Ian Barbour on Technology

Ian Barbour, one of the most important figures in the contemporary science/religion debate, died Dec. 24, 2013. Barbour earned advanced degrees in physics and taught religion for many years at Carlton College. I don’t know much of his work, but I am familiar with the part of his Gifford lectures entitled: “Views of technology.” In honor of his work here is an overview of those views followed by a brief critique.

Barbour says that technology is “the application of organized knowledge to practical tasks by ordered systems of people and machines.” In his view, there are three basic views of technology.  

TECHNOLOGY AS LIBERATOR (the optimistic view)

1.  THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY – including 1) higher standards of living (medicines, sanitation, drugs, nutrition, less manual labor, etc.); 2) opportunity for choice (mobility, greater options, birth control, etc.); 3) more leisure (education, arts, entertainment, sport, etc.); and improved communication (radio, tv, phone, fax, email, etc.). In addition, genetic engineering,  new sources of power, computers, and biotechnology promise to provide food, health, information, & energy.

2.  OPTIMISTIC VIEWS OF TECHNOLOGY – Kranzberg, for example, argues that modern urban society offers more freedom in our choice of occupations, friends, activities, etc. We work less and with more fulfillment than ever before. We are now moving to a postindustrial society where power is based on knowledge instead of on property [or physical strength]. In such a society intellectual institutions dominate, there is a service economy and decisions are made on rational-technological grounds.

Florman maintains that the past has been romanticized when in fact: “Living standards were actually very low, work was brutal, and roles were rigidly defined.” People moved to cities because life was better there and our use of technology is the result of our choices and a response to public demands. He also believes that technological problems are solved by technology and that, while there is risk, we must balance the costs with the benefits. We must trust the experts in decisions concerning technology instead of allowing a uniformed public debate. (reminiscent of Plato) We must forge ahead in the hope of creating a better life for all.

Some Christian theologians see technology as a product of God-given human reason that can be used to free us from our bondage to nature, to enrich human life, affirm love & compassion, and ameliorate suffering. The French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin advocated that we create neo-life and direct the course of cosmic evolution to restructure the universe. In short, technology evolution and spiritual evolution are joined with the one as a prerequisite for the other.

3.  A REPLY TO THE OPTIMISTS – 1) The costs of technology are too easily underestimated; the costs are often unintended and not apparent for a long period of time. 2) The negative effects of technology are symptoms of our alienation from nature. 3) Technology has concentrated political and economic power in the hands of a few. 4) Large-scale technologies are dangerous. 5) Technology fosters dependence on experts who are self-interested—when we rely on others to make our decisions it is usually bad for all. 6) We may question the view that science pushes technology which is itself pulled by society and the marketplace. This again allows a disproportionate influence on the marketplace by the wealthy and those who desire instant gratification, causing us to overlook long-term goals.

TECHNOLOGY AS THREAT (the pessimistic view) 

1.  THE HUMAN COSTS OF TECHNOLOGY – 1) Uniformity in a mass society – standardized products, mass media created uniform culture, lack of individuality, and loss of identity since conformity aids efficiency. 2) Narrow criterion of efficiency – efficiency is defined in terms of quantities like volume, speed and maximum output where the human costs are overlooked. 3) Impersonality and manipulation – Genuine interpersonal interaction is threatened “when people feel like cogs in a well-oiled machine,” that is like objects. 4) Uncontrollability – technology takes on a life of its own, and in the process we lose control over technology and ourselves. 5) Alienation of the worker – Marx argued that technology brings about alienated labor—alienation from the process of work, the products of our work, and ultimately alienation from others and ourselves.

2.  RECENT CRITIQUES OF TECHNOLOGY – Ellul claims that technology is an uncontrollable force that makes us its slaves by forcing us to adapt to its demands; it determines our institutions, media, and our lives, and there is little we can do about it. Winner says decisions are made by what the technological system demands so technology controls our lives. Jonas worries about the scale and power of technology. Given the potential for harm from technology, we should err on the side of caution when it comes to using it. Borgmann doubts that technology promotes human fulfillment. To do this, we must use it not to increase production and consumption but to foster a more meaningful and simpler life. Kipnis believes that technological superiority leads to a belief in moral superiority and all the attendant evils—intolerance, injustice, etc. In short, the power provided by technology corrupts. Some Christians assert that technology has a negative effect on human life by fostering pride, idolatry, and technology as a form of salvation. Moreover, technology is addictive and our desires for it become insatiable. Other theologians argue that technology undermines the religious life and the sense of the sacred. The technician treats life as a problem to be solved and treats persons as objects.

