Wednesday 6 December 2023

The Machine Age Skidelsky


Age Against the Machine

by Robert Skidelsky

Humans have always had a fractured relationship with machines. A tool is an extension of muscles, always under the control of the individual. Tools can never replace humans in the job market: a row of tools can't make a car. But machines can make things on their own, and therein lies their promise and threat: the promise, of multiplied productive power-versus the threat of human redundancy. This has been so ever since the Industrial Revolution. And the story is not yet finished.

My new book, The Machine Age,: An Idea, a History, a Warning, tells three stories, each with a happy or unhappy ending. The first is the one just introduced. Machines increase productivity — output per input of energy - promising a return to Paradise where, "neither Adam nor Eve span".

But what about the redundancies which would follow machines taking over human tasks? The factory would be filled not by inert tools but by busy robots, - and soon offices and retail shops would resound to their whirring. What would be left for humans to do if practically all their tasks could be automated? And who would pay their wages?

The technological enthusiasts respond by urging us to think of machines complementing human performance, not replacing it. In 1997, the IBM computer Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov over six games of chess. If a machine could beat the best human in a game as mentally demanding as chess, what future could humans look forward to, other than one of growing unemployment? But it then turned out that computers plus humans could beat humans or computers on their own, so computers would not replace humans but enhance them! The threat of redundancy was lifted, and so far, at least technological unemployment is minimal.

A more sinister possibility is opened up by the spread of surveillance technology. The promise of shedding a light into dark places, dating from Plato's famous allegory of the cave, was visualised in Jeremy Bentham's famous design for a Panopticon in 1786. This was an ideal prison system, in which a central watch tower could shine a bright light into all the surrounding cells without the prisoners being aware of being watched. This would reduce the need for prison guards, since the prisoners, aware of being continually surveilled, would police themselves. Why should not schools, hospitals, workplaces, streets — all of society — be run on these lines? The idea of building an ideal society based on a prison was made flesh in both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. These 'utopias' failed, but Bentham's hopes lire on.

Today's technology offers a power of surveillance only dreamt of by the most powerful autocrat in the past. It operates not through searchlights but through digital tracking and recognition systems into which we are all slotted, willingly or not, through our dependence on computers for everyday services like shopping and banking.

Just think — no more need for guessing what you might be up to: every desire would be anticipated by Big Seller, every potential mischief nipped in the bud by Big Brother. And all this is happening now. Every day improved surveillance devices are being rolled out and installed to ensure the consumer and political behaviour desired by a commercial platform or a state. China leads the way, but the surveillance society is catching up everywhere.

But there is a third possible story even more dreadful than the first-two. This involves not unemployment nor zombiedom, but physical extinction. Our planet has always been threatened by natural disasters — the dinosaurs were probably extinguished 60 million years ago by an asteroid hitting the earth. Now we can create machine made disasters. In 1947, two years after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading scientists created a Doomsday Clock to monitor= threats to humanity from unchecked scientific and technological advances. The clock was set ticking at seven minutes to countdown in 1947. In January 2020 it was set at 100 seconds, its closest ever to countdown; in January 2023, following outbreak of war in Ukraine, it was reduced to 90.'Again, we see a vastly increased saving power intertwined with a vastly enhanced destructive power.

Most of us have heard of the Luddites, the handloom weavers who in 1811 started smashing the power looms being installed in factories. The most famous English economist of the day, David Ricardo, wrote, "the substitution of machinery for human labour is often very injurious to the interests of the labourers". Before we allow machines to take over our future, for better or worse, we must have a long pause for reflection, though I doubt we will get it.

    Robert Skidelsky's latest book, The Machine AgeAn Idea, a History, a Warning

COMMENT: The Luddites are noted for attacking the machines, whereas, on the contrary, they were defending a way of life that allowed them to live in communities that took account of the needs of the soils, plants, animals and humans, and the world of nature a s a whole. The task ahead is to account the demands our own individual households are making on the living planet, and bring an end to the wages system. Food for thought? Read more in future Blogs.

Saturday 2 December 2023

A Civilization of Technics Part 3

A Civilization of Technicsi

Philip Mairet (1945) Part 3

The present convulsions of civilization are both a manifestation of this degradation and a violent effort to arrest it. The programmes of the warring parties, Communist, Nazi, Fascist, and Democratic, are all com­plex mixtures of ideas, some of which threaten to intensify the predica­ment of power-economy whilst others propose its alleviation, for all men are horrified at the problems into which unrestricted machine-power is leading them. While the whole world is beating tractors into tanks, some rueful voices are also being raised to ask whether the entire direction of technological progress may not have to be reversed. In the January 1942 number of Harper's Magazine, for instance, a learned contributor hails the present struggle as the beginning of the ' Anti-Industrial-Revolution', and prophesies that the strict limitation of technics must be its final out­come—a pronouncement especially remarkable in the United States, where applied technology has reached its apotheosis. Yet there can be no merely negative solution, nor is the issue susceptible of compromise. The exploitation of solar energy must either be justified at the altar of man's supreme aspirations, or else it will continue to operate as a curse on the human race.

Before attempting to say what we should hope and work for, let us con­sider what is likely to occur. The only positive solution at present envisaged by very many people is, as we have seen, that a Civilization of Technics should set before itself this single aim—the distribution of the maximum of wealth and well-being to all. We may expect that, after the war, there will be a thoroughgoing attempt to realize this aim through planning upon a continental if not planetary scale—that is, unless the war leaves people too discouraged to give any serious effort to recovery, as the Civil War has left the people of Spain: but this is unlikely to be the uni­versal condition, and if large blocs of population are afflicted with inertia, it may only facilitate the plans of those who still feel vigour enough to take initiative. From this aim, however, great success is not to be expected, for reasons indicated earlier in this essay. The effort is to be welcomed because it is positive, and it would seem to lie in the natural line of development. It is for instance in harmony with important changes now proceeding in the political mentality of society.

The people who will wield the greatest powers in the society of the near future will be—apart from military leaders and their experts—the tech­nological elite. Those who have hitherto ruled the world that is now going up in flames have been people of specialized mentality, expert in accoun­tancy and financial politics, organized in rather unstable groups which were continually engaged in surreptitious dynastic wars, fighting one another by manipulating stock markets, cornering supplies and altering prices—wars in which the victories were signalized by mergers and com­bines and the defeats by liquidations. In the present world war there can be little doubt that these financial dynasties are being weakened if not destroyed.

At present the financial dynasts are being compelled to give a last exhibition of their abilities by helping the Governments at war to co­ordinate all productive industry in the national interests; but in doing so they must destroy the roots of their own power. The question is, who will succeed them? Militant politicians will be very powerful, presumably, but modern war is the greatest of industrial undertakings, and the dominant class of men in a modern war state must be the technicians, whose power is bound to continue into the peace, in order to fulfil the growing demand for planned economy and wealth-distribution. We are in for technocracy.

