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Technology Makes Us 'Individuals'


Science is good for you.

That is the conclusion of a report by a Harvard-based group that has been studying the impact of modern technology on society for the past four years under a $5-million grant from the International Business Machine Corporation (IBM).

The group concluded that technology has created a society of such complexity and richness that most Americans have a greater range of personal choice, wider experience, and a more highly developed sense of self-worth than ever before.

The study was directed by Emmanuel G. Mesthene, lecturer on Business Administration and research associate in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy School of Government.

Real Individuals

"This is probably the first age in history in which such high proportions of people have felt like individuals," Mesthene said. "No 18th-century factory-worker, so far as we know, had the sense of individual worth that underlies the demands on society of the average resident of the urban ghetto today."

Edward Shils, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and another member of the study group, said this feeling of individual worth, fostered by technology, has led men to make more aggressive demands on governments, at a time when the authority of governments is declining. The result is an increased "probability of public disorder."

But, Mesthene warns, making sense of today's intricate society and dealing with its problems, may well require an expertise that most citizens do not have. He writes in his report:

"If it turns out on more careful examination that direct participation is becoming less relevant to a society in which the connections between causes and effects are long and often hidden--which is an increasingly 'indirect' society, in other words--elaboration of a new democratic ethos and of new democratic processes more adequate to the realities of modern society will emerge as perhaps the major intellectual challenge of our time."

People Must Learn

Mesthene said that to govern the nation we must rely more and more on "technocrats," experts in technology. But it will be difficult to make these experts accountable to the people unless the people work harder at their public role to understand what the technocrats are doing.

Each individual, he wrote in the annual report, must strike a balance "between his commitment to the private goals and satisfactions and his desires and responsibilities as a public citizen."

"The citizens of ancient Athens seem to have been largely public beings in this sense, while certain segments of today's hippie population seem to pursue mainly private gratifications," he added.

Mesthene said in an interview this weekend that Harvard originally rejected an IBM grant to study the effects of automation on employment because it was too narrow in scope. When the study was changed to automation and society, the University agreed.

IBM Keeps Off

IBM has not interfered with the study since it began in 1964, Mesthene added.. The company provided research assistance only when the group asked for it.

Other Harvard Faculty members participated in the research, and Mesthene said that Deans Sizer, Price, Ebert, Baker, and Bok were directly involved.

Commenting on investigations by another member of the group, Harvey Cox, professor of Divinity, Mesthene wrote i his report that technology was largely responsible for "the pluralism of belief systems that is characteristic of the modern world" and that religion must come to terms with this.

"The generation of knowledge and the use of technology are so much a part of the style and self-image of our own society that men begin to experience themselves, their power, and their relationships in terms of open possibility, hope, action, and self-confidence," he continued.

"The symbolism of such traditional religious postures as subservience, fatefulness, destiny, and suprarational faith begin then to seem irrelevant to our actual experience. They lose credibility, and their religious function is weakened."

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