Samuel Florman & the Continuing Battle over Technological Progress

by on April 6, 2022 · 0 comments

Almost every argument against technological innovation and progress that we hear today was identified and debunked by Samuel C. Florman a half century ago. Few others since him have mounted a more powerful case for the importance of innovation to human flourishing than Florman did throughout his lifetime.

Chances are you’ve never heard of him, however. As prolific as he was, Florman did not command as much attention as the endless parade of tech critics whose apocalyptic predictions grabbed all the headlines. An engineer by training, Florman became concerned about the growing criticism of his profession throughout the 1960s and 70s. He pushed back against that impulse in a series of books over the next two decades, including most notably: The Existential Pleasures of Engineering (1976), Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats (1981), and The Civilized Engineer (1987). He was also a prolific essayist, penning hundreds of articles for a wide variety of journals, magazines, and newspapers beginning in 1959. He was also a regular columnist for MIT Technology Review for sixteen years.

Florman’s primary mission in his books and many of those essays was to defend the engineering profession against attacks emanating from various corners. More broadly, as he noted in a short autobiography on his personal website, Florman was interested in discussing, “the relationship of technology to the general culture.”

Florman could be considered a “rational optimist,” to borrow Matt Ridley’s notable term[1] for those of us who believe, as I have summarized elsewhere, that there is a symbiotic relationship between innovation, economic growth, pluralism, and human betterment.[2] Rational optimists are highly pragmatic and base their optimism on facts and historical analysis, not on dogmatism or blind faith in any particular viewpoint, ideology, or gut feeling. But they are unified in the belief that technological change is a crucial component of moving the needle on progress and prosperity.

Florman’s unique contribution to advancing rational optimism came in the way he itemized the various claims made by tech critics and then powerfully debunked each one of them. He was providing other rational optimists with a blueprint for how defend technological innovation against its many critics and criticisms. As he argued in The Civilized Engineer, we need to “broaden our conception of engineering to include all technological creativity.”[3] And then we need to defend it with vigor.

In 1982, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers appropriately awarded Florman the distinguished Ralph Coats Roe Medal for his “outstanding contribution toward a better public understanding and appreciation of the engineer’s worth to contemporary society.” Carl Sagan had won the award the previous year. Alas, Forman never attained the same degree of notoriety as Sagan. That is a shame because Florman was as much a philosopher and a historian as he was an engineer, and his robust thinking on technology and society deserves far greater attention. More generally, his plain-spoken style and straight-forward defense of technological progress continues to be a model for how to counter today’s techno-pessimists.

This essay highlights some of the most important themes and arguments found in Florman’s writing and explains its continuing relevance to the ongoing battles over technology and progress.

What Motivates The “Antitechnologists”?

Florman was interested in answering questions about what motivates both engineers as well as their critics. He dug deep into psychology and history to figure out what makes these people tick. Who are engineers, and why do they do what they do? That was his primary question, and we will turn to his answers momentarily. But he also wanted to know what drove the technology critics to oppose innovation so vociferously.

Florman’s most important contribution to the history of ideas lies in his 6-part explanation of “the main themes that run through the works of the antitechnologists.”[4] Florman used the term “antitechnologists” to describe the many different critics of engineering and innovation. He recognized that the term wasn’t perfect and that some people he labelled as such would object to it. Nevertheless, because they offer no umbrella label for their movement or way of thinking, Florman noted that opposition to, or general discomfort with, technology was what motivated these critics. Hence, the label “antitechnologists.”

Florman surveyed a wide swath of technological critics from many different disciplines—philosophy, sociology, law, and other fields. He condensed their main criticisms into six general points:

  • Technology is a “thing” or a force that has escaped from human control and is spoiling our lives.
  • Technology forces man to do work that is tedious and degrading.
  • Technology forces man to consume things that he does not really desire.
  • Technology creates an elite class of technocrats, and so disenfranchises the masses.
  • Technology cripples man by cutting him off from the natural world in which he evolved.
  • Technology provides man with technical diversions which destroy his existential sense of his own being.[5]

No one else before this had ever crafted such a taxonomy of complaints from tech critics, and no one has done it better since Florman did so in 1976. In fact, it is astonishing how well Florman’s list continues to identify what motivates modern technology critics. New technologies have come and gone, but these same concerns tend to be brought up again and again. Florman’s books addressed and debunked each of these concerns in powerful fashion.

