Otto Ullrich, Technology, 1992

The Development Dictionary,
A Guide to Knowledge As Power


Harry S. Truman’s famous statement of 20 January 1949 can be regarded as the official proclamation of the end of the colonial age. He announced a plan for economic growth and prosperity for the entire world, explicitly including the “underdeveloped areas”.

“We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. … The old imperialism – exploitation for foreign profit – has no place in our plans.… Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace. And the key to greater production is a wider and more vigorous application of modern scientific and technical knowledge.” [1]

Greater prosperity calls for increased production, and more production requires scientific technology – this message has been proclaimed ever since in countless statements by the political elites of both West and East. John F. Kennedy, for example, emphatically challenged Congress on 14 March 1961, to be conscious of its historical task and authorize the financial means necessary for the Alliance for Progress:

“Throughout Latin America millions of people are struggling to free themselves from the bonds of poverty and hunger and ignorance. To the North and East they see the abundance which modern science can bring. They know the tools of progress are within their reach.” [2]

With the age of development, science and technology took over the leading role altogether. They were regarded as the reason for the superiority of the North and the guarantee of the promise of development. As the “key to prosperity” they were to open up the realm of material surplus and, as the “tools of progress”, to lead the countries of the world towards the sunny uplands of the future. No wonder that for decades numerous conferences all over the world, and particularly in the United Nations, focused, in a spirit of near religious hopefulness, on the “mighty forces of science and technology”.

Such a message of worldwide assistance seemed finally to leave the bloody traces of colonialism behind. Had not the earlier conquerors turned into generous helpers willing to share the instruments of their wealth with the poor? It seemed that the times were past when white people had marched in to force pagans onto the path of Christian salvation, savages into civilization, and natives into labour discipline. No more subordination. Instead ‘partners in progress’ working together under the banner of development to take advantage of scientific and technological progress for the global rise to prosperity.

And these hopes for the future blessings of progress were shared by nearly all in the so-called Third World in a position to express themselves. Despite occasional critical voices, among them Mahatma Gandhi as one of the most weighty, the faith in a prosperity-creating scientific and technological progress spread like a universal new religion over the entire globe. Despite occasional relapses and insecurities, the religion of progress has installed itself so firmly in most people’s minds that, even today, a critique of it is more likely to be regarded as incorrigible heresy than as a voice warning of a false path.

But a number of fundamental questions have now arisen. Did the new orientation, in which the “other” cultures of the world were declared to be “developing countries” and given assistance to foster their forces of production, really introduce the end of colonialism? Or is our present era to be regarded as a new, less immediately recognizable, and therefore more effective, stage in Western imperialism? If that is the case, then how is it that the ‘developing countries’ accepted so readily the imperial message of the blessings of science and technology? And are they in fact finding the promises of material prosperity through the import of modern technologies being fulfilled? Or are they simply bringing into their countries the destruction of culture, the destruction of nature and a modernized form of poverty? Is the fundamental assumption in regard to the industrial countries themselves even valid, that material surplus in the Western metropoles was created by modern scientific technology? Or was it fed from other sources altogether? For, if the belief in the redemptive effects of technological progress is already becoming a myth in the industrial countries, it could hardly be suitable as the basis of a “development concept” in other cultures.

Before one begins speaking about the effects of Western technology in the Third World, one should therefore try to gain the most realistic estimation possible of the achievements of modern scientific technology in the industrial countries themselves.

Delivering the goods?

Shortly after the First World War, the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell attempted in his book The Prospects of Industrial Civilization to determine the position of industrial culture. At the centre of his considerations were the effects of science and technology. He arrived at the following conclusion: the application of science has been “in the main immeasurably harmful” [3], and it would only cease to be so “when men have a less strenuous outlook on life”. Russell also asserted:

“Science, hitherto, has been used for three purposes: to increase the total production of commodities; to make wars more destructive; and to substitute trivial amusements for those that had some artistic or hygienic value. Increase in total production, though it had its importance a hundred years ago, has now become far less important than increase of leisure and the wise direction of production.” [4]

Russell was a widely travelled and sagacious observer of his times, and it is reasonable to assume that this conclusion was already valid at that date, at least in the eyes of an informed and reasonable friend of humanity. So when one reads these same lines today, the immediate conclusion can only be that people in the industrial countries have lost all sense of proportion. In retrospect, the harmful effects of science Russell complained about – increase in the total production of commodities, increase in the destructive potential of the war machine, and the mechanization and trivialization of cultural activities – have all gathered momentum in an explosive fashion since the Second World War.

