Food will come entirely from synthetic sources. Disease, famine and overpopulation will have been conquered. Rocks and sea water will be made to yield all the minerals that mankind needs. All energy production problems will have been solved. That is what our world will be like in the year 2000, according to the predictions of leading American and Russian scientists, which were collected and published in 1960 in the French weekly L'Express.
Based on what has happened in the past in the way of scientific and technological change, few people are prepared to say positively that those things won't happen. After living through the dawn of the atomic age and miracles of technology ranging all the way from color television to rockets to Mars, we tend to expect the unexpected in the way of technical developments. In fact, we become impatient when problems that have plagued mankind for thousands of years fail to yield to scientific progress. Why is it taking so long to find a cure for cancer or a way to produce enough food to feed the world's hungry millions, we wonder? We are sure that progress will pull those thorns from our side someday, so why not now?
At least one man who makes it his business to try to see into the future, however, thinks that questions about coming miracles of science would not tell the story of the welfare of mankind, even if they could be answered today. He is Jacques Ellul, a French professor of History and Contemporary Sociology, whose book The Technological Society has haunted my thoughts ever since I started reading and rereading it about a year ago. First published in French in 1954, it has been translated into English and was published in the U. S. in 1964 by Alfred A. Knopf. The fascinating thing about Ellul's book is that it probes and explains the role of the individual in the technological revolution that is going on, and gives you and me a way to try to guess what our lives will be like 20 or 40 years from now. His picture of the future is not very rosy, but it is so persuasively drawn and documented that even an incurable optimist like myself can't stop thinking about it.
"Technique" is what has molded our past and will shape our future, says Ellul. What is "technique?" As used by Ellul, it means the best way to get a job done, combining the use of machines with standardized procedures and behavior that fits into a regular mold. Technique is "the system," symbolized by the punched card—which the average person uses continually without understanding. It is the proliferation of numbers for people instead of names—numbers which people aren't happy with but which they must accept to keep the system functioning and growing. Man can never see where technique will lead him, says Ellul. Chemists developed synthetic detergents, for example, without any realization that those chemicals would not break down in sewage plants and would therefore pollute water supplies. The first announcements of DDT said that it was completely harmless to warm blooded animals. Only after it was widely used did its hazard show up.
When primitive man began sorting ripe apples from green ones and treating each kind differently, he started the development of the technique of fruit cultivation. Future generations perfected various tasks of the operation. Long poles were made to knock down apples before they became over-ripe. Trees which bore the biggest and best-tasting fruit were propagated and planted in orchards. Those were improvements which, along with others, lead to the complex operation that is fruit growing today. In short, a standardized technique of orcharding has developed through the contributions of many people, all of whom had an insight into their portion of the job. But the system of orcharding as a whole wasn't planned by any one person or group of people who had an eye on the overall welfare of mankind. It simply grew, through a succession of improvements. (A more powerful insecticide was brought into play to kill a tougher bug, not because anyone understood the exact function of that insecticide in the whole scheme of orcharding.) What has emerged is the best commercial method of fruit growing that almost everybody uses.