The ground has been well prepared for this palace revolution, by the decline of the power of ownership. Industries, and even the largest com­bines, may still be nominally ruled by their shareholders as titular owners, but for a long while past this ownership has been in no real sense a directive function. Management has become more and more a profession in itself, the managers being the highest class of technicians, and they commonly appoint their own successors. This is undoubtedly the rising class throughout the Civilization of Technics, whose abilities, aims, and ideas have done most to shape the development of the modern world. It is a small class, and one can only get into it by technical knowledge and ability of a high order; but so far its direct political and social control has been small. The political influence of industrial concerns has been exer­cised by the financial class, which overlaps the technical only to a small extent. Now the financial class, considered as a political aristocracy, is out of public favour. It has conspicuously failed to lead a technological civiliza­tion either to plenty or stability; and its relations with the technicians have for some time been hostile. Civil engineers, scientists, and experts in productive organization have been the leaders in the contemporary revolt of opinion against the financial system as such—and therefore against the prestige of the financial class. The issue between them has always been that between full production and ' artificial scarcity'; the financiers having habitually imposed limits upon production in order to fit their financial frame, whereas the technicians work for the abolition of all financial constraints, and for the complete liberation of industry to fill the world with its products.

The people who will wield the greatest powers in the society of the near future will be—apart from military leaders and their experts—the tech­nological elite. Those who have hitherto ruled the world that is now going up in flames have been people of specialized mentality, expert in accoun­tancy and financial politics, organized in rather unstable groups which were continually engaged in surreptitious dynastic wars, fighting one another by manipulating stock markets, cornering supplies and altering prices—wars in which the victories were signalized by mergers and com­bines and the defeats by liquidations. In the present world war there can be little doubt that these financial dynasties are being weakened if not destroyed.

At present the financial dynasts are being compelled to give a last exhibition of their abilities by helping the Governments at war to co­ordinate all productive industry in the national interests; but in doing so they must destroy the roots of their own power. The question is, who will succeed them? Militant politicians will be very powerful, presumably, but modern war is the greatest of industrial undertakings, and the dominant class of men in a modern war state must be the technicians, whose power is bound to continue into the peace, in order to fulfil the growing demand for planned economy and wealth-distribution. We are in for technocracy.

The ground has been well prepared for this palace revolution, by the decline of the power of ownership. Industries, and even the largest com­bines, may still be nominally ruled by their shareholders as titular owners, but for a long while past this ownership has been in no real sense a directive function. Management has become more and more a profession in itself, the managers being the highest class of technicians, and they commonly appoint their own successors. This is undoubtedly the rising class throughout the Civilization of Technics, whose abilities, aims, and ideas have done most to shape the development of the modern world. It is a small class, and one can only get into it by technical knowledge and ability of a high order; but so far its direct political and social control has been small. The political influence of industrial concerns has been exer­cised by the financial class, which overlaps the technical only to a small extent. Now the financial class, considered as a political aristocracy, is out of public favour. It has conspicuously failed to lead a technological civiliza­tion either to plenty or stability; and its relations with the technicians have for some time been hostile. Civil engineers, scientists, and experts in productive organization have been the leaders in the contemporary revolt of opinion against the financial system as such—and therefore against the prestige of the financial class. The issue between them has always been that between full production and ' artificial scarcity'; the financiers having habitually imposed limits upon production in order to fit their financial frame, whereas the technicians work for the abolition of all financial constraints, and for the complete liberation of industry to fill the world with its products.

Is it too much to hope that, from this necessary development, we may see the natural sciences re-assume their proper place and their priority to the technical? If so, there will be a change of mind and mood in which philosophy can once more flourish and religion regain its rightful sway: for there, in religion alone, is the primary and continual source of the cultural spirit, not in technics indeed and also not in Nature. Out of Nature are our societies born, in their technics they die, but through Religion they are regenerated. A re-born society can go on developing ever greater technical powers, so long as it uses, and is not used by them. But when it succumbs to the fascination and the power and pride of tech­nics, it loses not only its sense of the supernatural order, but also its foot­hold upon natural life.

Chapter from Prospect for Christendom: Essays in Catholic Social Reconstruction, Maurice Reckitt (ed), Faber and Faber (1945/6)

COMMENT: As becomes evident on reading the three-part essay entitled A Civilization of Technics, Philip Mairet was a key writer and activist in the network of debates on the social order of the first half of the 20th century. See Wikipedia. He was a familiar figure in the emerging guilds, trade unions, social credit, anthroposophical and cooperative movements of his time, writing key texts across the range of social thinking on philosophy, politics, economics and finance.

i When we speak of a civilization of Technics we mean a social order so shaped and adapted that it can make the fullest use of the solar energy stored up in mineral form as coal or oil, or obtained by distillation from vegetable substances. This last source of energy, though it may increase in importance, is at present too relatively costly to be greatly exploited; much more power is at present obtained from the world's great water-courses. The stimulus and the means which made possible the present phenomenal developments of machinery began with the discovery of the energy that can be obtained from the combustion of coal and oil. 

Friday 1 December 2023

A Civilization of Technics Part 2


A Civilization of Technics Part 2

Philip Mairet (1945)

The idea that we should delegate our material production to the gnomes of power-technics, and thus free ourselves for lives of leisure, introduces a serious contradiction if we make the gnomes too clever. It is all right so long as the gnomes are kept to drudge at such work as galley-slaves once had to do. But the distinction between work and leisure can be pushed too far, because as a matter of fact the only thing for man to do with leisure, over and above his needs for relaxation and contemplation, is work of his own choice. To serve God and society by his performance, in the spirit of an artist, by producing something good, or unique, or doing something well or uniquely—this is what every human being ultimately needs and desires, because in the last analysis there is nothing else for him to do. Leisure itself is mainly an added space or margin that is required to give the individual latitude for his full performance. Now, if we are going to produce all the essential services and furniture of life—including houses which, it is now said, are to be mass-produced in sections and assembled, like a compactum bookcase, as many rooms as required—it appears that we shall most of us all the time, or all of us most of the time, be ' unemployed' but provided with means to purchase plenty of gnome-work plus the nutritional standard diet. Most of the theoretical social idealisms of the day appear to be converging towards this ideal, so that it is not quite an idle speculation to consider what we should do with our­selves in such a social milieu; and the first thing that occurs to anyone of any psychological and social experience is that the wealth with which we should be provided would be but little esteemed. Some of us might be tempted to use our plentiful leisure to provide the same things as the gnomes had made for us, and to make them more to our idiosyncratic taste, but this voluntary creative work would also have declined in prestige, as being confessedly 'useless'. There is here the danger of an altogether excessive opposition in thought between what is useful and what is good.

A categorical separation of the two ideas has gone too far, with the increasing mass-production of goods for the masses: already it is noticeable that pride and pleasure in personal property has declined, and that, with all our modern emphasis upon making commodities that are desired, in the sense of being saleable, it has become less and less fashion­able to own them. The homes of the past, often overcrowded with house­hold treasures which it took so much household labour to keep clean, are not perhaps to be held up for example; but there is something very para­doxical in the fact that our present age, with its plethoric productivity, has induced an unexpected disinclination to be bothered with possessions, a reluctance to collect fine books, prints or pictures, to have any furniture worth treasuring as of more than lifelong utility or beauty—often indeed, to have any permanent home in which things can be treasured. All this decline in the valuation of things is due to the fact that the gnome-work really is less valuable. A thing cannot hold more value than has been put into it: we cannot have our cake and eat it: and if we will insist upon developing the skill of the gnomes until they can produce by the million things superficially as good as our own handiwork, or better, we cannot at the same time experience an equal enjoyment in possessing such things— and certainly not in the tedious work of overseeing their making. To all appearances the modern gnome-drivers are the most discontented workers, as a class, that the world has ever seen.