The most outstanding achievement of scientized technology has undoubtedly been the increase in the destructive power of the war machine. Here the results are gigantic. Life on earth can be extinguished almost instantaneously many times over, and yet scientific endeavours continue to be concentrated in the main (in money and personnel) on increasing the war machine’s productivity in killing. This is no accident. Nor are the scientists forced to do such work. For the perfecting of these “objects” awakens the greatest interest in the brain of a normally educated natural scientist by virtue of a certain inner logic.

A rocket which flies “relentlessly”, that is without any disturbances through space, which can be guided with great precision to a predetermined target to release forces of cosmic proportions upon arrival there – such a mighty technological system belongs at the very top of the list of products possessed of an ideal correspondence with the logic of the experimental, mathematical natural sciences. That is why it is no accident that nearly all the state-of-the-art achievements of contemporary technology are concentrated, for example, in a cruise missile – computer technology; radio, radar and video technology; rocket propulsion and nuclear technology; metallurgy; aerodynamics; logistics and information technology; and so on.

Many countries in the Third World became acquainted, above all else, with these accomplishments of Western technology. By way of the military bases of the larger powers, of their own military regimes, or their governments’ megalomania, substantial portions of their limited financial resources were, and are, consumed by the import of military technologies. In addition, abundant instruments of war arrive through “military development aid”. I suspect, and this must be more thoroughly investigated some time, that until now the largest part of Western technological assistance has comprised these destructive weapons. The effect of all this highly modern technology in these lands can be described unambiguously – it increases hunger and misery, it hinders independent development, and it secures corrupt regimes against popular revolutions.

Secret path to paradise

The forces of production – based on modern science and technology – that are required for the production of ever larger mountains of “essential goods” have assumed gigantic proportions in the industrial countries in the seventy years since Russell’s analysis. Nearly all the energies of industrial peoples focus ever more intensively on the production, marketing, use and disposal of “essential goods” of all sorts. Industrial society thereby acts in accordance with its central myth as to the meaning of life. For modern European society has been obsessed by one idea above all: that through the production of material goods, the necessary conditions for the good life were supposed to have been created; through work, science and technology, the “secret path to paradise” was supposed to have been forged, as Francis Bacon, one of the theoretical founders of modernity, formulated it some three hundred years ago.

The central myth of European modernity is also a plan for salvation to be applied worldwide. Its starting point is the assumption that unremitting diligence, constant progress in the production of material goods, the unbroken conquest of nature, the restructuring of the world into predictable, technologically and organizationally manipulable processes will automatically and simultaneously produce the conditions of human happiness, emancipation and redemption from all evils.

This assumption “bewitched the self-conception of modernity”, in Jürgen Habermas’s brilliant phrase. Today it is recognizable as “the great illusion of the epoch”. Scientistic technology was a dream of happiness without sacrifice. Technology fulfils this dream “by repressing the sacrifice and making the happiness hollow” (Günther Ortmann). Through the evolution of scientistic forces of production a higher development of humanity was supposed to ensue. The established industrial countries first applied this idea of development to themselves. One can therefore speak with justice of an internal colonization of European culture through industrialism.

The view among the more critical and far-sighted observers of our time is that peoples in the West, too, must liberate themselves from this internal colonization. For the central hypothesis of industrialism, that the unremitting development of the forces of production will create the conditions for the good life, has proven to be false. The attempt to satisfy the full spectrum of human needs through the production and consumption of goods has failed. Those dimensions of life that are important to people – whether West or East, North or South – such as ties of affection with other people and a sense of esteem in society, cannot be replaced effectively by material consumption. Especially children and older people, the sick and the handicapped, get a sense of the social coldness resulting from the “busyness” of industrial society.

What is more, the boundless dynamic of production in industrialism is so structured that material needs are created faster than the conditions for their gratification. There arises, therefore, the phenomenon of permanently frustrated people caught in an endless spiral of needs. Since the conditions of existence in the industrial system have been reduced to the persistent and overwhelming compulsion of having to sell one’s labour power in competition with other sellers, there arises a frantic race of all against all.

