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Part 2 - Global perspectives

2. Science, technology, and human rights: a prospective view
3. Technological self-reliance and cultural freedom
4. Human rights and scientific and technological progress: a western perspective

2. Science, technology, and human rights: a prospective view




The present concern for human rights and fundamental freedoms- the main formal manifestation of which is embodied in the Charter of the United Nations Organization - arose basically as a reaction against the widespread violation of human rights in our century. This genesis explains why the studies in this field have been predominantly oriented towards the definition of specific human rights, in order to make it possible to incorporate them into enforceable legal regulations.

As a result of that approach, which may be described as "defensive" or reactive, there is a strong tendency to concentrate action and studies on the possible negative impact of social activities on already defined or accepted human rights, rather than on the new opportunities and options offered by the present process of world transformation.

The above approach is undoubtedly a useful and necessary one, but a study relating human rights to scientific and technological development in the context of one of the deepest crises in human history requires a somewhat wider perspective. A brief look at the past will be of assistance in understanding the present situation in the field of human rights and the type of approach required for the proposed study.

The concern for the fundamental freedoms - all human rights are ultimately dependent on the concept of fundamental freedoms - is one of the constants of history. According to Hegel the history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom. For other historians, freedom is not a product of history; man is born free to work out his own destiny. Whatever our starting-point, however, the political problems posed by man's freedom in society, basically the relationship of the individual to the state and to his fellow men, generate a variety of questions the relationships between freedom and equality, freedom and justice, freedom and the rights of the state, freedom and law - which have had different answers in different cultures and at different historical moments. Although the philosophical or theological conception of freedom has common roots in all cultures, the way in which that conception is translated into specific institutionalized human rights is, as we know, historically determined, and changes with the evolution of cultures and social systems.

The present conception of human rights and fundamental freedoms was originated by the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For the Enlightenment, all things in nature arc disposed in harmonious order, regulated by a few simple laws, in such a way that everything contributes to the equilibrium of the universe. The same rational order is the basis of the human world and manifests itself through the instincts and tendencies of men. The main obstacle to this linear unending human progress is, for the Enlightenment, ignorance, and the education of all strata of society in the light of reason and science will finally lead to a perfect and happy society. This doctrine underwent a complex evolution during the nineteenth century, but its main premises still linger at the heart of liberal sociology and free-market economics.

Together with liberalism, the most influential version in our time of the vision of history centred on progress is undoubtedly Marxism. In the Marxist conception, the advent of the classless society, through the struggle of the proletariat, would mean the culmination of history, or perhaps more appropriately the beginning of the true history of mankind.

These interpretations of history have a central tenet in common; history is a progressive process governed by internal laws- an immanent natural order, the development of the means of production - whose culmination would be the liberation of man, the creation of a society based on ''Rational Freedom," the transition from the "realm of necessity to the realm of freedom." In liberalism and Marxism the promised society is in the future and its attainment will require deep changes in present society, but these optimistic teleological views have a basic faith in mankind, in man's capacity finally to build a free, harmonious society.

In our time, the spiritual climate of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has all but vanished. The twentieth century has strongly questioned the central views of the Enlightenment, the idea that progress based on reason - in the restricted sense of the term - and scientific knowledge would lead naturally and unavoidably to a society centred on democracy, justice, and equality. After almost three centuries of material and scientific progress, we face a world situation which is the antithesis of the promised land of the age of Science and Reason.

The great powers have built a destructive nuclear system which, although it can annihilate mankind several times over, keeps growing at a breathtaking pace. In principle - and within its essential irrationality - it could be admitted that these powers can accept their total destruction rather than admit the predominance of the other side; after all, the capacity to decide whether or not to activate the system is in their hands. But the eventual destruction of the population of the third world - about three-quarters of the planet - is a mere by-product of the confrontation between the powers. They will suffer the effects of a nuclear war without ever having been consulted, without ever having a chance to defend their right to live, or to be spared the consequences of a conflict which is alien to their interests or to their conception of the world.