The Relentless Pessimism & Elitism of the Antitechnologists

Florman identified the way a persistent pessimism unifies antitechnologists. “Our intellectual journals are full of gloomy tracts that depict a society debased by technology,” he noted.[6] What motivated such gloom and doom? “It is fear. They are terrified by the scene unfolding before their eyes.”[7] He elaborated:

“The antitechnologists are frightened; they counsel halt and retreat. They tell the people that Satan (technology) is leading them astray, but the people have heard that story before. They will not stand still for vague promises of a psychic contentment that is to follow in the wake of voluntary temperance.”[8]

The antitechnologist’s worldview isn’t just relentlessly pessimistic but also highly elitist and paternalistic, Florman argued. He referred to it as “Platonic snobbery.”[9] The economist and political scientist Thomas Sowell would later call that snobbish attitude, “the vision of the anointed.”[10] Like Sowell, Florman was angered at the way critics stared down their noses at average folk and disregarded their values and choices:

“The antitechnologists have every right to be gloomy, and have a bounden duty to express their doubts about the direction our lives are taking. But their persistent disregard of the average person’s sentiments is a crucial weakness in their argument—particularly when they then ask us to consider the ‘real’ satisfactions that they claim ordinary people experienced in other cultures of other times.”[11]

Florman noted that critics commonly complain about “too many people wanting too many things,” but he noted that, “[t]his is not caused by technology; it is a consequence of the type of creature that man is.”[12] One can moralize all they want about supposed over-consumption or “conspicuous consumption,” but in the end, most of us strive to better our lives in various ways—including by working to attain things that may be out of our reach or even superfluous in the eyes of others.

For many antitechnologists and other social critics, only the noble search for truth and wisdom will suffice. Basically, everybody should just get back to studying philosophy, sociology, and other soft sciences. Modern tech critics, Forman said, fashion themselves as the intellectual descendants of Greek philosophers who believed that, “[t]he ideal of the new Athenian citizen was to care for his body in the gymnasium, reason his way to Truth in the academy, gossip in the agora, and debate in the senate. Technology was not deemed worthy of a free man’s time.”[13]

“It is not surprising to find philosophers recommending the study of philosophy as a way of life,” Florman noted amusingly.[14] But that does not mean all of us want (or even need) to devote our lives to such things. Nonetheless, critics often sneer at the choices made by the rest of us—especially when they involve the fruits of science and technology. “The most effective weapon in the arsenal of the antitechnologists is self-righteousness,” he noted,[15] and, “[a]s seen by the antitechnologists, engineers and scientists are half-men whose analysis and manipulation of the world deprives them of the emotional experiences that are the essence of the good life.”[16]

Indeed, it is not uncommon (both in the past and today) to see tech critics self-anoint themselves “humanists” and then suggest that anyone who thinks differently from them (namely, those who are pro-innovation) are the equivalent of anti-humanistic. I wrote about this in my 2018 essay, “Is It ‘Techno-Chauvinist’ & ‘Anti-Humanist’ to Believe in the Transformative Potential of Technology?” I argued that, “[p]roperly understood, ‘technology’ and technological innovation are simply extensions of our humanity and represent efforts to continuously improve the human condition. In that sense, humanism and technology are compliments, not opposites.”

But the critics remain fundamentally hostile to that notion and they often suggest that there is something suspicious about those who believe, along with Florman, that there is a symbiotic relationship between innovation, economic growth, pluralism, and human betterment. We rational optimists, the critics suggest, are simply too focused on crass, materialistic measures of happiness and human flourishing.