Alongside the endless spiral of needs, Homo industriae has also been made subject to an accelerating time stress, which leaves little space for his feelings, soul and thoughts to catch up with the busy doings of the world of work.

Ultimately, this futile attempt to create the conditions for the good life principally through the development of the forces of production has to take place on the basis of a higher, ever increasing flow of materials, energy and information, which is plundering and destroying the planet. For these and still other reasons, a search has begun to get under way in the industrial countries for a new orientation towards the good life, one that goes beyond productionism and consumerism.

So much for a few catchwords in the critique of the industrial myth of production, which cannot be developed further here, but without which an understanding of modern technology is not to be had. I want now to illumine, in somewhat more detail, a few of the characteristics of industrial technology and, first of all, to pursue the question of its alleged high productivity, long admired and, indeed, one of the reasons for its great attractiveness in the Third World.

Wealth through transferring the costs

Marx and Engels, who were likewise “bewitched” by the thought of redemption through the development of the forces of production, nearly swooned in admiration at what was, in fact, their class enemy in the Communist Manifesto:

“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all the preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”

For this mighty and violent transformation of society and nature, an energy source had to be exploited which, until then, had been little used because it smoked and stank – coal. Industrial capitalism may have begun on the basis of wood as its source of energy, but without the possibility of using a more highly concentrated and abundantly available source like coal, the productive avalanche so admired by Marx and Engels would not have got under way. Without sources of fossil fuel, European society would have remained “wooden” despite all its production myths. Or, at the very least, its production mania would not have been able to become so violent and imperial. The expansion dynamic of industrial capitalism would have run up against a natural barrier.

But fossil fuels were available and, combined with the production myth, an “economic mode” began that would be characteristic of the industrial system from then on. The economy was no longer driven by replenishable resources and the constant supply of energy from the sun, but became based instead on the consumption of the earth’s accumulated energy reserves, which had not been created by those who now used them, while these same users ignored the consequences. Already at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was so much coal burned in England that the entire surface of England and Wales would have had to have been forested if energy consumption were to have been met by replenishable wood.

Currently, there is as much fossil fuel burnt every year as has been stored up in a period of nearly a million years. The lion’s share, approximately 80 per cent, is used up in the industrial countries, where only about 25 per cent of the world’s people live. This voracious appetite for resources is demonstrated yet more clearly in the example of the United States: less than 6 per cent of the world’s population consume there about 40 per cent of the world’s natural resources. If one were to extend this industrial mode of production and lifestyle to all the people of the earth, five or six further planets like the earth would be required for resource plundering and waste disposal.

The historian Rolf Peter Sieferle writes on this question:

“Juxtaposed to the 10,000 year duration of the agrarian system, the industrial system appears as a brief, one-time paroxysm of intoxication in which the resources gathered over many millions of years are used up in a couple of hundred. This applies to fossil energy sources, but also to the concentrations of minerals which are exploited and depleted with the help of the former. There is much to suggest that this paroxysm will be followed by a bad hangover.” [5]

The consumption of fossil energy reserves threatens life on earth in a number of ways. The air pollutants released damage plants and destroy the equilibrium of the earth’s protective atmosphere. The “energy-centred view of life” (Bertrand Russell) can declare everything to be raw material and transform it into “essential goods” only with the help of fossil fuel. In the process the earth’s resources are transformed at an ever greater tempo into usually poisonous waste. The production mania of the petrochemical industry, in particular, which delivers all the world’s plastic products we cannot do without, produces gigantic amounts of non-biodegradable pollution in the form of synthetic hydrocarbon compounds that pose a sustained threat to life over the entire earth. It is already possible to determine from the flesh of a South Pole penguin what substances are being used in the northern half of the globe to create economic growth.

This is the still not properly acknowledged background to the much praised efficiency of the industrial system and the allegedly high productivity of industrial technology. These come about only through the plundering of the pre-existing accomplishments of nature for which they bear no credit (internalization of the so-called free goods of the earth) and through the massive transfer of costs on to nature, on to the Third World, and on to future generations (externalization of costs in the form of pollutants, waste problems, and so on). The allegedly highly productive industrial system is, in reality, a parasite on the earth, the likes of which have never before been seen in the history of humanity. It has the towering productivity of a bank robber who resorts to quick, violent attacks in an attempt to create for himself a life of prosperity at the cost of others.

