a new phase. With it has come the imperative need for a social structure to contain that velocity – a social structure within which the individual can achieve some measure of self-fulfillment.

This new social structure must succeed where the ancient jurisdictions of the family, the clan, the guild and the nation-state have failed…

A static and decentralized society, based on agriculture and handicraft, was a society dependent on personal ties and governed by a personal ethic. Industrialism shattered the ties and consequently the ethic. A new code arose to cope with the remote and statistical units of the modern economy, the gap between economic practice and personal mortality widened swiftly and alarmingly. …

The impersonality of the new economic system meant, in brief, that no one had to feel a direct responsibility for the obvious and terrible costs in human suffering. Doubtless there was a lurking sense of guilt; but the very mechanism of organization provided solace and remission. As organization became more elaborate and comprehensive, it became increasingly the instrumentality through which moral man could indulge his natural weakness for immoral deals…

The impersonality of the system, in other words, brought out, not the best, but the worst in the men who operated it. Industrialism, at the same time that it released vast new energies, imposed on the world a sinister new structure of relationships…

The quotes are from The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom by Arthur M. Schlesinger, 1949.

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