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Is Technology Blind?

An Address by
Joseph C. Wilson, Chairman Xerox Corporation
Rochester City Club
February 8, 1969

It is a high honor to be asked to speak to this organization. I must confess, however, that the honor became rather excruciating when I had to decide how, precisely, I could live up to it. Since there were many months' notice, I could hardly fall back on Rufus Choate's great opening line: "I rise with my thighs still bleeding from the spur of the moment." To review technology deeply would be carrying more coals to this Newcastle than that old town could tolerate. 

And so I decided to try to relate some of the fundamental forces at work today in our world in ways that could offer some helpful insights and perhaps some perspectives that often get short shrift in the day-to-day press of business.

Isaac Asimov, reviewing a new encyclopedia of technology in The New York Times, had this to say:

"Once upon a time there were primitive priesthoods of magic, and members of those priesthoods cast spells, muttered runes, made intricate diagrams on the floor with powders of arcane composition. Onlookers, when there were any, would watch with awe and no little fear, believing utterly in the efficacy of all this and in the existence of powerful and dangerous forces they could not themselves control."

"Nowadays," he continued, "there is a modern priesthood of science that calls on the power of expanding steam, of shifting electrons or drifting neutrons, of exploding gasoline or uranium, and does so without spells, runes, powders, or even any visible change of expression."

Control and examination of the future is, of course, no longer the realm of the primitive priest nor even solely of the modern priesthood of science. Rather, it is the core of planning and a central element in the conduct of public policy. Within just the sphere of "surprise free” probability, we can predict that nearly all industry -- indeed -- all society will in the next 10 years become vastly more oriented to technology than ever before, and at a rate of acceleration far more rapid than we ever dreamed.

To put such dizzying change within some frame of reference, we must, I think approach it in terms of a series of interacting, overlapping, or parallel revolution. And I might add, in passing, that the word "revolution” is one with which we are going to have to learn to live more comfortably than we have before. This assertion does not need much demonstrating in 1969. What it does need is more understanding that the passion of revolution is permanent, important, influential and inevitable.

Two of the physical revolutions through which we are living are those in energy and communications. Each contains profound implications for the psychic, philosophical and political revolutions which now surround us.

As a result of man’s ability to harness and use the energy in such sources as hydroelectric power and fossil fuels, the average amount of power available to each person in the world today is only about 100 watts -- weighted quite disproportionately in favor of the industrialized nations, of course. But the availability of energy is growing very rapidly -- not only in such still rather exotic forms as solar energy, but especially in the now "established" form of nuclear power.

The key to the use of any form of energy, as with almost anything else, is of course its cost relative to other forms. It is here, even within the limits of present technology, that nuclear power is making its breakthrough - particularly in plants generating electricity. As you doubtless know, nuclear plants offer a large incremental return. A doubling of the capacity can be achieved with a cost increase of only two-thirds, whereas the cost of fossil-fuel plants rises in direct ratio to the degree of scale-up. Also, recent developments in superconductors soon will make it possible to transmit electricity economically over distances of 2,000 miles or more. This raises the possibility of supranational power grids.

To me, this means that the economic and political units we are used to may become obsolete in our lifetime. We may live to see totally new forms of hemispheric or continental administration and greater numbers of multi- national institutions operating freely across heretofore sovereign boundaries. Simultaneously, and coupled with the energy revolution are basic advances in communications.

John Diebold gave clear and present application to this when he wrote, "...today's crop of machines deals with the very core of human society -- with information, its communication, and use... These are developments that augur far more for mankind than net changes in manpower, more or less employment, or new ways of doing old tasks... This is a technology which vastly extends the range of human capability and which will fundamental alter human society... and force us to reconsider our whole approach toward society and toward life itself."

It is this dual technological revolution and our whole approach to its impact on society and business on which I would like to concentrate today. It is perhaps the central question of our time. What the students in our colleges and universities both here and abroad are agitating about today is essentially this matter of the quality of life -- our generation's whole approach to society and to life itself. Our institutions of higher learning -- the source of tomorrow’s businessmen and scientists and the seedbed of those who will be making public policy -- are in ferment and revolt and the causes of youthful discontent go deep, indeed, deeper even than the issue of war and peace.