This state of affairs, with its implications, is still being repressed from their consciousness by the majority of people in the industrial societies. It can be characterized as the essential lie of the industrial system, the pretence that the material prosperity won through plundering and the transfer of costs was “created” by industrial production, by science and technology, by the tools of prosperity themselves. On the basis of this lie, the additional belief arises that the problems of the ever more apparent destruction of nature can be eliminated without a sacrifice of prosperity solely by technological means, and that the export of these “productive’ technologies will also allow the Third World to have a share in the much delayed promise of its material prosperity.

Techniques of plunder

But if one takes a look at one after the other of the technologies and technologically created “essential goods” that appear so alluring, it becomes clear that they overwhelmingly take the form of techniques that plunder the earth’s resources and externalize their costs. This is true of the massive fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, airplanes and automobiles, washing machines and dishwashers, factories for the production of plastics and the countless plastic products, industrialized and chemicalized agriculture, the industry for the “improvement” of foodstuffs, the packaging industry, buildings made of concrete, steel and chemicals, paper production, and so on. None of these brilliant accomplishments of industrial technology functions without the massive consumption of “free” natural resources and without the expulsion of waste, poisons, noise and stench.

It requires a lengthy search to find anywhere in this gigantic mountain of industrial processes and products examples that are not part of the system of externalizing techniques of plunder and that might be recommended without reservation to the Third World. It is for this reason that there has been not only a debate over appropriate technologies for the Third World, but, for years now, also a discussion of “other” technologies for the industrial countries themselves. The critical technology debate in the industrial countries has led to the conclusion that the only future for a series of once-celebrated triumphs of scientific technological progress lies in renunciation. The need to renounce the use of atomic energy, the chlorine industry, most aspects of synthesizing chemistry, reliance on the automobile, and industrialized and chemicalized agriculture has become self-evident to ecologically conscious people.

The majority of industrial technological products are not generalizable. As desired luxury items for the few, they lose their use value upon mass distribution, and their sheer numbers usually make them responsible at the same time for environmental problems. For instance, when there are only a few cars on the street, they can be comfortable (and prestige-giving) vehicles for their drivers. But already in the industrial countries the automobile is not generalizable. Although only a fraction of the people in cities use it as their everyday means of conveyance, many cities are already suffocating in poisonous gases, noise and stench. If, to take an example, the proportion of motorcars in China were equal to that in the industrial countries, then in a short time oil supplies would run out and the earth’s atmosphere be ruined.

Something similar applies to nearly all the other prosperity- and comfort-producing industrial techniques. The push-button comforts people in the West have grown accustomed to and the unquestioned consumer expectations like running hot water at one’s fingertips, continually heated or cooled rooms, motorized conveyance, foodstuffs from all over the world wrapped in plastic and frozen and always available, mountains of goods people feel they can never do without and which the accelerated pace of fashion turns ever more quickly into mountains of garbage – all this American way of life, as it is often called, is composed of countless little plunderings of nature and transferred costs. It is precisely this that makes up the envied prosperity of the industrial powers, and precisely this prosperity that is not generalizable globally. It can be had by only a few generations in a few countries before the earth will have been plundered to death and rendered no longer habitable.

The message of Truman, Kennedy and many others to the “peoples of the world”, that they could achieve the material prosperity of the West by taking over Western scientized technology, therefore, turns out to be empirically untenable. The available industrial technologies for the West are nearly all designed for plunder and the transfer of costs. Even in the best of scenarios, these technologies could only allow the first “developing countries”, those that are able to develop most rapidly and ahead of the others, to achieve prosperity on Western lines. For the peoples of the entire earth, it is impossible.

The illusion that Western prosperity was created by science and technology – an illusion promoted with tremendous naivety by Truman and Kennedy, but which is no longer seriously supportable – has recently been resurrected again by a few people with exceptional faith in new generations of technology allegedly able to “handle” the environmental problems that have resulted. Although the massive assaults by existing technologies on nature have had to be admitted, these optimists, or charlatans, now profess to believe that solutions can be found without a sacrifice of prosperity, as a result of an “ecological modernization” of industry.