The only cure for this decline of values both in production and con­sumption, would be to restrict the work of the gnomes to relieving human workers of the most purely repetitive and physically laborious tasks; and to set the individual workers as free as possible for independent work in making things or rendering services. We hope that some of the numerous bodies now planning the post-war world will so far work against the stream of current theorizing as to base their plans, not upon standardiza­tion and rationalization, but upon the greatest possible devolution of industry. That would be the only way to incorporate the gnome-work into human civilization without reducing the amount of human happiness too seriously. Such an effort will encounter opposition both from the ignorant and from the interested, and the plea for human happiness will be denounced as immoral. The advocates of State industrialism will endea­vour to invest with an ethical superiority the work of organizing, perfect­ing, and designing work for the machines, by making out that it is far more moral to help to make a million things all alike for a million people than to make one unique thing for one person, or a few things for a few. This popular fallacy is not even a specious one, but its growing acceptance is culturally disastrous. If it is ethically wrong to make one man a means to the ends of another, to make him the mere instrument of a multitude is just as bad. The social ideal is that every man's work should be an impor­tant part of his own fulfilment, and not the price exacted for it. Every culture which is genuine is occupied not so much with adapting right means to right ends, as in seeking to identify ends and means, for in the perfect civilization, as in Nature, every function would be performed not only as a means and a service to the whole life of the society, but as being in its own degree a manifestation of the very purpose which life itself is seeking.

In the opinion of many good observers—not only of the aestheticians, whose testimony on this point is not to be ignored—this lack of value in the work done is the crucial problem in our civilization. An employer of industrial labour, of long experience and good insight into the minds of workers, tells the present writer that, in his opinion, the dislike of the average man for machine-minding—or shall we say his inability to like it —is so complete that, if it is not cured, it will bring the civilization of technics to a breakdown. Satisfaction cannot be injected by any kind of Stakhanovism: that is a sort of heroics, which makes a bravado of the activity desired, and in rewarding with money and publicity those who drive their machines hardest, it really directs attention to the singular tedium that has to be borne. The political promise that, after the revolu­tion, or after the war, or after the five-year-plan, the workers shall enjoy all the proceeds of the conveyor-belts, is effective enough as a moralistic suggestion, but obviously it does not meet the difficulty at all. The citizen is not going to be satisfied as an individual with a life of movements dic­tated by machinery, simply because the collectivity has a higher standard of life: rather the contrary; the idea that production is easy and that there is anyhow plenty of it, will make him try to get out of the factory and into a more worth-while occupation.

The one thing that might keep the mass of workers cheerfully going through the motions dictated by automata would be a faith or a conviction that such behaviour was a necessary and essential part of their life and love. If the age of technics is to be prolonged into the future it will be because society will have somehow succeeded in providing this sustaining motive; and we may even ask whether perhaps such a transcendental reason for their recent work has not been present in some measure all the time. Should we have been able to proceed as far as we have towards a mechanized economy, unless men felt, even if vaguely, dimly, and uncer­tainly, that our society was doing something great in this age of progress, and that the technical miracles were themselves, in some sort, a collective achievement worthy of human life and love? Perhaps even the machine workers have more than half believed that in this phase of history men were doing what men are for—not indeed doing it well enough, nor un­mixed with baser purposes, yet on the whole giving expression to some­thing inherent in Man and his world-position-—fulfilling a possibility that ought to be fulfilled.

For the masses have not been left in ignorance of what has been hap­pening. At least they know that the great navigators, astronomers, and geographers have combined to discover the whole planet, and that the engineers have linked all its parts together in systems of transport; the attainment of flight and of wireless communication and many other achievements are not only well known even to the least instructed factory hand; they do also furnish a world spectacle at which he is assisting, in however humble a capacity. The consciousness of every man has been affected powerfully by this transformation of Man's world, and there seems no doubt that he has felt its greatness and believed, with whatever reservations, that it must be right and true to the cosmic scheme of things that man has attained and is exercising such powers. That may be a judgement of pride, of course—far too much of such pride has gone before our present fall—but is not this pride the defect of a better quality, also present in some degree? Dare we assert that the feelings which have enabled ordinary mankind to co-operate in this world-metamorphosis have not had one of their deepest sources in a kind of reverence and awe?

It is at bottom untrue, I would submit, that the mighty works of this civilization, the uses it has made of its material power, have come about through the predatory instinct, the profit-seeking motive or the lust for wealth and comfort of Economic Man. All these psychic forces have operated for millennia; have played their part in previous cultures and helped to wreck them. But the recent transfiguration of Man's world is, as much as any previous culture, an attainment of spiritual significance, made possible by certain material conditions, but inspired, in all its most creative moments, by a wonder akin to worship not only of the powers within the human intellect (which had found anew application and ex­pression) but also of the infinity and variety of the created universe. As the mind of Man was applied, with a new discipline and method, to the perception of Nature, it was as though Nature responded with self-revela­tion: to seek thus earnestly was to find much more than one sought. In the great European scientists and naturalists up to and including the early nineteenth century, there is to be found such a love of the creation, united with such intelligence, modesty, and finely schooled perception, as is recorded of no other place or time: it is a spirit that still worthily reflects and continues the great philosophic tradition of the West. As the growing body of knowledge that these men founded was exploited for more and more narrowly practical ends, something of their sublime afflatus was also transmitted, popularized and largely vulgarized, but still it was the meaning and the soul of the Age of Science. In so far as this spirit may have departed, the very meaning of •what we are doing is misconceived. When men began to tell one another, and even to believe, that this scientific revelation grew out of the mere search for profit and comfort, they lied to themselves, inverted the true relation of cause and effect, and also per­verted the character of their own activity, with disastrous results. For the process of exploiting Nature, carried on with such powerful means, threat­ens the heritage of the entire race; and by the same process men intensify their competition for the sources of life to the point at which mutual extermination begins to appear as a logical—or even a biological—neces­sity. These tragic degradations of an Age of Science would have been impossible if its development had been directed in the spirit of the great scientists by whose work it was initiated.