What about America’s minority groups -- the residents of the slums and other terribly deprived segments of our society? How do they feel about the American dream? Where, after all the civil rights bills and anti-poverty legislation of recent years, does our nation stand with these groups? We do know that we stand in some danger of seeing parts of our country burned to the ground and our central cities sacked by irrational, almost purposeless violence of people disillusioned by promises unkept and generations plowed under.

How, we ask ourselves, can all this possibly be in a time of unprecedented prosperity, a time of the brightest promise man has ever known? How, when the physical revolutions are so marvelous, can we know such national doubt, such international misery ?

Remember the timeless words of the opening sentence in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..."

What do the ferment and the social problems that we are familiar with come down to, and how do they affect all of us here in this room? What can we do about them? What must we do about them? Put differently and more pointedly:

Nearly everyone, no matter how limited his education or how fuzzy his thinking, has at least a subliminal realization of the enormous contributions that technology through industry has made to the human condition. All of us in this sort of business -- or for that matter, in business of any sort -- must accept the fact that our contributions do not always measure up fully to our obligations or our opportunities.

Yet the opportunity to bring modern technology to bear on social problems is perhaps one of the biggest opportunities of our century. Not an easy opportunity, obviously, but one that businessmen and technology-oriented companies must explore if only because they are in many ways the father and the creator of the society toward which we are evolving so rapidly -- and, in some respects, so heedlessly. Any corporate planner stumbling toward the future with as little purposefulness as our society as a whole sometimes seems to show would be sacked in short order.

George Bernard Shaw expressed his own Draconian view of this in these words: "Every person who owes his life to civilized society and who has enjoyed since Ms childhood its very costly protections and advantages should appear at reasonable intervals before a properly qualified jury to justify his existence. This existence should be summarily and painlessly terminated if he fails to justify it... Nothing less will make people really responsible citizens."

I am convinced that businessmen and scientists have a moral imperative to extend both the potential and the fruits of technology, not only to the frontiers of human development but to its backwaters as well. Technology, particularly in recent times, has indeed theoretically advanced the human condition -- but very spottily, very unevenly. Its pace has left whole segments of American society and, in fact, whole nations and regions further behind us in their development than they were even 10 or 20 years ago.

This gap is more dangerous to our country, both internally and externally, than any other fact of our time. As Kahn and Wiener point out in their recent book, "The Year 2000" "...every society today is consciously committed to economic growth, to raising the standard of living of its people, and therefore to the planning, direction and control of social change."

I think most of us today would agree that technologically strong companies, above all others, must relate intimately and continually to that social change because they are becoming the prime motive force in its direction and development --a positive and inescapable locus of power. Thus the challenge we face is pretty obvious. Can we really do what needs to be done in order to create and maintain the sort of society that will provide the climate we must have if we are to function fully?

Earlier this year there appeared in the Saturday Review an article by Wilber Ferry, a Vice President of The Fund for the Republic. It carried the disturbing title, "Must We Rewrite the Constitution to Control Technology?" Mr. Ferry was deadly serious from his opening sentence: "I shall argue here the proposition that the regulation of technology is the most important intellectual and political task on the American agenda." He rests his case in large part on what he calls "growing evidence that technology is subtracting as much and more from the sum of human welfare as it is adding. " A powerful indictment.

Whether Mr. Ferry's thesis is sound -- and I for one do not think it is -- is less important than whether, large numbers of people think it is sound. I am afraid too many of us have too long taken refuge in the negative defense that technology is blind. What we have meant by this, I think, is that technology serves men to the extent that those who direct it are deeply interested in improving the human condition. And our corollary has been that those of us in decision-making positions really are interested in advancing the human condition. But the rub is precisely here.

Large numbers of people simply do not believe us -- for the reason that those of the inner cities and among the suffering have derived little or no benefit from modern technology and profit-making private enterprise. Even some of the most articulate and direct beneficiaries of our system do not believe us - - I think particularly of that important minority, the disenchanted young college people, students and faculty, who want no part of business.

