From the preface to Arnold Pacey’s The Maze of Ingenuity : Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology:

So far I have written about efforts to inaugurate a new direction for technical progress as if the chief problem is a lack of methods and discipline. But there are other problems too. Technology does not exist apart from the people who create and use it, and its precise forms have a lot to do with the way these people choose to organise their society. One of the problems about the use of intermediate or appropriate technology in the developing countries is that the people there often do not have suitable forms of local organisation to make effective use of the equipment being offered to them. Frequently, it is equipment devised by well-meaning Westerners who have little understanding of the social component of technology or of complex local patterns of social organisation.

In the industrialized countries also, we do not have many social structures with suitable organisation to use alternative technology. And although the necessary changes in society may come partly through unconscious evolution, or through individual efforts to organise self-help groups, village societies or communes, change will be needed at the political and legislative level also. And Dickson sees the great weakness of much alternative technology as its neglect of the ‘political dimension’ – neglect which implies ‘an idealistic concept … that does not coincide with the social reality of technology as it has been experienced’.

This is fair criticism in many respects, but it is a mistake to think that the political dimension is the over-riding totality within which all other aspects of technology are worked out – and my book is very largely about some of the other dimensions of technological change. The distinction becomes clear when we consider the symbolic purposes which technology is made to serve, about which Dickson has useful things to say. For example, individuals buy automobiles or household goods and nations buy armaments, not solely with a view to their utilitarian value but because of what they symbolize. Discussions about more modest lifestyles for an age of zero growth, or about disarmament, rarely acknowledge this, and so become confused as people invent phoney utilitarian or practical purposes for their acquisitions, and nations invent unreal threats to justify their arms.

The Report from the Iron Mountain almost a decade ago explained how the armies, structures and industries associated with preparedness for war in fact perform many non-military functions. Many of these functions can be described in terms of the ‘symbolic objectives’ discussed in this book and have to do with ‘ideological clarification’ and building national unity.

As a partial substitute for the non-military functions of war, the Iron Mountain report suggested that a massive space programme could fill the place of the armaments industry in the economy and would provide an equally potent, but less dangerous, symbolism to express national goals and national prestige – rather as the building of cathedrals in the 12th century, provided an effective substitute for the non-military functions of the Crusades (P. 42).

Dickson’s argument is that the symbolism of armaments, or of cathedrals, is largely invented by the ruling groups within society as a means of controlling the mass of the people. Thus Dickson sees the building of the cathedrals as a way in which the Church could extend its influence over craftsmen, artisans, and I would add, merchants.

There is much truth in this, but to present such political aspects of a creative technological movement as the whole of the picture seems wrong. From the viewpoint of the architects and stone masons who built the cathedrals, the work was something that carried conviction because of its symbolic meanings, whether concerning the New Jerusalem, the glory of God or the prestige of their own home town. It was these things which fired the imagination and sparked the immense burst of artistic and technology creativity which the cathedrals represent. We need to understand the reality of the symbolism, and not just its political uses, if we wish to understand the ideals and objectives which give rise to discovery and invention in technology. So I do not agree with Dickson that ‘technological development is essentially a political process’. It is partly a political process, but at the point where creativity and invention occur, it is the values and ideals of individuals that matter, and personal appreciations of ‘quality’ or fitness for purpose. The convictions and sensitivity of the technologist have a validity beyond just the social environment which shapes them, important though that is.