Our collective error is not that we have too much worshipped Science: rather it might be said that we never worshipped Science half enough. The worst consequence of the deplorable controversy between Science and Religion during the last century is not that it weakened religion but that it left science vulgarized. The natural reverence of Man before the miracles of Mind and Nature—although that sentiment remained a half-conscious motive and force in scientific activity—began to be repressed as an irrelevance which the scientific spirit must discard, with much else, as mere emotional instability or mental immaturity. It is a pity we should so have belittled our own works by thus disconnecting them from their source in the human soul. The immense railways and bridges, the great swift ships, the flying machines and radio communications of this age are as great in their own way as the pyramids of Egypt, the temples and dramas of Greece, the cathedrals of Christendom in theirs. These are all we shall have to show at the last judgement as the collective attainments of our age, and in greatness of conception, devotion in execution, they can hardly be held unworthy, still less in the team work and co-operation, the wide international interchange of gifts, that have gone to their making. So far as they are condemned, it must be for the widely prevalent uncon­sciousness of their quality and purpose, due to false reflections upon essen­tial motives, which has to so great an extent perverted their purpose and corrupted their use. In truth Man never had a good idea, scientific or otherwise, because he wanted to be richer, or in order to make himself more comfortable, individually or collectively. Not desire, not even neces­sity was ever the mother of invention, though necessity may have been stepmother to some inventions. Ideas are born from love—love of the wonders of Nature or of the human mind. Sometimes they are also useful, but they only continue to be so while we remember that their source is more important than any particular idea or any use which may be made of it. If we have failed to cultivate, discipline, and direct this affection of the soul from which research and invention spring, it is largely because the very existence of it has not been recognized. Here is the deepest cause of the dilemma of a civilization of technics, of its ignorance what to do with its brilliant abilities. For in the first and last analysis, there is nothing to do with them, except to dedicate them to the Source whence they come.

A superabundance of energy at disposal is the ultimate problem of every successful society, unless, as in that of the Eskimos, the struggle with natural conditions absorbs all its strength. The tendency to exploit the enhanced powers of an improving society for the pursuit of power-fan­tasies is the greatest of social dangers; and a main function of religion in society has always been to canalize the excess of energies, spiritual, psychic, and physical, into worship of the majesty and mystery of their origin; for worship not only inspires men to great collective works of no utilitarian value, but also to innumerable useful and creative occupations of every kind of value and refinement. An age in which the physical energies of society are multiplied many times over could only escape an extraordinary crisis if the spiritual function of worship were correspond­ingly magnified, and unhappily, we live in the former of these conditions without the benefit of the latter: hence a marked and unlooked-for ten­dency towards brutalization.

Chapter from Prospect for Christendom: Essays in Catholic Social Reconstruction, Maurice Reckitt (ed), Faber and Faber (1945/6)

COMMENT: Part 3 to follow.

Thursday 30 November 2023

A Civilization of Technics Part 1

 A Civilization of Technics

Philip Mairet (1945)

When Marco Polo was an old man in Venice in the early fourteenth century, his marvellous accounts of his travels in China, as an emissary to the court of the Great Khan, were not always received with implicit belief. When he spoke about the black stone that the Chinese dug out of the ground and used as fuel, because it gave a fiercer and more enduring heat than wood-fuel, the traveller's veracity was doubted: it is even said that the priests tried to make him recant so palpable a falsehood on his deathbed, and without avail. No doubt such a statement appeared more than fictitious, almost heretical, as a falsification of the received order of God's creation. It seems unlikely that the priests had any premonition of the moral dangers that might ensue if the tale -were true. Yet the possession of so much available power under the earth was destined to complicate the moral problems of society far more than even the mining of gold had ever done.

The cosmic quantities of power lying latent in the world's supply of mineral fuel could have been put to little use without that development of mechanical contrivances which is still proceeding at an ever-accelerat­ing speed. It has been a development of machines primarily, and of tools only instrumentally. The machine, it is true, is a kind of magnified or elaborated tool; but there is a clear distinction in principle. The tool is an instrument directly wielded by the worker upon his work; whereas the machine introduces an element of automatism entirely absent from the tool as such. There are plenty of hybrid examples—mechanical tools—but the distinction is functionally real and apparent. A rifle, for instance, is a killing tool; a Lewis gun is a killing machine, although it is also a tool. A power loom, six or ten of which will go on weaving as many different patterns of cloth with only one operator to supervise their work, is a machine out-and-out: and there are machines which perform, no less automatically, a whole series of complex operations, ingurgitating several materials at one end and delivering, at the other end, finished articles fabricated, tested, counted, packed, and labelled, all with faultless accu­racy. The ingenuity which has contrived to get so much of our work done by pure automatism is not in itself of a higher order than mankind has shown in countless crafts and tools of the past, nor essentially different. Our ingenuity has only been stimulated to far more sustained and im­pressive effect by the supply of solar energy in forms convenient for release as required.

The machine, therefore, must not be considered as the expression of a faculty new, or even newly discovered, in Man; but of a faculty newly provided with greater means of expression than it ever had before. It is a question whether technology has led to an over-development and an excessive use of this faculty. It has certainly enabled Man to produce a great superfluity of certain kinds of the goods and appurtenances of his life; but this also is not a novel social capacity. It has been apparent for ages that, even without machines, the energies of well-organized societies are capable of producing large surpluses over the elementary needs of their existence. Every great culture of the past has expressed itself in mighty works of supererogation before wasting itself in works of war or frivolity. But in a merely tool-using society, the production of this surplus still depends upon the application of most of its members to heavy manual labour, much of which can be little better than purely repetitive muscular exertion. Where an indefinitely large proportion of the population accepts —or is able to be kept in—this state of life it is because they are more or less in sympathy with the great works to which the surplus social produc­tion is directed. These great works of' over-production' are such as to rule the imagination of men, and, in some sort, vicariously to realize their aspirationsi.

The question, to what works the surplus energy of a civilization shall be devoted is, however, altered in form by the discovery of mechanical power-sources. At first sight, there would seem to be less need for great public works to sustain morale by their prestige, since a less laborious life might relax the severity of social discipline. On the other hand, the pro­blem is magnified because the surplus energy is so much greater. Society, no longer weighted or ballasted by the obvious necessity of a slaving or even of a labouring class, yet disposes of collective powers which are far greater than ever. To what ought they to be applied? What they are in fact applied to is not in doubt. They are applied, for the sake of exercising them and with a sovereign disregard of other values, to everything that they can conceivably be made to do, useful, useless, or destructive. Thus far society has succumbed to the fascination of a stimulant which magni­fies one of its own faculties almost to the miraculous, and has been enjoy­ing itself regardless; but this orgy has always been deprecated by the more thoughtful, whose apprehensions that it might have disruptive effects upon society are now being fulfilled beyond their worst fears.

The answer we are giving by our actions is thus chaotic, but a more coherent reply has been offered by the social reformers of recent and present times. These powers, they say, collectively generated, should be enjoyed individually and equally: they should be employed in giving the maximum satisfaction to the needs and desires of every single person. This has been assumed to be the correct reply to the challenge of the Industrial Revolution by its earlier critics; it is the implicit assumption in all the contentions of Marx and his followers, that the ' surplus value' produced by technological progress should be distributed equally to the benefit of the machine producers, who have been identified with mankind in general, in a vague confidence, perhaps, that almost all will be machine-minders in good time.

The age of machine-power is thus conceived, not without some reason, to have modified the status of Man in Nature. We find this notion ex­pressed often and in various ways, from the eloquent essay of an aesthete like Oscar Wilde in the 1890's (The Soul of Man under Socialism), to the recent writings of an engineer-economist, Major Douglas, who has calcu­lated that the amount of power generated in the power plants of the United Kingdom is equivalent to the provision of forty mechanical slaves to every household. In this view it would appear that we are in sight of a civilization in which no man's status is less than that of a master of many slaves—inanimate slaves who can be driven without humanitarian scruples. The expectation that all should accordingly be raised to the level of a leisured class is frequently expressed; and at the least there is a very strong feeling that the meaning of work has been radically changed.