Yet, I hope I can say without being self-serving that American business -- in my view has developed both a sense of obligation and a sense of power to meet its obligation.

Certainly, in the basic sense, we have that power, particularly if one accepts the definition offered by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in his extraordinary book, The American Challenge:

"Neither legions nor raw material nor capital are any longer the signs of instruments of power. And even factories themselves are only external evidence. Force today is the capacity to invent, that is -- research; it is the capacity for converting inventions into products, that is technology. The deposits one must exploit are no longer in the earth or in vast populations or in machines -- but in the mind. More precisely: in the aptitude of man for reflecting and for creating."

Power is, of course, a double-edged sword and it is still true that "uneasy rests the head that wears the crown. " People -- including the academicians I just mentioned -- expect more of those who have power and often fear them as well. Wilbur Ferry*s article said, "Technology^ scope and penetration places in the hands of its administrators gigantic capabilities for arbitrary power." If those of us in private business especially in technology-oriented business -- are to retain or deserve to retain power, we must above all persuade people by our actions, not our speeches, that its exercise is not going to be arbitrary, but instead responsible, perceptive and humane.

This clearly puts a great obligation on businessmen. But I submit that this additional obligation is inescapable.


I have been asked to make some comments about how a corporation which wishes to make an.effort to assume a responsible role in society should organize to do so. This is an extraordinarily difficult assignment because the key points are subtle and intangible. It has to do mostly with the spirit at the top, but before fully emphasizing that aspect, which is fundamental, there are, of course, hard realities. You will not, I hope, think me presumptuous to use the case of Xerox to illustrate my thesis. After all, its experience is the only experience which I have in any depth.

I have tried, through this somewhat detailed enumeration, to make a single point. It is the spirit of the top management of the company that counts. Unless it is imbued with the insight of business responsibility, unless it causes that spirit to penetrate all the ranks, no organization structure will accomplish much. If the spirit is thus, however, there are infinite numbers of ways to act. Any creative manager will find how to accomplish good. Unless he feels the approbation of the top leaders, no matter how deep his own motivation, little will come of Ms efforts. To boil it down to its simplest terms: Business leaders must make one of their basic objectives responsibilities to society and they must behave that way.

Let me now return to the general concept to emphasize why I said before that it was modern technological industry and its whole approach to society that I wanted to concentrate on this noon. The reason is obvious: no segment of our society exerts greater impact on society as a whole than business technologists and the businessmen who decide how to use their efforts. No society will long be willing for any group to hold such power unless the members of that group clearly demonstrate their awareness of the potential consequences of that power -- and their concern with using it to improve the lot of their fellowman.

Our corporate strategists like to think, with a good deal of justification, that they are concerned as much with shaping the future environment as with forecasting it. Actually, this is just a throwback to earlier times. When Sears, Roebuck's business was mainly in rural areas of the country, nobody thought it was odd for Sears to help the farmer increase his income, so he could buy more from Sears. There was a direct correlation between farm income and Sears* profits. The old Standard Oil Company exploited this tactic and expanded the market for kerosene by making thousands of lamps available to the people of China.

American business' primary environment is, of course, America. Because we are becoming increasingly an urban society, the environment of American business focuses on the central cities. Yet these cities are becoming uninhabitable in the view of many people -- especially those middle and upper-class whites who have deserted them in droves for the suburbs. This process naturally feeds on itself; and cities go downhill even faster.

Political pressures and necessity, and the urgent requirement for public order, are forcing the government into doing more and more in attacking poverty, slum housing, illiteracy, poor health, and all the rest of this sorry syndrome. Yet we know that approaches by government at any level are seldom bold or innovative and often somehow seem to perpetuate the problem, perhaps a subconscious way of perpetuating the machinery and the system and the status quo. Those of us in business, on the other hand, want to solve any problems we tackle or at least to make major improvements and prevent relapses.

The real question, then, is whether enough of us in business will recognize clearly enough and soon enough our own self-interest in joining with government and all others concerned to take on the job in the most intelligent and efficient -- and, if possible, self liquidating though not necessarily immediately profitable -- way.