New technologies, yet to be created, are supposed to make possible a continuation of precisely the same prosperity facilitated by the old technologies, but now in ‘ecologically tolerable’ form. Through the miraculous but unspecified powers of technology – an ingenious new formula, a new principle, a technological “breakthrough” – all the things that were previously possible only by way of plunder and the transfer of costs are now supposed to be conjured up as efficiently, as economically and, above all, as abundantly as before.

The energy debate alone shows the extent to which this is all wishful thinking. The beginnings of solar power, which, because of the materials used, is still very far from being truly generalizable and tolerable to nature, are shoved scornfully by the energy bosses into the realm of mere “add-ons”, merely complementary energy-producing technologies, because solar power cannot compete with their grand technologies in terms of economy and deliverable amounts of energy. They are right. The amounts of energy consumed currently are not to be had at a realistic cost on a solar basis.

And as long as no institutions exist that can present users with the bill for the transfer costs their activities cause, solar power technologies will not be able to compete with traditional ones. Whoever believes that material prosperity can be created in a way tolerable to nature as “efficiently” and “cheaply” as has been possible through externalizing techniques of plunder is like someone expecting a workable perpetual motion machine to be about to be invented.

The scientific civilization of the West has scarcely any technologies on offer truly suited to the future – that is, humane and appropriate over the long term to nature. That is why the hopes of some in the West came to be focused on a solution from quite another direction. After it became clear in the 1970s, with the collapse of the initial euphoria over technology transfer, that the import of Western technologies into Third World countries resulted primarily in monocultures, large-scale slums, devastation of nature, the destruction of cultures and human ruination, there were, especially in India, initiatives to pursue an independent technological development more intensively. Robert Jungk was still hopeful when he wrote in 1973:

“We are still at the beginning of the development of specifically Asian, African and Latin American variations in technology. What they have in common, despite the great geographical distances, is their desire to conform more closely to life and nature. The cause of this is not hard to recognize. They all arose in protest against the mechanical, insensitive, standardizing occidental technology geared predominantly to speed and maximum output. It is completely conceivable that, before the end of the millennium, yellow, brown and black development advisers will be called to the summits of industry in our half of the globe to show their former teachers how vital necessities can be produced without waste and without harm to people and the environment, without haste and without alienation.” [6]

Myopia makes for fascination

This hope is currently finding few proponents. The attraction of “high-performance” Western techniques has once again become too overwhelming. The current resurgence of the attractiveness of Western technology is presumably closely associated with its two main features: its ability to transfer costs and its characteristic of plunder.

The capacity to transfer costs makes it possible for modern technology to appear in a mystified form. It tricks the senses as to its performance capacities and seduces reason with an understanding based on short-term calculations. The costs are usually transferred and scattered over very considerable times and spaces. The spatial and temporal horizon of our perception is, however, significantly nearer. What we know of measured pollution levels, and of costs in the future or in distant areas, remains abstract to us and too far removed from currently perceived realities. It touches none, or very few, of the feelings and thoughts that determine behaviour here and now. Who can imagine a 300,000-year, radioactive half-life in concrete form? How much does the knowledge of a hole in the ozone layer count for against the utility advantage, impressed upon our senses right now, of instantly available cool drinks from the fridge or the comfortable transportation offered by a high-performance private automobile? The temporal, spatial and personal separation of utilities and costs – the separation of an act committed now from the suffering that ensues, or the non-intersection between advantages that are privately consumable and disadvantages that have to be borne collectively – is an exceedingly seductive characteristic of modern scientistic technologies.

When, moreover, this individually attractive characteristic of Western technologies is coupled with the modern attitude of “consume and enjoy now, pay later”, and when “later” means “later generations”, then any alternative, non-mystifying technology which makes all of its costs and disadvantages immediately palpable to the user seems very unattractive, even “primitive”. As long as there is no procedure whereby the transferred costs deriving from the use of a technology or product are charged in the present, then any alternative technology that is humane and appropriate to nature will have no chance against the great attractiveness of externalizing techniques.