Florman observed this when noting how much grief he and fellow engineers and scientists got when engaging with critics. “Anyone who has attempted to defend technology against the reproaches of an avowed humanist soon discovers that beneath all the layers of reasoning—political, environmental, aesthetic, or moral—lies a deep-seated disdain for ‘the scientific view.’”[17]

Everywhere you look in the world of Science & Technology Studies (STS) today, you find this attitude at work. In fact, the field is perhaps better labelled Anti-Science & Technology Studies, or at least Science & Technology Skeptical Studies. For most STSers, the burden of proof lies squarely on scientists, engineers, and innovators who must prove to some (often undefined) higher authorities that their ideas and inventions will bring worth to society (however the critics measure worth and value, which is often very unclear). Until then, just go slow, the critics say. Better yet, consult your local philosophy department for a proper course of action!

The critics will retort that they are just looking out for society’s best interests and trying to counter that selfish, materialist side of humanity. Florman countered by noting how, “most people are in search of the good life—not ‘the goods life’ as [Lewis] Mumford puts it, although some goods are entailed—and most human desires are for good things in moderate amounts.”[18] Trying to better our lives through the creation and acquisition of new and better goods and services is just a natural and quite healthy human instinct to help us attain some ever-changing definition of whatever each of us considers “the good life.” “Something other than technology is responsible for people wanting to live in a house on a grassy plot beyond walking distance to job, market, neighbor, and school,” Florman responded.[19] We all want to “get ahead” and improve our lot in life. That’s not because technology forces the urge upon us. Rather, that urge comes quite naturally as part of a desire to improve our lot in life.

The Power of Nostalgia

I have spent a fair amount of time in my own writing documenting the central role that nostalgia plays in motivating technological criticism.[20] Florman’s books repeatedly highlighted this reality. “The antitechnologists romanticize the work of earlier times in an attempt to make it seem more appealing than work in a technological age,” he noted. “But their idyllic descriptions of peasant life do not ring true.”[21]

The funny thing is, it is hard to pin down the critics regarding exactly when the “golden era” or “good ‘ol days” were. But if there is one thing that they all agree on, it’s that those days have long passed us by. In a 2019 essay on “Four Flavors of Doom: A Taxonomy of Contemporary Pessimism,” philosopher Maarten Boudry noted:

“In the good old days, everything was better. Where once the world was whole and beautiful, now everything has gone to ruin. Different nostalgic thinkers locate their favorite Golden Age in different historical periods. Some yearn for a past that they were lucky enough to experience in their youth, while others locate utopia at a point farther back in time…”

Not all nostalgia is bad. Clay Routledge has written eloquently about how “nostalgia serves important psychological functions,” and can sometimes possess a positive character that strengthens individuals and society. But the nostalgia found in the works of tech critics is usually a different thing altogether. It is rooted in misery about the present and dread of the future—all because technology has apparently stolen away or destroyed all that was supposedly great about the past. Florman noted how, “the current pessimism about technology is a renewed manifestation of pastoralism,” that is typically rooted in historical revisionism about bygone eras.[22] Many critics engage in what rhetoricians call “appeals to nature” and wax poetic about the joys of life for Pre-Technological Man, who apparently enjoyed an idyllic life free of the annoying intrusions created by modern contrivances.

Such “good ol days” romanticism is largely untethered from reality. “For most of recorded history humanity lived on the brink of starvation,” Wall Street Journal columnist Greg Ip noted in a column in early 2019. Even a cursory review of history offers voluminous, unambiguous proof that the old days were, in reality, eras of abject misery. Widespread poverty, mass hunger, poor hygiene, disease, short lifespans, and so on were the norm. What lifted humanity up and improved our lot as a species is that we learned how to apply knowledge to tasks in a better way through incessant trial-and-error experimentation. Recent books by Hans Rosling,[23] Steven Pinker,[24] and many others[25] have thoroughly documented these improvements to human well-being over time.

