In principle, technology, the use of instruments, is a branch of moral philosophy, subject to the criteria of prudence, efficiency, simplicity, and so forth. I need not demonstrate, in 1967, that those who abuse our technology at present are not interested in moral philosophy, they are certainly not being prudent, and they are only in a narrow sense careful of efficiency and costs—they altogether neglect social costs. But even if we are mindful of moral philosophy and want to use our technology prudently, there are modern dilemmas that are hard to solve. Let me make two small points of philosophical analysis that are obvious but are usually overlooked.
In the first place, as technology increases, as there is a proliferation of goods, and civilization becomes more complex, there is a change in the scale on which things happen. Then, if we continue to use the concepts that applied to a smaller scale, we begin to think in deceptive abstractions. There are certain functions of life that we think we are carrying on, and that were carried on, on a smaller scale, but that now, on a larger scale, are only apparently being carried on. And sometimes, indeed, because of the error in our thinking, the effects are contrary to those we intended.
Consider a rather poignant example, penology. When some fellows sat in the stocks in the town square and people passed by and jeered at them or clucked their tongues, it is possible (though the psychology is dubious), that the effect might have been reform or penitence. (In my opinion, the old Russian practice of public confession in the square was more likely to lead to penitence and social integration.) The Tombs in New York, however, where many thousands are locked in cages, has no relation whatever to penitence, reform, or social integration; and in fact it is a school for crime, as is shown by the rate of repeaters who come back on more serious charges.
Thus, this kind of penology on this scale has the opposite effect from that intended: it produces crime. Yet we have come by small steps from the fellow in stocks in the town square up to the Tombs or San Quentin. It seems to be “penology” all along the line, but there was a point at which it ceased to be penology and became just torture and foolishness, a waste of money, and the creation of crime. And even the social lust for vengeance, which is probably the chief motive for punishment, is not satisfied; instead, there is more blotting out of sight and heightening of social anxiety.
The change of scale has produced the same contrary effect in schooling. When there was academic instruction for many over a short period or for a few over a longer time, it is likely that some academic education occurred. To be sure, most education for most people happened by other means than schools; society functioned very well and many people became very expert and learned without going to school. In 1900, 6 per cent graduated from high school in America; less than half of one per cent went on to college. Now, however, 100 per cent are forced to go to high school; last year 75 per cent graduated. Nearly 40 per cent now go to college and by 1970 we plan to have 50 per cent. On this scale, it is my observation, very little education is occurring. For academic purposes, we might do just as well if we closed all the schools (though of course they serve for babysitting, policing, and killing time). We could provide the academic instruction that is achieved by far simpler and cheaper methods. Yet by small steps we have come to the present, using the same framework of administration and the same language, although the reality has entirely changed with the change of scale. And instead of education into society, we achieve increasing youth alienation.
Something similar has occurred in communications. Newspapers and public speaking meant one thing when communication was generally available to all; they mean another thing when we have mass media, semi-monopolies, and licensed channels. The effect, by and large, has been homogenization and brainwashing—that is, precisely to prevent communication. With the mass media there is certainly very little back-talk. Indeed, since TV time is so expensive and by law the TV networks must give equal time on “controversial” isssues, the inevitable result has been to avoid controversy altogether.
Grimly, the same abstracting process has been occurring in medicine. There is a tendency in urban medicine—since the doctors are swamped—to deal in vital statistics rather than health. I was recently at a conference in San Francisco concerned with the contraceptive pill. The doctors agreed that it was a good policy to push the pill since it was a sure method of contraception and since there was population pressure and economic pressure among the poor. Yet in private conversation they were more dubious, because of the different effects on different women. Classically, however, medicine was primarily concerned with the maximum health of each individual. Certainly each of us is very much concerned about his own health. Vital statistics and the welfare of society ten years from now are another kind of question—also very important. But because of the change in scale of operation, medicine has begun to lose its classical function; practice begins to have only an approximate relation to that function; and this process can go very far. In schooling it already has gone very far.
And let me conclude with a global example that includes the previous ones. We now see that city-planning has turned into something called “urbanism,” planning for urban areas. There are no “cities.” Similarly, in this planning there is no such word as “home,” but only dwelling units and housing. Yet it is a real question whether it is possible to have good housing, to provide people with homes, if we slip into thinking of dwelling units. It is a question whether “urban areas” are governable, or whether just this way of thinking does not worsen anomie. Historically, when the city existed on a smaller scale and with smaller bureaucracies, an average citizen could understand the way it worked, even when he did not control its workings. There was shape and style, something to belong to and be loyal to. I think this sense of citizenship is indispensable for the high culture that is one of the most interesting functions of cities. Florence in its heyday had a hundred thousand inhabitants, Athens about the same; Goethe’s Weimar had twenty-five thousand. And in New York, a metropolitan region of fifteen million, I doubt that there are more than one hundred thousand who take part in the city with the feeling that in some sense it is theirs. The vast majority just live there. The effect has been to degrade authentic high culture into pop or drive it to chance.
Instead of pretending to educate and communicate or aim at health and citizenship in a mass context that makes these things impossible, it would be better if we began to provide two distinct sets of services: the old, and indispensable, professions with a personal responsibility to clients; and the disciplines of social engineering (a term I here use uninvidiously) working mainly on background conditions and treating persons only in respects where individual differences are unimportant and personal response is not called for. Our present procedure, however, both destroys the old professions and embarrasses forthright social engineering.
Thus, the ancient academic ritual of text, examination, and commencement, that made sense for academic types in a community of scholars, makes no sense in mass-universities; yet massifying it, we cannot forthrightly use teaching machines and television for brute instruction, while finding other ways of usefully occupying the time of the non-academic.