For similar reasons, the aspect of plunder in Western technologies contributes to their considerable attractiveness. Schooled in Western ways of thinking and pervaded by the thought of the historically unavoidable “modernization” of their country, many in the Third World do not understand why they should leave the advantages of plundering natural resources to the industrial countries. They want to participate in instant prosperity, and therefore demand nuclear power plants and the “efficient” technologies of petroleum exploitation. And they regard the offer of technology appropriate to the Third World, an intermediate or gentle technology, as a sophisticated attempt to keep them in the stage of “underdevelopment”. The partners in progress want to become partners in plunder. At one international conference on the protection of the earth’s atmosphere, when plans for the large-scale production of CFCs for Chinese refrigerators were regarded as problematic, the Chinese modernizers saw the matter completely differently. For them it was self-evident that the Chinese should also drink their Coca-Cola icecold, and that it should come from refrigerators produced cost-effectively with CFC technology. Après nous, le deluge is a phrase that can be expressed equally well in the languages of China, India or Africa.

If the industrial countries do not immediately set in motion an intensified, exemplary impulse towards industrial, technological and economic “disarmament”, a deceleration of material production processes, alternative and attractive models for a low-performance society, for changes in the cultural paradigm so as to supersede modernity’s myth of production, then the transformation of our blue planet into a moonscape is certain.

Friendly imperialism

Aside from the environmental and physical costs, the social and cultural costs of the introduction of Western technologies also remained largely hidden during the technological enthusiasm of the 1950s and 1960s. Even “clean” technologies force their laws upon society in such a way that cultural self-definition and autonomy cannot be maintained for long. That the import of Western industrial technologies combines a creeping cultural imperialism with the destruction of native culture is related to a little noted characteristic of these technologies. This characteristic is another dimension of their mystification, with its separation of phenomenal form and reality, immediate impact and later effects. The alleged tools of progress are not tools at all, but technical systems that worm their way into every aspect of life and tolerate no alternatives.

In their exterior aspect industrial machines and products are isolated objects that can be freely and everywhere employed like tools, according to the decision of the user. With them, however, there typically comes an infrastructural network of technical, social and psychological conditions, without which the machines and products do not work. For an automobile to be truly used, one needs a technological infrastructure composed of networks of streets with petrol stations, refineries, oil wells, workshops, insurance, police and ambulance services, lawyers, automobile factories, warehouses for spare parts, and much more besides. And, on the psychosocial side, one needs people who will conform to all the installations and facilities and institutions and who can function within them. And so one needs driving lessons, training for children in crossing streets, conscientious petrol station and garage repair owners, and, in general, the expert and diligent industrial worker, which in turn means schooling, disciplining, and yet more schooling. Every industrial product like this brings with it its corresponding requirements and they can only function with their associated infrastructure and the psycho-social preparation of people.

The introduction of factory labour and industrialization in Europe meant a similar “great transformation” of the entire society, culture and psychological constitution of the people. Industrialization made its way on to the historical stage only with much violence, degradation, misery and humiliation.

The expansion of scientistic technology was, as Bertrand Russell claimed, “immeasurably damaging” to European culture because cultural activity was mechanized and trivialized. Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that industrialization arose in and through European culture and is therefore not essentially alien to it.

For the cultures of other countries, the requisite psycho-social preparation of people and the cultural transformation looks much more traumatic because it confronts them with an essentially alien culture. Through technological “development aid”, more euphemistically called technical assistance, from the industrialized countries, they receive “trojan machines” (to use Robert Jungk’s phrase), which conquer their culture and society from within. They are forced gradually to absorb an alien industrial work ethic, to subordinate themselves completely to unaccustomed time rhythms, to value objective relations higher than human relations, to experience increasing stress and to regard it as normal, and to accept jobs without regard to motivation or meaning. Wage labour and commodity fetishism expand, and they define the competitive struggle of all against all as the social synthesis. It becomes self-evident that everyone is to be a mechanical cog in a great production apparatus dominated by the world market. As Johan Galtung described the process:

“The total picture … is one of transfer of technology as structural and cultural invasion, an invasion possibly more insidious than colonialism and neocolonialism, because such an invasion is not always accompanied by a physical Western presence.” [7]

The age of Western imperialism is therefore not over by a long shot, particularly as long as there exists, primarily on the part of the United States, a direct and open technological imperialism against the countries of the Third World. Examples abound. They include the mighty arsenal of electronic superiority in the form of communication satellites for “remote sensing” of local weather and harvest conditions in the countries of the Third World (for purposes of ascertaining in advance of these countries themselves the market value of their coming harvests); computer banks for the technical information monopoly; media corporations for the direct cultural propaganda that floods all local broadcasters; and so on.