The demands that social reformers continue to frame—legitimately enough—for embellishing the lives of the masses with more of the amenities of a modern economy, have always presupposed as a matter of course that the powers of the new class of' mechanical slaves'—if one may put it so—ought to be thus devoted to enriching the largest possible number of the people. The question whether this was the right use for the powers in question was never asked until this answer had been already assumed. But is it the whole truth? If we desire the enrichment of the human race in general, as a thing good in itself, we must consider what goods are comprised in the conception of riches. The wealth and well-being of Man consists not only in the quantity of goods, but in the balance and proportion between the different kinds of goods at his disposal. We have to inquire whether the employment of automata has the effect of increasing available goods and services equally or in harmonious pro­portion.

The answer is in the negative. Given right conceptions of wealth, and a benevolent but firm management of society, we should presumably em­ploy indefinitely great quantities of power to social advantage. Those thinkers who have given most study to plans for distributing the wealth of the power-age to the people have usually found the most need to postulate a centralized and unified control of production, because they have seen that power of itself stimulates production very unequally and tends towards unbalanced results. Under the competitive and individualist system of capitalist production this has been clearly demonstrated; there has been a hypertrophy of those economic functions of which power-machinery could most increase the output and efficiency, whilst other functions, no less valuable or necessary to life but less patient of stimula­tion by mechanical power, have suffered proportionately. This applies especially, though not exclusively, to the basic function of agriculture, in which a world-wide process of deterioration has been causing so much alarm. Agriculture would have to be specially protected in a civilization of technics, because technics benefit it relatively little: the biological pro­cesses that agriculture cherishes for use are of a different order from those which technology can control. Even where agriculture has availed itself most successfully of the work of the scientists and engineers, the rate of increase in its yields bears no comparison with the ever-multiplying pro­duction of factories producing such things as motors or electric bulbs. This discrepancy in the acceleration of output, when power is applied to techno-facture and agriculture respectively, tends to disbalance society alto-together, for a disproportionate amount of human energy and ambition flows into the occupations which technics make more profitable, and others tend actually to regress, indispensable though they are.

The socialist solution is to communize the ownership both of the sources of power and the means of applying it; so that competing groups would no longer be forcing the pace of whatever production their machinery put them in an advantageous position to undertake. All production would be planned in advance by a central authority. This, it is believed, would gradually direct all the energies of an ever more perfectly mechanized economic system to the production of goods and services in general demand—including, of course, agricultural goods. But so far, in the three great states which have thus assumed control of power and industry, the results are disappointing. All of them have, in a short space of time, devoted half or more than half of their power-machinery to the produc­tion of military equipment. Nor have they solved the problem of the regression of agriculture, for although each of them has, according to its lights, undertaken agricultural reforms with the aid of power-machinery and approved scientific methods, their land workers have shown the same disinclination as those of other industrial countries to continue in their vocation, so that these governments have had to resort to special induce­ments, to compulsion or to the importation of labour from abroad. These experiences may not discredit the socialist theory; it is still arguable that if states were grouped in such political and economic federations that together they contained ample resources of power, material, and food, they would not need to arm themselves excessively. The idea that States could thus be grouped in relatively self-sufficient federations after the war is now receiving intelligent consideration from many people, and it is believed that under these conditions, nations would be able to exploit machine-power fully to no other end but the enrichment of their citizens.

This dream of wealth through technology will not, and perhaps ought not to be given up; the attempt to realize it is sure to dominate post-war politics. Indeed it is not only legitimate, but may be realizable if only the thorny problems of agriculture and fertility can be solved. Their solution is bound to remain difficult, however, as long as the prestige of technics is elevated above that of cultivation. It is, socially, a question of the dignity of labour; of the difficulty, if we employ armies of mechanical slaves to work for us, of maintaining equal respect for those who still have to do work that the machines cannot do. At present there is undoubtedly a pre­vailing tendency to elevate the technical means, simply because they are so wonderful and ever-improving, above the ends they are supposed to serve: and where work is of a kind which does not lend itself to power-technique, the attempt is made to alter or adapt the work to the means. This does not mean that basic work, such as food-growing, can or will ever be neglected beyond a certain point, but it does mean that it will be done badly, to the injury of the product and the discontent of the producer. For men as producers are never contented unless they are allowed to seek per­fection in their work according to its own laws and conditions. If men are persuaded that they are only to produce corn and wine as by-products of social co-operation and technological progress, the quality of corn and wine, if not their quantity, will decline slowly but certainly, for men will apply their best will and intelligence to the advancement of the politics and science of production, not to the art of bettering the products.

Chapter from Prospect for Christendom: Essays in Catholic Social Reconstruction, Maurice Reckitt (ed), Faber and Faber (1945/6)

COMMENT: Parts 2 & 3 to follow.

i e.g., the idea, rather prevalent, that the Ancient Egyptians were driven by brutal taskmasters to the building of the Pyramids, the colossi, and the temples, is mainly erroneous. These works were often completed in scenes of popular enthusiasm and acclamation. Cf. Arthur Weigall on Ancient Egypt.

Wednesday 29 November 2023


In the Absence of the Sacred Part 3

Jerry Mander

While planning to write these two books, however, it became apparent to me that their subjects were inseparable. They belonged together as one book. There is no way to understand the situation of Indians, Eskimos, Aborigines, island peoples, or other native societies without understanding the outside societies that act upon them. And there is no way to understand the outside societies without understanding their relationships to native peoples and to nature itself.

All things considered, it may be the central assumption of technological society that there is virtue in overpowering nature and native peoples. The Indian problem today, as it always has been, is directly related to the needs of technological societies to find and obtain remotely located resources, in order to fuel an incessant and intrinsic demand for growth and technological fulfilment. The process began in our country hundreds of years ago when we wanted land and gold. Today it continues because we want coal, oil, uranium, fish, and more land. As we survey the rest of the world - whether it is the Canadian Arctic, the Borneo jungle, or the Brazilian rainforest - the same interaction is taking place for the same reasons, often involving the same institutions.

All of these acts were and are made possible by one fundamental rationalization: that our society represents the ultimate expression of evolution, its final flowering. It is this attitude, and its corresponding belief that native societies represent an earlier, lower form on the evolutionary ladder, upon which we occupy the highest rung, that seem to unify all modern political perspectives: Right, Left, Capitalist, and Marxist.

Save for such nascent movements as bioregionalism and Green politics, which have at least questioned the assumptions underlying this attitude, most people in Western society are in agreement about our common superiority. So it becomes okay to humiliate - to find insignificant and thus subject to sacrifice - any way of life or way of thinking that stands in the way of a kind of "progress" we have invented, which is scarcely a century old. In fact, having assumed such superiority, it becomes more than acceptable for us to bulldoze nature and native societies. To do so actually becomes desirable, inevitable, and possibly "divine."

But the assertion that technological society is something higher than what came before, and that it is bound to bring us a better world, has lately fallen open to grave doubts. The Industrial Revolution is about a century old, and we have had ample time to draw a few conclusions about how it is going. It is not too soon to observe that this revolution may not be living up to its advertising, at least in terms of human contentment, fulfilment, health, sanity, and peace. And it is surely creating terrible and possibly catastrophic impacts on the earth. Technotopia seems already to have failed, but meanwhile it continues to lurch forward, expanding its reach and becoming more arrogant and dangerous.