The critics are unmoved by such evidence, preferring to just jump around in time and cherry-pick moments when they feel life was better than it is now. “Fond as they are of tribal and peasant life, the antitechnologists become positively euphoric over the Middle Ages,” Florman quipped.[26] Why? Mostly because the Middle Ages lacked the technological advances of modern times, which the critics loathe. But facts are pesky things, and as Florman insisted, “it is fair to go on to ask whether or not life was ‘better’ in these earlier cultures than it is in our own.”[27] “We all are moved to reverie by talk of an arcadian golden age,” he noted. “But when we awaken from this reverie, we realize that the antitechnologists have diverted us with half-truths and distortions.”[28]

The critics’ reverence for the old days would be humorous if it wasn’t rooted in an arrogant and dangerous belief that society can be somehow reshaped to resemble whatever preferred past the critics desire. “Recognizing that we cannot return to earlier times, the antitechnologists nevertheless would have us attempt to recapture the satisfactions of these vanished cultures,” Florman noted. “In order to do this, what is required is nothing less than a change in the nature of man.”[29] That is, the critics will insist that, “something must be done” (namely be forced from above via some grand design) to remake humans and discourage their inner homo faber desire to be an incessant tool-builder. But this is madness, Florman argued in one of the best passages from his work:

“we are beginning to realize that for mankind there will never be a time to rest at the top of the mountain. There will be no new arcadian age. There will always be new burdens, new problems, new failures, new beginnings. And the glory of man is to respond to his harsh fate with zest and ever-renewed effort.”[30]

If the critics had their way, however, that zest would be dampened and those efforts restrained in the name of recapturing some mythical lost age. This sort of “rosy retrospection bias” is all the more shocking coming, as it does, from learned people who should know a lot more about the actual history of our species and the long struggle to escape utter despair and destitution. Alas, as the great Scottish philosopher David Hume observed in a 1777 essay, “The humour of blaming the present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature, and has an influence even on persons endued with the profoundest judgment and most extensive learning.”[31]

Why Invent? Homo Faber is our Nature

While taking on the critics and debunking their misplaced nostalgia about the past, Florman mounted a defense of engineers and innovators by noting that the need to tinker and create is in our blood. He began by noting how “the nature of engineering has been misconceived”[32] because, in a sense, we are all engineers and innovators to some degree.

Florman’s thinking was very much in line with Benjamin Franklin, who once noted, “man is a tool-making animal.” “Both genetically and culturally the engineering instinct has been nurtured within us,” Florman argued, and this instinct “was as old as the human race.”[33] “To be human is to be technological. When we are being technological we are being human—we are expressing the age-old desire of the tribe to survive and prosper.”[34] In fact, he claimed, it was no exaggeration to say that humans, “are driven to technological creativity because of instincts hardly less basic than hunger and sex.”[35] Had our past situation been as rosy as the critics sometimes suggest, perhaps we would have never bothered to fashion tools to escape those eras! It was precisely because humans wanted to improve their lives and the lives of their loved ones that we started crafting more and better tools. Flint and firewood were never going to suffice.

But our engineering instincts do not end with basic needs. “Engineering responds to impulses that go beyond mere survival: a craving for variety and new possibilities, a feeling for proportion—for beauty—that we share with the artist,” Florman argued.[36] In essence, engineering and innovation respond to both basic human needs and higher ones at every stage of “Maslow’s pyramid,” which describes a five-level hierarchy of human needs. This same theme is developed in Arthur Diamond’s recent book, Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. As Diamond argues, one of the most unheralded features of technological innovation is that, “by providing goods that are especially useful in pursuing a life plan full of challenging, worthwhile creative projects,” it allows each of us the pursue different conceptions of what we consider a good life.[37] But we are only able to do so by first satisfying our basic physiological needs, which innovation also handles for us.