In absolute terms the gap between rich and poor - measured in terms of the material level of living - has never been so great as it is today between the developed and developing countries. As important or more important than its absolute value is the change in the character of the gap produced in the post-war period

Up to the Second World War the development objectives of developed and developing countries were essentially the same, despite the differences in the starting-points: to increase the welfare of the population through the satisfaction of the fundamental needs, such as food, health, education, housing, etc. After the war, and above all in the last two decades, changes have appeared in the character of the gap which have made the economic indicators increasingly inadequate to describe it. The rich countries confront the problématique of the so-called "post-industrial" era, while the countries of the third world have not yet realized the benefits of the Industrial Revolution, with a considerable part of their population living in conditions of utter poverty. The gap, which was essentially quantitative - leaving aside the cultural differences - is being transformed into a qualitative one, with the result that communication between the two blocs into which the world is divided is becoming every day more difficult.

Until the cod of the Second World War the most glaring violations of human rights were committed by the developed countries: two world wars, Nazism and Fascism in Europe, colonial domination and violence. During recent decades, there has been a tendency to consider that third-world countries arc responsible for a considerable part - or most - of human rights violations, while in most advanced countries those rights arc fairly respected.

That vision of the situation has some truth from the point of view of the identification of who is mainly affected by the violations, but not from the point of view of who or what is responsible for them.

The social violence and the repressive regimes of many countries of the third world have their origin, as we all know, in the conditions of utter deprivation in which a great part of the population of those countries lives. Without ignoring the existence of internal elements which help to maintain misery and oppression, we all know that the structural cause of that situation is the asymmetric relationship between the developed and developing countries, created by a long period of political and economic domination. Consequently, the ultimate responsibility for the violation of human rights in the poor countries has its roots, not in specific traits of those countries, but rather on the central characteristics of a world order built primarily by the dominant powers.

The case of the external debt of the third world countries is just an example of that responsibility. Those debts, as is well known, were the result not only of the development needs of the poor countries but also, and in some cases primarily, of a period of rapid expansion of financial capital, that forced the central powers to make heavy investments abroad.

Now, as a consequence of the world recession, the third-world countries confront an external debt whose service imposes a crushing on their economies. On the conditions imposed by the creditors - which include heavy interest rates unilaterally determined - the debt can only be serviced at the price of imposing more sacrifices on an already deprived population. Up to now the big powers have shown a total disregard for the terrible social cost of their policies regarding such debts.

The facts that we are referring to do not include anything new, and our purpose is only to emphasize something that we tend, or wish, to forget; that the present social and international world order is, to a great extent, incompatible with the full exercise of what we consider fundamental freedoms and human rights.

That incompatibility helps to explain the defensive or reactive approach of the policies on human rights, the efforts to incorporate them into enforceable legal regulations, and the tendency to concentrate studies on the possible negative impact of new social activities, rather than on the new opportunities and options they could offer.


The Specificity of the Present World Crisis

The exploration of the possible risks and of the opportunities and options offered by the new technologies should start, in our view, from two basic premises: the first is that the impact of the new wave of innovations on society can only be properly evaluated in the context of the present world crisis, or, to put it better, of the current process of transformation. The second premise, closely related to the first, is that the character of the social impact is not solely determined by the nature of the technologies but also, and mainly, by the socio-economic strategy adopted to incorporate them.

In relation to the crisis, the fact that the well-known Kondratiev-Schumpeter theory - which associates economic crises with waves of innovations - refers to cycles and to a recurrent phenomenon stimulates a dangerous tendency to predict the evolution of the present crisis on the basis of past experience, particularly the crisis that culminated in the 1930s. This approach does not take sufficiently into account the feet that the process of change that each crisis represents has a specificity which cannot be understood simply in terms of incremental changes in a constant set of more or less quantifiable variables. There are elements of discontinuity which, although difficult to quantify, play an essential role in the evolution of the crisis.

In our opinion, the main elements that differentiate the present crisis from the previous ones are the following.