“In truth the threat of the new electronics to independence could be greater in the late twentieth century than even colonialism was.” [8]


Otto Ullrich is an engineer and sociologist. He has published widely on the history and philosophy of technology and has animated the public debate on energy, transportation and artificial intelligence in Germany. On behalf of the Green Party, he has served as a member of the study commission of the German Bundestag on technology assessment.



Further reading

The towering figures in thinking about modern technology are L. Mumford, The Myth of the Machine, 2 vols, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964; and J. Ellul, The Technological Society, New York: Knopf, 1964. For exploring the human condition in the age of technology, I found G. Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, 2 vols, Munich: Beck, 1980, very illuminating in his aphoristic style. L. Winner contributed a thorough study on the modern experience of “technology out of control”, Autonomous Technology, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1977, as well as a collection of fine essays, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in the Age of High Technology, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1985.

I. Illich, Tools for Conviviality, London: Marion Boyars, 1973, called attention to the specific counter-productivity of modern tools, a line of argument which has been expanded upon by A. Gorz, Ecology as Politics, London: Pluto, 1983. Along similar lines, I criticized the socialist belief in productive forces, Weltniveau: In der Sackgasse des Industriesystems, Berlin: Rotbuch, 1980, having tried to elucidate the relationship between domination and technology in Technik und Herrschaft, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977. A landmark for ethical reflection on the rapacious nature of technology is H. Jonas, Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethic for the Technological Age, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

How standards of technical performance have governed European perceptions of non-Western peoples is abundantly illustrated by M. Adas, Machines as the Measure of Man, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989. L. Kohr, The Overdeveloped Nations, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978, and F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, London: Blond & Briggs, 1973, have tried to make a virtue out of “underperformance”. They have led the way to the discussion on “appropriate technologies” on which J. Galtung, “Towards a New International Technological Order”, Alternatives 4, January 1979, p. 288, provided a systematic perspective; F. Stewart, Technology and Underdevelopment, London: Macmillan, 1978, a penetrating analysis; N. Jequier (ed.), Appropriate Technologies: Problems and Promises, Paris: OECD, 1976, an inventory; and J. Müller, Liquidation or Consolidation of Indigenous Technology: A Study of the Changing Conditions of Production of Village Blacksmiths in Tanzania, Aalborg: Aalborg University Press, 1980, a telling case study.

How particular technologies have shaped minds and lifestyles can be studied through W. Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey, Oxford: Blackwell, 1980; S. Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework, New York: Random House, 1982; or W. Sachs, For Love of the Automobile: Looking Back into the History of Our Desires, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. How, in turn, technologies themselves are products of power and interest can be learnt from W. Bijker et al., The Social Construction of Technological Systems, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A classic remains S. Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command, New York: Norton, 1969, while R. Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom and Dream, London: Routledge, 1989, recounts fascinatingly the cultural dream at the roots of the rise of technology.


The Development Dictionary,
A Guide to Knowledge As Power,
Wolfgang Sachs éd., Zed Books, 1992.
2nd edition, 2010.


[1] H. Truman, Inaugural Address, Washington DC, 20 January 1949.

[2] J.F. Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress, Washington DC, 14 March 1961.

[3] B. Russell, The Prospects of Industrial Civilization, New York: Century, 1923, p. 186.

[4] Ibidem, p. 187.

[5] R.P. Sieferle, Der unterirdische Wald: Energiekrise und industrielle Revolution, Munich: Beck, 1982, p. 64.

[6] R. Jungk, Der Jahrtausendmensch: Berichte aus den Werkstätten der neuen Gesellschaft, Munich: Econ, 1973. pp. 69-70.

[7] J. Galtung, “Towards a New International Technological Order”, Alternatives 4, January 1979, p. 288; quoted in V. Rittberger (ed.), Science and Technology in a Changing International Order: The United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1982.

[8] A. Smith, Geopolitics of Information, New York: Oxford University Press, 1980, p. 176; quoted in H. Schiller, Who Knows: Information in the Age of the Fortune 500, Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1981.

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