Florman was frustrated that critics failed to understand this point and equally concerned that engineers and innovators had been cast as uncaring gadget-worshipers who did not see beauty and truth in higher arts and other more worldly goals and human values. That’s hogwash, he argued:

“What an ironic turn of events! For if ever there was a group dedicated to—obsessed with—morality, conscience, and social responsibility, it has been the engineering profession. Practically every description of the practice of engineering has stressed the concept of service to humanity.[38] [. . .] Even in an age of global affluence, the main existential pleasure of the engineer will always be to contribute to the well-being of his fellow man.”[39]

Engineers and innovators do not always set out with some grandiose design to change the world, although some aspire to do so. Rather, the “existential pleasures of engineering” that Florman described in the title of his most notable book comes about by solving practical day-to-day problems:

“The engineer does not find existential pleasure by seeking it frontally. It comes to him gratuitously, seeping into him unawares. He does not arise in the morning and say, ‘Today I shall find happiness.’ Quite the contrary. He arises and says, ‘Today I will do the work that needs to be done, the work for which I have been trained, the work which I want to do because in doing it I feel challenged and alive.’ Then happiness arrives mysteriously as a byproduct of his effort.”[40]

And this pleasure of getting practical work done is something that engineers and innovators enjoy collectively by coming together and using specialized skills in new and unique combinations. “[T]echnological progress depends upon a variety of skills and knowledge that are far beyond the capacity of any one individual,” he insisted. “High civilization requires a high degree of specialization, and it was toward high civilization that the human journey appears always to have been directed.”[41] Adam Smith could not have said it any better.

“Muddling Through”: Why Trial-and-Error is the Key to Progress

My favorite insights from Florman’s work relate to the way humans have repeatedly faced up to adversity and found ways to “muddle through.” This was the focus of an old essay of mine— “Muddling Through: How We Learn to Cope with Technological Change”—which argued that humans are a remarkably resilient species and that we regularly find creative ways to deal with major changes through constant trial-and-error experimentation and the learning that results from it.[42]

Florman made this same point far more eloquently long ago:

“We have been attempting to muddle along, acknowledging that we are selfish and foolish, and proceeding by means of trial and error. We call ourselves pragmatists. Mistakes are made, of course. Also, tastes change, so that what seemed desirable to one generation appears disagreeable to the next. But our overriding concern has been to make sure that matters of taste do not become matters of dogma, for that is the way toward violent conflict and tyranny. Trial and error, however, is exactly what the antitechnologists cannot abide.[43]

It is the error part of trial-and-error that is so vital to societal learning. “Even the most cautious engineer recognizes that risk is inherent in what he or she does,” Florman noted. “Over the long haul the improbable becomes the inevitable, and accidents will happen. The unanticipated will occur.”[44] But “[s]ometimes the only way to gain knowledge is by experiencing failure,” he correctly observed[45] “To be willing to learn through failure—failure that cannot be hidden—requires tenacity and courage.”[46]

I’ve argued that this represents the central dividing line between innovation supporters and technology critics. The critics are so focused on risk-adverse, precautionary principle-based thinking that they simply cannot tolerate the idea that society can learn more through trial-and-error than through preemptive planning. They imagine it is possible to override that process and predetermine the proper course of action to create a safer, more stable society. In this mindset, failure is to be avoided at all costs through prescriptions and prohibitions. Innovation is to be treated as guilty until proven innocent in the hope of eliminating the error (or risk / failure) associated with trial-and-error experiments. To reiterate, this logic misses the fact that the entire point of trial-and-error is to learn from our mistakes and “fail better” next time, until we’ve solved the problem at hand entirely.[47]

Florman noted that, “sensible people have agreed that there is no free lunch; there are only difficult choices, options, and trade-offs.”[48] In other words, precautionary controls come at a cost. “All we can do is do the best we can, plan where we can, agree where we can, and compromise where we must,” he said.[49] But, again, the antitechnologists absolutely cannot accept this worldview. They are fundamentally hostile to it because they either believe that a precautionary approach will do a better job improving public welfare, or they believe that trial-and-error fails to safeguard any number of other values or institutions that they regard as sacrosanct. This shuts down the learning process from which wisdom is generated. As the old adage goes, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” There can be no reward without some risk, and there can be no human advances without unless we are free to learn from the error portion of trial-and-error.