Physicians are not trained for home-visits, family medicine, and preventive psychiatry, and the conditions of medical practice become more and more routine; yet we cannot forthrightly provide mass routine checkups, and it is only a few specialists in Public Health who show any medical concern for the background conditions of physical and mental disease.
Local and competing newspapers have lapsed, town meetings and ward politics have lapsed, political oratory is ghostwritten and not subject to cross-examination, there is no vaudeville or local theater. Instead, in the mass media we imitate them with packaged opinion and bland controversy, and there is no effort either to raise the cultural level by high standard fare or to open the media to searching extremes.
Architecture and neighborhood planning are determined by bureaucrats according to abstract standards rather than the preferences of the inhabitants, and all planning is subordinated to highway planning; yet we do not forthrightly clean the air and the rivers or rationalize transportation.
If we took into account the consequences of difference of scale, we could both enrich life and simplify the background; as it is, we degrade life and complicate the background.
I speak of the “disciplines of social engineering, working mainly on background conditions.” This brings me to the second philosophical issue I want to raise. In fact, at present, we do not really have these disciplines; the social-psychological, anthropological, and ecological studies that are necessary for good social engineering and the right use of new technology are not sufficiently developed. We do not know the remote effects of what we institute in education, medicine, or urbanism; and I have given a few examples to show how the effects might be the opposite of what we intend. We are using computers to estimate requirements, costs, and benefits, but in the fields we are discussing the theories on which the programs are based are usually puerile.
Let us imagine, however, that we do have better studies and better programs. There then arises the philosophical question: can we directly apply our good theories to human and social situations? I think not, for to pre-plan too thoroughly is to kill life; and the more subtle the theory, the more dangerous the attack. This is the invidious sense of “social engineering”; prudence and science are one thing, predetermining how people are to live and breathe is quite another. It is probably best just to open a space in which they can live and breathe in their own way. That is, we should aim at decency, not at the “best.” Though we cannot draw the lines a priori, in every case there is something to plan for and much to refrain from planning for.
Contrast a forest preserve and a state park. The forest preserve is a kind of museum. We put a hedge around a piece of the past, the antiquity of the globe untouched, and we say that this place is not to change. You come there by car but enter on foot. You may camp where you choose but there are no camp sites and you don’t need a permit (only be prudent and don’t set the trees on fire). But the State Park is part of the urban complex; it is an extension into the green places of the rules of the city. You need a permit to camp and must camp at the specified places. This has advantages: a platform and wood and water are provided; the fee is nominal. But there is a fee.
When I was young, we could freely pitch a tent on Fire Island beach and build our fires, or build a shack and squat. Because of the pressure of real-estate developers, this has been forbidden, and one now cannot squat in the sun and wind; many more cops patrol the beach, and it is part of their duties to see that one does not. Then one feels trapped. One must make social arrangements and pay rent (not nominal, either!). But it is not the money that is onerous, it is that one has to obey the rules of others. They have predetermined our behavior, no matter how benevolent the plan.
The possibility of an escape into freedom from social rules is, of course, the pastoral ideal, as well described by Leo Marx. But the pastoral ideal can apply also in urban places. (Some of my novels have been called pastorals, and so they are.) One of the objections to recent architecture and public housing is that it presents an impenetrable glass front; there are no holes and basements to creep into, for games and sex. The waterfront has been improved into a concrete wall or a lovely promenade; but there are no railroad yards or abandoned piers, where a child could hide from truant officers or fish. It is interesting that Jane Jacobs, who is zealous against the new architecture because she wants to preserve neighborly sociability, nevertheless balks at the pastoral ideal of dark places and nooks. She wants everything bright and public, for safety; and to be sure, urban life has become more dangerous than the jungle. But I doubt that safety can be assured by architectural design or doormen. People who feel trapped and powerless will follow you home or finally assault you in public.
The philosophical point I wish to make is that there must be a kind of constitutional limit to planning, even at the expense of efficiency and the “best” solution. An analogy is freedom of speech. In the interpretation of the “absolutists,” Justices Black and Douglas, freedom of speech is not to be balanced in terms of its social effects; rather, it is anarchic, prior to law—you can say what you damned please, up to the limit of actual emergency, however troublesome or provocative of conflict your speech may be. And as a writer, let me say that unless I have this kind of freedom of speech, I do not have freedom at all. I cannot know beforehand what will come to me to say; and if I feel that there is a limit to what I can say, then nothing new will ever come to me to say.
A realistic method of guaranteeing freedom from excessive physical planning and social engineering is to condone or even encourage people’s resistance to them. I say “realistic” because there is in fact a rising wave of populist protest in the country. The courts have encouraged resistance by a tolerant attitude toward sit-ins, certain kinds of trespass, and civil disobedience. And it would be advantageous to replace many bureaucratically run social and welfare services with a guaranteed income, for this would enable powerless people to form their own cooperatives and suit themselves. These countervailing factors would then have to be taken into account in the programs of social engineers. At present, needless to say, politicians who have to cadge votes are acutely conscious of inarticulate popular resistance and they do draw the line. But planners disregard it precisely because it is inarticulate; and since they, organized, rational, and well-financed, have more staying-power than the populace, there is a steady encroachment on freedom.
And this brings me back to the first point in this article, the importance of reviving old-fashioned professionals responsible to clients and the immediate community rather than to society and social trends. Unless people become things, they will always live in the small scale as well as the big scale, and more intensely in the small scale than in the big. It is the role of their professionals, whom they ought to be able to hire and fire, to articulate, interpret, and design for them their small-scale needs in education, medicine, law, housing; these needs will inevitably include spontaneity, individual differences, personal response, options, freedom. Big-scale planners and social engineers will then have something articulate to cope with.