The Emergence of the Third World

In the 1930s the world was broadly divided into the countries we now call developed-basically Europe, the USA, Canada and Japan - and a vast conglomerate of countries, most of them colonies, with little participation in the world structure of power, and whose economic role was basically to export raw materials, and to import manufactures from the industrial powers.

The third world - a result of the post-war reorganization - is now an active protagonist on the international scene and cannot be disregarded by the major powers. Some of the most important political events of this century, due to their short- or long-term repercussions - such as the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, and the Vietnam war - have had as protagonists countries of the third world. Central America and the Middle East are only two examples of regions of the third world whose problems directly or indirectly affect the world power structure.

From the point of view of the world economy as well, the third world is a presence that cannot be ignored. As is well known, the enormous external debt of the developing countries is one of the determining factors of the future evolution of the international financial system.

The Emergence of the Socialist World

In the inter-war period the only socialist country was the Soviet Union, relatively isolated and with little direct influence in the world power and economic structure. Now the post-war expansion of the socialist bloc in Europe and the presence of China - besides smaller countries such as Cuba, Ethiopia, and Viet Nam - have converted the socialist world into a critical element in the future evolution of the international system.

The recent changes in the Soviet Union and previous events in other socialist countries are clear manifestations of a process of internal evolution which is not less important because it is only sporadically visible. Besides, the growing trade relations not only with Western Europe, but also with other regions or countries, indicate that the influence of the socialist world increasingly transcends the purely political and military spheres.

Questioning of the Present Values of Western Society

Until no more than two or three decades ago there was the general feeling that the process of world unification indicated by the expansion of the Western powers, and enormously accelerated after the war, meant essentially "world Westernization." The colonization of most of the world and, more recently, the one-way transference of technology, and the diffusion of Western-style industrialization with its implicit cultural values, seemed to condemn to almost complete obliteration the achievements of other cultures.

This process is starting to change, firstly because the Western world has begun to have serious doubts about the soundness and rationality of its own conception of progress and development and, in its search for alternatives, is becoming aware that other cultures can perhaps make decisive contributions to a more integrative, less reductionist vision of the world; and, secondly, because the other cultures have started to assert their own identity and to reject a supposedly universal concept of development which does not take into account their own cultural specificity.

The New Wave of Innovations

The new innovations belong to several technological fields - micro-electronics, biotechnology, materials, energy - but what gives them the character of a "wave" is the fact that they tend to be mutually articulated into a "cluster" which defines a new global technological paradigm. The central element of the cluster, the one which determines the character of the new paradigm, is micro-electronics.

The dominant characteristic of the new wave is that its impact seems to be more important to the organization of production, the labour process and the social division of labour, than to the general profile of the productive system. The Industrial Revolution, with its first great modern wave of technological innovation and the emergence of the proletariat, consolidated the capitalist economy and changed Western society. The subsequent technological waves changed the whole profile of the productive system, but did not alter signficantly the structure of capitalist society. This new wave will affect the very basis of industrial society, as can be seen by considering briefly the process of automation and robotization.

In all modern societies access to goods and services is conditioned essentially by wages in the widest sense - the remuneration of labour in any of its forms. In the future this central role of wages will decrease, firstly because one of the consequences of automation - the elimination of most jobs that do not require "non-programmable" skills or creativity - will obliterate most significant forms of hierarchy in the labour process; secondly, because direct participation in the productive system will become a diminishing fraction of total human activity, and so its importance as a determinant in the distribution of goods and services will be greatly reduced. The transition to the new "mode of production" will undoubtedly take some time to be completed - of the order of one or two generations - but its first effects are already with us.

The institutional response that the advanced societies are making to the growing problem of unemployment generated by the new technologies is based primarily on the payment of a "salary" to the unemployed through social security services. The non-institutional response is a rapid growth of the service sector, and of the so-called informal sector of the economy; in both cases the apparent solution only conceals the real problem. Most of the workers "transferred" from industry to the service sector- as is well known in the United States, for instance perform menial tasks in restaurants, coffee shops, and the like, with salaries that are only a fraction of those they earned in their previous jobs. As for the informal sector of the economy, it includes a high proportion of "independent" workers who participate marginally in the productive system, deprived of any kind of social protection, whether from government or trade unions.