The Costs of Precautionary Regulation

Florman did not spend much time in his writing mulling over the finer points of public policy, but he did express skepticism about our collective ability to define and enforce “the public interest” in various contexts. A great many regulatory regimes—and their underlying statutes—rest on the notion of “protecting the public interest.” It is impossible to be against that notion, but it is often equally impossible to define what it even means.[50]

This leads to what Florman called, “the search for virtues that nobody can define”[51] “As engineers we are agreed that the public interest is very important; but it is folly to think that we can agree on what the public interest is. We cannot even agree on the scientific facts!”[52] This is especially true today in debates over what constitutes “responsible innovation” or “ethical innovation.”[53] What Florman noted about such conversations three decades ago is equally true today:

“Whenever engineering ethics is on the agenda, emotions come quickly to a boil. […] “It is oh so easy to mouth clichés, for example to pledge to protect the public interest, as the various codes of engineering ethics do. But such a pledge is only a beginning and hardly that. The real questions remain: What is the public interest, and how is it to be served?”[54]

That reality makes it extremely difficult to formulate consensus regarding public polices for emerging technologies. And it makes it particularly difficult to define and enforce a “precautionary principle” for emerging technologies that will somehow strike the Goldilocks balance of getting things just right. This was the focus of my 2016 book Permissionless Innovation, which argued that the precautionary principle should be the last resort when contemplating innovation policy. Experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default because, “living in constant fear of worst-case scenarios—and premising public policy on them—means that best-case scenarios will never come about,” I argued. The precautionary principle should only be tapped when the harms alleged to be associated with a new technology are highly probable, tangible, immediate, irreversible, catastrophic, or directly threatening to life and limb in some fashion.

For his part, Florman did not want to get his defense of engineering mixed up with politics and regulatory considerations. Engineers and technologists, he noted, come in many flavors and supported many different causes. Generally speaking, they tend to be quite pragmatic and shun strong ideological leanings and political pronouncements.

Of course, at some point, there is no avoiding this fight; one must comment on how to strike the right balance when politics enter the picture and threatens to stifle technological creativity. Florman’s perspectives on regulatory policy were somewhat jumbled, however. On one hand, he expressed concern about excessive and misguided regulations, but he also saw government playing an important role both in supporting various types of engineering projects and regulating certain technological developments:

“The regulatory impulse, running wild, wreaks havoc, first of all by stifling creative and productive forces that are vital to national survival. But it does harm also—and perhaps more ominously—by fomenting a counter-revolution among outraged industrialists, the intensity of which threatens to sweep away many of the very regulations we most need.”[55]

In his 1987 book, The Civilized Engineer, Florman even expressed surprise and regret about growing pushback against regulation during the Reagan years. He also expressed skepticism about “the deceptive allure” of benefit-cost analysis, which was on the rise at the time, saying that the “attempt to apply mathematical consistency to the regulatory process was deplorably simplistic.”[56] I have always been a big believer in the importance of benefit-cost analysis (BCA), so I was surprised to read of Florman’s skepticism of it. But he was writing in the early days of BCA and it was not entirely clear how well it work in practice. Four decades on, BCA has become far more rigorous, academically respected, and well-established throughout government. It has widespread and bipartisan support as a policy evaluation tool.

Florman adamantly opposed any sort of “technocracy”—or administration of government by technically-skilled elites. He thought it was silly that so many tech critics believe that such a thing already existed. “The myth of the technocratic elite is an expression of fear, like a fairy tale about ogres,” he argued. “It springs from an understandable apprehension, but since it has no basis in reality, it has no place in serious discourse.”[57] Nor did he believe that there was any real chance a technocracy would ever take hold. “No matter how complex technology becomes, and no matter how important it turns out to be in human affairs, we are not likely to see authority vested in a class of technocrats.”[58]

Florman hoped for wiser administration of law and regulations that affected engineering endeavors and innovation more generally. Like so many others, he did not necessarily want more law, just better law. One cannot fault that instinct, but Florman was not really interested in fleshing out the finer details of policy about how to accomplish that objective. He preferred instead to use history as a rough guide for policy. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the decline of Britain’s economic might in more recent times, Florman observed the ways in which societal and governmental attitudes toward innovation influenced the relative growth of science, technology, and national economies. In essence, he was explaining how “innovation culture” and “innovation arbitrage” had been realities for far longer than most people realize.[59]

“Where the entrepreneurial spirit cannot be rewarded, and where non-productive workers cannot be discharged, stagnation will set in,” Florman concluded.[60] This is very much in line with the thinking of economic historians like Joel Mokyr[61] and Deirdre McCloskey,[62] who have identified how attitudes toward creativity and entrepreneurialism affect the aggregate innovative capacity of nations, and thus their competitive advantage and relative prosperity in the world.