Our interest in these problems goes beyond that of just expanding markets for our goods and services, though it might be mentioned that the United States itself offers the greatest growth potential of any underdeveloped nation on the globe. Those who have gained almost nothing from our private enterprise system -- or failed to secure the most highly valued prizes of all, self-respect and dignity -- are almost bound to feel that they owe nothing to private enterprise, and little to government.

If, however, we lend our minds and our hands and our hearts and our technology and other resources to this effort, we may accomplish a lot more than might appear. Many of the general public and people in government may come to a new appreciation of some of the positive qualities of business.

Still another benefit will be greater ease in recruiting, developing, advancing and retaining the qualified young people that we must have as leaders for tomorrow. If we have learned anything recently, it should be that today's concerned youth are demanding more from life than a chicken in every pot -- or its present-day equivalent --a television set in every room. They are, if you will, insisting on a certain degree of idealism, a commitment to human progress that is active, intimate, and sensitive, an opportunity to render real service to their fellow man as well as to make a good living. I am speaking, of course, of the truly concerned minority, the genuinely involved young people -- not of that other minority which has turned its back on our world and its problems.

Let us meet our promising young people on their own terms, on their own terrain. Without for a moment ignoring the problems we face as a nation, let us remind them that our generation battled through the Great Depression and then turned back Hitler’s challenge that would have enslaved us all. Let us also remind them that we went on after that war to an altogether remarkable effort that brought our industrial civilization to unprecedented heights, while at the same time we mounted a Marshall Plan for Europe and a massive foreign aid program for other areas that still continues, and began finally to tackle our domestic problems.

Then, having established our credentials to some degree, let us go on to drive home to these young people just how real and how great are the difficulties to which we must all address ourselves now. Let us convince these youths that we are as concerned as they are with racism, with polluted air and water, with sub-standard housing for too many of our people, with the mounting costs of medical care, with the quality of education and the effectiveness of welfare programs. And that we -- as they -- want and will initiate action now.

If we do all this --if we speak to the young in these terms -- we will convince them that questions come a lot easier than answers. Also, we will find we are at the same time speaking to our larger American and world constituency as well; many people feel we don't even have the right questions, much less the answers, And, finally, we might ourselves learn something from the dialogue.

Every age in history has thought that its problems were greater than those of any preceding period. Socrates and Plato expressed great anxiety over the decline in public morality and the rebelliousness of youth. You will find, in review, that Jefferson and Washington and Lincoln worried over problems that sound contemporary to us.

I would therefore not argue that the problems our society and our world faces today tower over those of earlier generations. Even if true, the point would be irrelevant. The real relevance lies in the fact that our generation has more tools, more accumulated knowledge, more capable managers -- and, most important, better technology --to cope with its problems than any that has preceded it.

This, more than anything else, is why history is going to judge us so harshly. If we meet the challenge, history will carve the names of our time in granite. If we fail, it won't matter much what is written, because it will be written by some other society, and the last best hope of man will have gone down the drain, dead by its own hand, its own inertia, its own inability or refusal to face reality and to make the effort of which it is capable.

Is technology blind? What will be more crucially important in the months and years ahead is whether we who make decisions about the use of technology are blind, I for one do not think we are. As recently as ten years ago, many technologists and businessmen were, if not blind, at least alarmingly myopic. But I think that most of us have been jolted out of complacency.

And, whatever the reasons, whatever the past, I think we now can and must meet on this common ground: That the interests of technologists and businessmen are inexorably linked for the simple reason that in free modern societies technology has, if not its birth, certainly its flowering in the world of business. New and improved technology may be born in a university, a government agency or a research and development laboratory of a business, but it usually comes to life when business takes it on.

And just as technologists and businessmen are indissolubly joined to each other, so we are joined more closely to the strivings of our fellows. For the only race in which we are all entered is the human race, and we win or lose together.

Matthew Arnold once asked a relevant question, "Hath man no second life? Pitch this one high!" he answered.