It is easy to assume that the modern world is defined by science and technology, that it conditions our worldviews, but isn’t it the case that the opposite is true? Do our societal values and “worldviews” define science and technology? By valuing certain ideas, we give some ideas the opportunity to develop further while paying very little attention to others. People are constantly creating ideas and we, thankfully, are never short of minds that are constantly thinking, re-thinking, and creating.
However, ideas have a purpose, and if that purpose does not meet the criteria we want, it is cast aside.
This situation reminds me of some of my favourite cartoons: Rugrats, Angela Anaconda and Powerpuff Girls. Adding to the comedic mix of these shows are the wanna-be inventor fathers. Tommy’s dad, Mr. Anaconda, and Professor Utonium humour us with their relentless attempts devise the one invention that will make them big, but always fail to create something that anyone in the real world values. Their inventions fall short of success because of technicalities of immature design and because their inventions, no matter how ingenious, have no real use. Since society decides what ideas are valuable based on whether they meet our needs and wants, it shapes technology. We decide how we want to progress. I think the question to ask is: how do we decide what technological development is valuable? The ideas that we value are reflected in the culture we foster and the way we have organized our society.
Geared towards profit to sustain a livelihood, people create to sell by looking at what we need and what we are willing to buy and consume. This is how we have come to give value to creativity. We measure success by how much is sold, how many people read it, how many times we see it daily value lies in quantifiable measurements.
Passion and creativity are only valued if they can be turned into a career, or something that can be commoditized. Ryan Gosling’s character in Blue Valentine said something rather interesting when questioned by his wife. Being so talented in music, why didn’t he consider finding a job in that area? He has, as she said, “potential.” He asks, what does that mean to have potential? If all he wants to do is be a husband and father, why is that not enough? Can he not make music simply because he enjoys music rather than turning it into a career, or a job? Tommy’s dad, Mr. Anaconda, and Professor Utonium are confronted with the same problem – they are trying find worth and value in their ideas by trying to become the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.
How we decide what is valuable for our consumption is reflected by our cultural values. Living in a consumerist world, we want our lives to be convenient, efficient, and constantly stimulating. We have a certain kind of life that we think we need to follow and we look to technology and products that will do just that.
For example, with social issues moving towards the centre-stage, there is a desire for ethical consumerism. “Ethical” products are all the rage and even if excessive consumption is part of the problem, we look to even more consumption to solve these issues. Slavoj Zizek in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, sees this as one part of culture consumerism, where we exist within our buying power, and being more “aware” of social issues, we buy ethical products that will make us feel good. It is important to recognize, however, buying ethical products is much easier than searching for and challenging a broader economic and political system that produces those social issues.
What if we had different guiding principles? What if we took efficiency, convenience, and the LCD television screens out of the equation and created a new framework for what we value? This isn’t to say that the mentioned criteria do not develop our society – they absolutely do. However, they develop a certain kind of society. It is important to take a step back, evaluate and ask: is this the society that we want? How are we defining development and what do we mean when we say, “progress”? Is this the direction we want our world to go in?
Science and technology do not develop without a purpose. By understanding and questioning that purpose, we have better control over how human society progresses. Our technological advancements and science are developed by our culture within guiding principles, not the other way around.