The next questions become: Can we expect the situation to improve or worsen in the future? And what of the people who always told us that this way would not work, and continue to say so now? Finally, which is the more "romantic" viewpoint: that technology will fix itself and lead us to paradise, or that the answer is something simpler?

Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred, Sierra Club Books, (1992) p2-7.

COMMMENT: The following texts trace the 20th century questioning of the necessity "to bulldoze nature and native societies" in the name of technological progress.

Tuesday 28 November 2023


In the Absence of the Sacred Part 2

Jerry Mander

The second book was to be a kind of continuation and update of Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. That book impressed me tremendously when I read it twenty years ago. In one sense it was a masterful work, detailing in excruciating fashion U.S. double-dealing and brutality against the Indians. But in another sense Brown did the Indian cause a disservice by seeming to suggest that they were all wiped out, and that now there is nothing to be done. The book put the reader through an emotional catharsis; having read it, it was as if one had already paid one's dues. Combined with the popular imagery from television and films, the book helped remand Indian issues to the past.

Even liberal-minded people, concerned about issues of justice, who acknowledge the atrocities committed on this land, tend to speak of Indian issues as tragedies of the distant past. So ingrained is this position that when, occasionally, non-Indians do come forward on behalf of present-day Indian causes - Marlon Brando, William Kunstler, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Jane Fonda - they are all put into that "romantic" category. People are a bit embarrassed for them, as if they'd stepped over some boundary of propriety. When environmentalists such as David Brower occasionally speak publicly about how we should heed the philosophies of the Inuit (Eskimos), they are thought impractical, uncool, not politic, not team players. (And when a specific issue pits native traditions against some current environmental concern, such as fur trapping, or subsistence sealing, or whaling, the native viewpoint is not given a fair hearing.) Literary luminaries like Peter Matthiessen have also been chastised for books on contemporary Indian issues (In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and Indian Country), with the implication that they should return to novels and Zen explorations.

I have had my own experiences with this. In Four Arguments I reported several encounters with Indians as a way of revealing bias in the media. I was surprised at the number of critics who cited those lines as foolish. Gene Youngblood, for example, a respected radical writer on media issues, said, "Mander is so naive. . . . My God, that old sixties chestnut, the Indians."

I thought that even Nelson Mandela got that treatment when he spoke about Indians at his 1990 Oakland rally. The news reports seemed to suggest that he didn't quite understand "our Indians."

The Indian issue is not part of the distant past. Many of the worst anti - Indian campaigns were undertaken scarcely 80 to 100 years ago. Your great-grandparents were already alive at the time. The Model-T Ford was on the road.

More to the point is that the assaults continue today. While the Custer period of direct military action against Indians may be over in the United States, more subtle though equally devastating "legalistic" manipulations continue to separate Indians from their land and their sovereignly, as we will see from the horrible events in Alaska, described in Chapter 16.

There are still over one and a half million Indians in the United States today. Significant numbers of them continue to live in wilderness and desert regions and in the far north of Alaska, often engaging in traditional subsistence practices on the same lands where their ancestors lived for millennia. Contrary to popular assumptions, most of these Indians are not eager to become Americans, despite the economic, cultural, and legal pressures to do so.

Elsewhere in the world, millions of native peoples also live in a traditional manner, while suffering varying degrees of impact from the expansion of Western technological society. In places such as Indonesia, Borneo, New Guinea, the Amazon forests, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, parts of central Africa, the north of Canada, and even Scandinavia, the Soviet Union, China, and Tibet, tribal peoples are struggling to defend their ancestral lands. In other places, such as India, Iraq, Turkey, Mexico, Chile, the Pacific islands, New Zealand, and Australia, millions more native peoples live a kind of in-between existence, while they are under cultural, economic, or military siege.

According to Cultural Survival, the Boston-based human rights organization, there are at least 3,000 native nations in the world today that continue to function within the boundaries of the 200-odd countries that assert sovereignty over them. Many wars that our media describe as "civil wars" or "guerrilla insurgencies" are actually attempts by tribal nations to free themselves of the domination of larger nation-states. In Guatemala, it's the Mayans. In Burma, it's the Karens. In the Amazon, it's the Yanomamo and the Xingu, among others. In Micronesia, it's the Belauans. In Indonesia, it's the peoples of Irian Jaya.

Perhaps the most painful realization for Americans is that in many of these foreign locales - particularly South America, the Pacific islands, Indonesia, and the Philippines - the natives' struggles to maintain their lands and sovereignty is often directed against United States corporations, or technology, or military. More to the point, it is directed against a mentality, and an approach to the planet and to the human place on Earth, that native people find fatally flawed. For all the centuries they've been in contact with us, they've been saying that our outlook is missing something. But we have ignored what they say. To have heeded them would have meant stopping what we were doing and seeking another path. It is this very difference in world views that has made the assault on Indian people inevitable.

    Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred, Sierra Club Books, (1992) p2-7.

COMMENT: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is emotionally draining, yet it demands to be studied alongside accounts of the fate of indigenous peoples today, such as those by Jay Griffiths.

Monday 27 November 2023

In the Absence of the Sacred Part 1

 Extracts from In the Absence of the Sacred, by Jerry Mander

Originally I planned to write two books. The first was to be a critique of technological society as we know it in the United States, a kind of sequel to Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Instead of concentrating on TV, though, it would have focused on the new technological age: "the information, society," computerization, robotization, space travel, artificial intelligence, genetics, satellite communications. This seemed timely, since these technologies are changing our world at an astoundingly accelerating rate. Thus far, most people view these changes as good. But are they?

That our society would tend to view new technologies favorably is understandable. The first waves of news concerning any technical innovation are invariably positive and optimistic. That's because, in our society, the information is purveyed by those who stand to gain from our acceptance of it: corporations and their retainers in the government and scientific communities. None is motivated to report the negative sides of new technologies, so the public gets its first insights and expectations from sources that are clearly biased.

Over time, as successive generations of idealized technical innovations are introduced and presented at World's Fairs, in futurists' visions, and in hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of advertising, we develop expectations of a technological utopia here on Earth and in great domed cities in space. We begin to equate technological evolution with evolution itself, as though the two were equally inevitable, and virtually identical. The operating homilies become "Progress is good," "There's no turning back," and "Technology will free humans from disease, strife, and unremitting toil."

Debate on these subjects is inhibited by the fact that views of technology in our society are nearly identical across the political and social spectrum. The Left takes the same view of technology as do corporations, futurists, and the Right. Technology, they all say, is neutral. It has no inherent' politics, no inevitable social or environmental consequences. What matters, according to this view, is who controls technology.

I have attended dozens of conferences in the last ten years on the future of technology. At every one, whether sponsored by government, industry, or environmentalists or other activists, someone will address the assembly with something like this: "There are many problems with technology and we need to acknowledge them, but the problems are not rooted to the technologies themselves. They are caused by the way we have chosen to use them. We can do better. We must do better. Machines don't cause problems, people do." This is always said as if it were an original and profound idea, when actually everyone else is saying exactly the same thing.

