Behind the Technical Screen

More from David Noble, again taken from his book Progress Without People, from a section titled Behind the Technical Screen. Much of what he wrote in the 80s and 90s still applies today to all kinds of professionals (not only technical people), including interaction designers (thinking we’ll serve humanity in our professional roles is mostly wishful thinking).

Behind the Technical Screen

When we look past the veil of mystery that enshrouds the work of technical people, we find that their activities reflect their relation to power at every point. Their link with power gives them power — it entitles them to practise their trade in the first place, to learn, to explore, to invent; it emboldens their imagination; and it gives them the wherewithal to put their grand designs into practice. In short, it is the support of those in power (in our society, those with money or those with political, military, or legal authority) that affords technical people the luxury to dream, to dream expansively (yet within well-understood limits) and to make their dreams come true (by imposing them on others). Although most scientists and engineers would admit to their dependence upon those with power, few would concede that this relationship actually influences the way they think about things. They would insist, rather, that they are guided in their work by technical considerations above all else, and that this is what makes their calling rational and thus compelling. Moreover, judging from my own experience working with and teaching technical people, I know that few engineers are deliberately out to destroy jobs or unions or to harm people in any way. Although, of course, in practice they must satisfy the requirements of their bosses, their clients, or their customers, ultimately they aim only to do the best work for the good of society. Yet consistently, again and again, they turn out solutions that are good for the people in power (management) but often disastrous for the rest of us (workers).

…In the process, their own interests, ambitions, and compulsions become intertwined with and indistinguishable from those of their patrons, and these shared fantasies of omnipotence shape what they do. Never are all possibilities entertained and soberly evaluated, as the Darwinian idea of technological progress suggests; only those that are compatible with the authoritarian position and disposition of those with the power to choose.

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  1. Ed R. says:

    This reminds me of Gandhi’s 7 Deadly Sins, one of which was Science without Humanity. If science becomes all technique and technology, and forget or does not understand the true human purposes it is suppose to serve, then it will quickly degenerates into man against humanity.


  2. I’ve enjoyed looking through your site and was reminded of a photographer I recently became interested in “Pieter Hugo” and an exhibit of his entitled “Permanent Error”.

    I’m concerned about this same problem of the thin and false surface the cult of the new puts on the same brutally unjust world. It is so easy to be lulled, become apathetic and distracted. Technology can do so much to insulate us.

    This seems to relate to your “disciplined minds” piece as well. I enjoyed reading/listening to it as now is something of a time of transition for myself. It is good to be reminded of the risks of security.

  3. Keyvan says:

    Thanks Daniel. I’m glad you liked the site and the disciplined minds piece – Jeff Schmidt’s book, where those passages came from, is one of my favourite books and had a big effect on me when I read it. There really are risks to security, risks to ourselves and risks to others affected by what we do. I find books like Disciplined Minds and Progress without People refreshing to read because very few authors talk about these issues at all.