In the case of Western Europe, it can be estimated that at least 25 per cent of the economically active population- unemployed or barely surviving in the informal sector - is socially marginalized. So the phenomenon of social marginality, a consequence of structural unemployment - which was a characteristic of the underdeveloped countries- is now appearing in the developed world. The main difference is that the advanced countries can afford a much higher degree of economic protection to the unemployed, but the phenomenon of social marginalization is essentially the same.

There are other areas of impact of the new technologies which have important consequences for society. Nevertheless, in this brief presentation we have decided to concentrate mainly on the automation and robotization process because, as we have already said, that is the most important social impact and the one that best illustrates the impact of the new technological wave on the field of human rights.

The Environmental Limits

The consciousness that natural resources and the environment constitute absolute limits to economic growth only appeared in the 1960s. We know now that material consumption cannot grow indefinitely without taking into consideration its effects on the equilibrium of the biosphere.

That awareness, however, is not reflected at the high levels of social decision-making, where a deep ambiguity prevails in relation to environmental policies. Never in history has mankind had the capacity to forecast the results of its actions as it has today. The enormous amount of information accumulated at world Ievel by national and international organizations and the modern means to process it make it possible to have, if not an accurate long-term picture, at least the general trend of some of the variables which condition our future. Yet, there has probably never been a greater inconsistency between a predicted future and the measures taken to cope rationally with it. We have become aware that the resources of the earth are finite, but we still consider - above all in the capitalist world indiscriminate economic growth to be the universal panacea for all our social and economic ills.

The Destructive Nuclear System

All elements of the crisis mentioned above imply the possibility of conflicts. The form and extent of those conflicts is conditioned by the fact that we have now a nuclear destructive capacity ready to be fired equivalent to about a million Hiroshimas.

The crisis of the 1930s did not end due to the application of Keynesian economic measures; it ended as a consequence of the Second World War. A global war could also put an end to the present crisis, but through the destruction of mankind and of most of the biosphere in which we live. Whether the physical annihilation of our race would be complete or not does not matter very much. There may be survivors, but all we associate today with humanity and civilization would have been totally obliterated.

Besides the continuously increasing danger of collective suicide, the cost of the arms race is one of the obstacles to the solution of the problems associated with poverty that affect a great part of the world. In 1985 the global military expenditures 940 billion dollars - exceeded the total income of the poorest half of humanity.

The first five elements we have briefly examined show, if we consider this crisis in the context of the theory of the cyclical long waves of the capitalist economy, that the present crisis has a character which makes it very different from previous crises since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The last two elements the physical outer limits, and the destructive nuclear system - show that this crisis has no precedents. For the first time in history, humanity can be destroyed by its own actions.

It can be said that our civilization has become dysfunctional in the sense that it is no longer able to make adequate responses to the problems generated by its own evolution. We are facing a global crisis whose trajectory, due to its enormous and growing complexity and its lack of precedents, cannot be simply deduced from the past. Viewed as a continuous process, it has some of the characteristics of a discontinuity in the evolution of human society.

We must conclude that we are in an extremely complex situation. We are confronting a future whose evolution is very difficult to forecast and, at the same time, we need some guidelines for action in the long term. The only solution to our present predicament is to formulate and implement alternative development strategies based on objectives more in accordance with the aspirations of the majority of the population, with the possibilities and constraints posed by the advance of our scientific and technological knowledge, and with our understanding of the physical universe in which we live.

We do not pretend, of course, that to stress the need for long-term prospective studies constitutes an original proposal; the widespread perception of the need for this type of work is demonstrated by the well-known long-term global forecasting studies initiated in the 1960s. There is, however, much less agreement about what type of prospective approach is really relevant for the present world situation and this is a central point to be discussed in connection with research in the prospective dimension.


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