As we will see, the idea that technology is neutral is itself not neutral - it directly serves the interests of the people who benefit from our inability to see where the juggernaut is headed.

I only began to glimpse the problem during the 1960s when I saw how excited our society became about the presumed potentials of television. Activists, like everyone else, saw the technology opportunistically, and began to vie with other segments of society for their twenty seconds on the network news. A kind of war developed for access to this powerful new instrument that spoke pictures into the brains of the whole population, but the outcome was predetermined. We should have realized it was a foregone conclusion that TV technology would inevitably be controlled by corporations, the government, and the military. Because of the technology's geographic scale, its cost, the astounding power of its imagery, and its ability to homogenize thought, behavior, and culture, large corporations found television uniquely efficient for ingraining a way of life that served (and still serves) their interests. And in times of national crisis, the government and military find TV a perfect instrument for the centralized control of information and consciousness. Meanwhile, all other contenders for control of the medium have effectively fallen by the wayside.

Now we have the frenzy over computers, which, in theory, can empower individuals and small groups and produce a new information democracy. In fact, as we will see in Chapter 4, the issue of who benefits most from computers was already settled when they were invented. Computers, like television, are far more valuable and helpful to the military, to multinational corporations, to international banking, to governments, and to institutions of surveillance and control - all of whom use this technology on a scale and with a speed that are beyond our imaginings - than they ever will be to you and me.

Computers have made it possible to instantaneously move staggering amounts of capital, information, and equipment throughout the world, giving unprecedented power to the largest institutions on the earth. In fact, computers make these institutions possible. Meanwhile, we use our personal computers to edit our copy and hook into our information networks - and believe that makes us more powerful.

Even environmentalists have contributed to the problem by failing to effectively criticize technical evolution despite its obvious, growing, and inherent bias against nature. I fear that the ultimate direction of technology will become vividly clear to us only after we have popped out of the "information age" - which does have a kind of benevolent ring - and realize what is at stake in the last two big "wilderness intervention" battlegrounds: space and the genetic structures of living creatures. From there, it's on to the "postbiological age" of nanotechnology and robotics, whose advocates don't even pretend to care about the natural world. They think it's silly and out of date.

This first book was intended to raise questions about whether technological society has lived up to its advertising, and also to address some grave concerns about its future direction. Until now we have been impotent in the face of the juggernaut, partly because we are so unpracticed in technological criticism. We don't really know how to assess new or existing technologies. It is apparent that we need a new, more holistic language for examining technology, one that would ignore the advertised claims, best-case visions, and glamorous imagery that inundate us and systematically judge technology from alternative perspectives: social, political, economic, spiritual, ecological, biological, military. Who gains? Who loses? Do the new technologies serve planetary destruction or stability? What are their health effects? Psychological effects? How do they affect our interaction with and appreciation of nature? How do they interlock with existing technologies? What do they make possible that could not exist before? What is being lost? Where is it all going? Do we want that?

In the end, we can see that technological evolution is leading to something new: a worldwide, interlocked, monolithic, technical-political web of unprecedented negative implications.

Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred, Sierra Club Books, (1992) p2-7

COMMENT: This new series of Blogs is offered for discussion within and between households, in schools and colleges, in local groups of national and international societies, in community and faith centres of all persuasions. The first two were published in 1992, the third in 1945, is followed by three pieces fro 1925. All are concerned with the relentless surge of technological power over the political, economic and spiritual/social spheres of World Society.

Comments welcome.

Monday 17 April 2023

Medical Progress?

 The last few Blog entries on organ transplants raise fundamental questions: where on earth is medical 'progress', science and new technology taking humanity. Do we really want to go there? Who is calling the tune?

Many of us have witnessed the distress of parents called to a hospital bed after an accident when a young person (under 25 years old) seems unlikely to survive. We can but imagine the further distress at being told that the young person's organs are required for transplantation into somebody else's body. It would seem appropriate to open a public forum on the ethics and desirability, not only of transplants but also of procedures surrounding abortion, contraception, and embryo research. For at least the last decade, many girls who have been prescribed the contraceptive pill to alleviate heavy periods have taken this as a green light to 'safe' sex.

In 1989 Pat Spallone raised the question of ethics in respect of the new reproductive technologies:

"On 25 July 1978, in England, the world's first 'test-tube' baby, Louise Brown, was born to Lesley and John Brown. The birth marked the realisation by a research scientist, Robert Edwards, and his colleague, gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe, that fertilisation of a woman's egg and a man's sperm which took place outside the female body and in a laboratory dish could be placed back into the woman's body and develop to term. The first live birth from 'test tube' fertilisation, or what scientists call in vitro fertilisation or IVF, came after years of experimentation: experimentation which included removing eggs from women's bodies, growing the eggs under laboratory conditions, and eventually entailed inserting the fertilised eggs into women's wombs in the hope that pregnancy would result.

"IVF, the procedure which first entails physiological manipulation of women's bodies to extract eggs, was an invention of the natural science, biology. IVF is one of many biological 'breakthroughs' of the second half of the twentieth century, along with genetic engineering. Biological science, like physics and chemistry before it, has come of age. We are in the midst of a revolution in biology, where control of human reproductive capacities are considered of great importance. In his 1968 book, The Biological Time-Bomb, Gordon Rattray Taylor discussed the IVF research then being conducted, the implications of 'pre-natal adoption' of embryos created by IVF [surrogacy?], sex-choice, artificial wombs, and the future prospect of 'baby factories'. He discussed all these in the context of other scientific breakthroughs, such as organ transplantation, genetic engineering, and the creation of living viruses from non-living molecules. It was a decade before the first 'test-tube' baby was born." (Pat Spallone (1989) Beyond Conception: The New Politics of Reproduction, Macmillan Education p8).

From 1968 these developments have been researched by employees of commercial companies with very little, if any, public debate. As a result, would-be mothers find themselves presented with a range of recommended procedures they never fully comprehend, only to discover, more often than not, that they have unwittingly become research guinea pigs. For many grandparents, the processes in course of development seem indeed, to be 'beyond conception'.

COMMENT: This series of blogs, posted from 10 April 23 (I, Daniel Blake Reviewed) raises issues crying out for further research by specialists and non-specialists alike, for group discussion and practical action at local community level worldwide.

Friday 14 April 2023

Organ Transplants PART VI and discussion


Organ Transplants

Only Fully Informed Consent Valid

If a fair offer of organs is to be made by this means, the wording on Donor Cards must clearly be altered to indicate the true circumstances in which the offer may be taken up. And, given the lack of relevant knowledge and comprehension of these matters which seems to prevail in the general population, it may be that the signatory should be required to acknowledge that he has received a full explanation and understands what is involved.

The same considerations regarding explanation and understanding should, of course, apply when a relative is asked for the organs of a loved-one dying on a ventilator. In this tragic context, real comprehension may be particularly difficult to achieve. However, without it there must remain serious doubt about the validity of the consent sought and given. As things are, it may seem paradoxical that such care is taken to ensure that consent to relatively minor therapeutic surgical procedures is given on a fully- informed basis while consent to the evisceration of a relative is usually sought by staff who are not medically qualified but who - perhaps for this reason and their sympathetic demeanour - achieve a higher percentage of assents to the removal of organs than do the doctors.