3.  A REPLY TO THE PESSIMISTS – 1) All technologies are not the same. In addition, technology is not impervious to the influence of politics, economics and other social influences. It isn’t all dominating. 2) The historical evidence does not show that technology directs itself but that other social factors determine the path of technology. 3) Technology does serve humans and should not undermine human relationships.


1.  TECHNOLOGY & POLITICAL POWER – Technology is neither good nor evil—knives can be used for good or ill as can our ability to split the atom. Instead technology serves the interest of institutions, although the public may have some input.

2.  THE REDIRECTION OF TECHNOLOGY – Some argue that political structures can redirect technology to do more good. Rather than profit and short-term interest dominating, the public good and long-term interest may dominate. Marxists claim that technology is a means of increasing inequality in a capitalistic system. Western Marxists insist that if technology were put to use in a truly egalitarian society, the results would be vastly different from the experience of the Soviets. Some Christian theologians see technology as neutral, believing that it can be used to promote economic equality—or do more to better the world than it currently does. Barbour believes that this 3rd view—technology as neutral—is more consistent with “the Biblical outlook” than the first 2 views. The first view replaces God with technology, while the second view overlooks the benefits of technology for human life. Citing Niebuhr, Barbour agrees that the first group is optimistic, and would accommodate to society and its technology because it thinks technology good. These are the rationalists and progressivists. The second group is pessimistic and withdraws from society since it thinks technology is bad; they are Luddites. The 3rd group—Barbour’s group—calls for a via media position between the 2 extremes. This can be accomplished by 1) a synthesis of Christianity & society; 2) a separation of the two realms; or 3) the transformation of society—redirection of technology—consistent with Christian values.

4.   THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF TECHNOLOGY – There are three views of how science, technology and society are related. There is: 1) Linear Development – Science leads to technology which has an impact on society. (The common view of the optimists); 2) Technological Determinism – Determinism varies in its degrees—basically hard & soft determinism, but technology determines science and society. (The common view of the pessimists); and Contextual Interaction – Science, society, and technology interact in a context and are mutually reciprocal in influence. (The common view of the 3rd group.).


Optimists focus primarily on the economic benefits of technology like standards of food and health; and while social justice and environmental sustainability are important, they are not as important as economic benefits. The pessimists focus on personal fulfillment that includes meaningful work, human relationships, and community life, all of which are more important than economic benefit. The contextualists focus on social justice issues like distribution of wealth, rather than simple economic growth. We contrast the three positions by considering: 1) the defense of the personal – which is greatest in the 2nd and 3rd positions; 2) the role of politics – the 1st position is free market, the 2nd argues that the system is overwhelming us, and the 3rd argues that the polity is a means of making sure technology is used wisely; 3) the redirection of technology – the 1st accepts the past and future directions of technology, the 2nd group rejects technology, and the 3rd strikes the middle ground where technology is accepted but only if it can be redirected toward human good; and 4) the scale of technology – the scale should be large enough to bring benefits but small enough to avoid costs.

In the end, Barbour calls for redirecting technology—which is currently to corporations, governments, and economic structures—to serve the common good.  As he puts it: “ the welfare of humanity requires a creative technology that is economically productive, ecologically sound, socially just, and personally fulfilling.”


Barbour misrepresents the first position–technology as liberator–as characterized by techno-optimism. As a transhumanist I see technology as a potential liberator–if hard-won knowledge doesn’t free us what will?–but this doesn’t imply techno-optimism. There are many things that could go wrong with technological applications and transhumanists say as much. Barbour is simply wrong on this point.

What also worries Barbour is that this techno-optimism is focused on economic growth, is utilitarian, and is atheistic. As for economic growth, he simply wasn’t familiar with transhumanism. Transhumanists want to overcome all human limitations, and labor-saving devices or material comforts are but a small subset of what they have in mind. They are much more interested in defeating death and aging, alleviating pain and suffering, experiencing unimaginable states of consciousness and the like. They have limited concerns about markets and often argue for a radically new economic system.

I will admit that utilitarianism or something like it informs transhumanism, although I know of nowhere that this is stated explicitly. Clearly, this is a philosophy based on the assumption of a hedonistic imperative–that unhappiness and pain are bad. As for atheism, again this is probably the default position of most transhumanists, as it is of most scientists and philosophers. (I have referenced this point many times in my writings.)

And while this charge of atheism forces a man of Barbour’s religious sensibilities to reject technology as a liberator, it doesn’t force us to do the same.

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