It is this great concern that ordinary, public-spirited people have not clearly understood which has been one of the great driving forces behind my efforts to protest during the past decade. Because I feel so strongly that the "harvesting" of hearts etc. is a totally unacceptable abuse of the dying which should not be going on in a civilized society, I have the greatest difficulty in understanding why it is so tolerated. The likely explanation, it seems to me, is that the facts are not well enough known. Some of those who do know and understand - such as nurses and anaesthetists who have been involved - have simply left the transplant scene, usually without public comment. Even some of the surgeons who have been responsible for the removal of the organs have confided to me that they were uneasy about it and did not like doing what they felt they had to do. These pangs of conscience, and their expression, give me real cause for optimism. As one of my advisers commented, some doctors seem to prefer to fudge the scientific issues rather than face the facts about what they're really doing. While that attitude is understandable, it cannot be right or successful in the long term. Sooner or later the truth will out. When it does, I trust that we shall see an end to this misconceived and, to my mind, abhorrent activity — one of the wrong directions taken by Medicine as a consequence of unrestricted technological advances.

Original Editor's Note: Dr. D. W. Evans MD, FRCP retired early from his position of Consultant Cardiologist at Papworth Hospital because of his firm conviction on this matter.

FN :* This refers to so-called "cadaveric" donation. A technique for the removal of a part of a liver from a healthy relative, for transplanting into the recipient, has recently been developed in the U.S.A. While this procedure is not free from ethical problems, they are not of the kind which this paper addresses.

* * * * *

Round Table Discussion

True, the essay on organ transplants was written three decades ago. How has the situation changed, in law? in practice?

How many parents of a young person dying from an accident are presented with the demand to cut out vital organs. Is this a 'good thing' to do?

Note that "Even some of the surgeons who have been responsible for the removal of the organs have confided to me that they were uneasy about it and did not like doing what they felt they had to do". Discuss the moral implications, especially off the last four words.


Organ Transplants PARTS IV and V

More Rigorous Test Omitted

It should be noted that steps are taken to prevent the donor from becoming short of oxygen while the ventilator is temporarily disconnected for these test purposes. This is to preserve the donor organs from anoxic damage which would impair their suitability for transplantation. However, this inevitably means that the vital centre in the brain stem which 'controls the breathing - the respiratory centre - is not subjected to the ultimate stimulus (lack of oxygen in the blood reaching it) to see if it can make a last-gasp effort. It is, in fact,tested only for the ability to respond to the less-powerful stimulus of a high carbon dioxide content in the blood still reaching the brain stem.

It should also be noted that the vital centres in the brain stem which control heart-rate and blood pressure are not tested at all under the U.K. protocol. That they are still active in some, if not most, organ donors is shown by the fact that many of them continue to maintain their blood pressure naturally after the declaration of "brain stem death," and by observations of cardiovascular response to the trauma of organ removal which are almost certainly brain stem mediated.

The long and short of it is that these tests are nowhere near adequate to exclude residual life and function in a damaged brain. And, as if that were not bad enough, not even all of these tests have to be done when it is desired to certify death for transplantation purposes. In other countries, there is at least some attempt to test for residual activity in the higher centres of the brain. In the U.K. there is none. If persisting electrical activity (EEG waves) were sought here, it is certain that it could be found in many of these so-called "cadaveric" organ donors. Some would retain function in a part of the brain which controls glandular secretions. These discomforting facts are simply ignored by those who wish to call a donor's brain dead. They dodge the issue of their relevance by not doing the tests which might demonstrate such activity.

The Brief: to Provide Organs in Good Condition

In effect, exhaustive testing for residual life in the brain is proscribed. All in all, the rules governing the diagnosis of "brain death"in this country must be seen for what they are - a simplistic code developed in response to a brief to provide vital organs in good condition for the transplanters. A colleague has likened the process of their formulation to the activities of a committee of foxes taxed with the design of a hen house .....

From the scientific point of view, it is most unfortunate that attempts to diagnose true death of the brain, while some independent bodily functions continued, ever became involved with transplantation. As we have seen, the idea that it might be diagnosable, in some circumstances,was seized upon by those seeking viable human organs, long before it had been adequately thought out or tested. The transplanters simply assumed that what they wanted to believe was true - and have steadfastly refused to consider, or even see, the substantial body of evidence that denies their belief. Had they not become involved, with the consequences that ensued, we might by now be further along the road towards the possibility of secure diagnosis of the true and total death of the brain as an independent phenomenon.

Should that become a scientific reality, the term "brain death" would be an appropriate description. And I, for one, would be prepared to consider the proposition that a patient with a truly dead brain was no longer a human being, i.e. because there is persuasive evidence that the brain is the quintessential organ and the home of the inner self.


A Better Criterion

However, the final 'cessation of all activity in every part of the brain would be a prerequisite for consideration of this proposition because Man does not yet know very much about the workings of his brain and we cannot, therefore, safely assume that pockets of residual activity here and there do not matter. That being so, we should need clear evidence of the absence of all metabolism, with no possibility of its resuming, in each and every part of the brain. Reliable evidence of the final cessation of blood flow (at normal temperatures) everywhere within the brain would be acceptable for this purpose and it is possible that techniques with the power to demonstrate this reliably (while the body is still alive) may one day become available. At the moment, we can only be sure that the cerebral circulation has ceased for ever when the bodily circulation has finally ceased, i.e. when the patient's heart, or some other pump such as those used in operating theatres to take over the heart's function while it is operated upon, finally stops. This, of course, is the commonly understood criterion of death and the one still used by the majority of the world's doctors to diagnose well over 99% of all deaths.

To sum up, I would urge that:-

(1) The attempt to force upon the professions and public the notion that true death of the brain can be ‘diagnosed reliably, while the body is still alive, be resisted. Likewise the contingent notion that a patient pronounced "'brain dead" on current criteria is truly dead.

(2) It it be argued that the state defined by the "brain stem death" tests is, while not death itself, yet so close to death as to make no practical difference, let the inaccurate and misleading term be abandoned in favour of one which makes the situation clear, i.e. that neither the patient nor his brain stem is really dead at this time, though doomed he may well be. Full understanding of this essential point will perhaps for the first time, enable the opinion-formers of our society to debate the ethics of transplantation in an enlightened frame of mind. Up till now, the highly successful confusion of the dying and dead states, andthe use of weasel-words such as "beating-heart cadavers," has manipulated thought to the exclusion of serious criticism.

(3) The misleadingly-worded Donor Cards be withdrawn immediately.

Many selfless prospective offers may have been made on a basis of serious misunderstanding; the signatories may have thought that the words "after my death" on those cards meant after their deaths in the commonly-understood sense of the term. Indeed, I know that some highly-intelligent and otherwise well-informed people have carried these cards thinking that they were thereby authorising removal of their organs after the final disconnection of the ventilator and the subsequent final cessation of their circulation. When disabused of this cosy notion, some have expressed horror and some disbelief. Most, when the truth has dawned, have destroyed their cards; a few have continued to carry them after modification, e.g. specification that a general anaesthetic be administered during removal of the organs.

To be continued ...