Debunking Determinism, Anxiety & Alienation Concerns

One of the ironies of modern technological criticism is the way many critics can’t seem to get their story straight when it comes to “technological determinism” versus social determinism. In the extreme view, technological determinism is the idea that technology drives history and almost has a will of its own. It is like an autonomous force that is practically unstoppable. By contrast, social determinism means that society (individuals, institutions, etc.) guide and control the development of technology.

In the field of Science and Technology Studies, technological determinism is a very hot matter. Academic and social critics are fond of painting innovation advocates as rigid tech determinists who are little better than uncaring anti-humanistic gadget-worshipers. The critics have employed a variety of other creative labels to describe tech determinism, including: “techno-fundamentalism,” “technological solutionism,” and even “techno-chauvinism.”

Engineers and other innovators often get hit with such labels and accused of being rigid technological determinists who just want to see tech plow over people and politics. But this was, and remains, a ridiculous argument. Sure, there will always be some wild-eyed futurists and extropian extremists who make preposterous claims about how “there is no stopping technology.” “Even now the salvation-through-technology doctrine has some adherents whose absurdities have helped to inspire the antitechnological movement, Florman said.”[63] But that hardly represents the majority of innovation supporters, who well understand that society and politics play a crucial role in shaping the future course of technological development.

As Florman noted, we can dismiss extreme deterministic perspectives for a rather simple reason: technologies fail all the time! “If promising technologies can suffer fatal blows from unexpected circumstances,” Florman correctly argued, then “[t]his means that we are still—however precariously—in control of our own destiny.”[64] He believed that, “technology is not an independent force, much less a thing, but merely one of the types of activities in which people engage.”[65] The rigid view of tech determinism can be dismissed, he said, because “it can be shown that technology is still very much under society’s control, that it is in fact an expression of our very human desires, fancies, and fears.”[66]

But what is amazing about this debate is that some of the most rigid technological determinists are the technology critics themselves! Recall how Florman began his 6-part taxonomy of common complaints from tech critics. “A primary characteristic of the antitechnologists,” Florman argued, “is the way in which they refer to ‘technology’ as a thing, or at least a force, as if it had an existence of its own” and which “has escaped from human control and is spoiling our lives.”[67]

He noted that many of the leading tech critics of the post-war era often spoke in remarkably deterministic ways. “The idea that a man of the masses has no thoughts of his own, but is something on the order of a programmed machine, owes part of its popularity with the antitechnologists to the influential writings of Herbert Marcuse,” he believed.[68] But then such thinking accelerated and gained greater favor with the popularity of critics like French philosopher Jacques Ellul, American historian Lewis Mumford, and American cultural critic Neil Postman.

Their books painted a dismal portrait of a future in which humans were subjugated to the evils of “technique” (Ellul), “technics” (Mumford), or “technopoly” (Postman).  The narrative of their works read like dystopian science fiction. Essentially, there was no escaping the iron grip that technology had on us. Postman claimed, for example, that technology was destined to destroy “the vital sources of our humanity” and lead to “a culture without a moral foundation” by undermining “certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.”

Which gets us to commonly heard concerns about how technology leads to “anxiety” and “alienation.” “Having established the view of technology as an evil force, the antitechnologists then proceed to depict the average citizen as a helpless slave, driven by this force to perform work he detests,” Florman notes.[69] “Anxiety and alienation are the watchwords of the day, as if material comforts made life worse, rather than better.”[70]

These concerns about anxiety, alienation, and “dehumanization” are omnipresent in the work of modern tech critics, and they are also tied up with traditional worries about “conspicuous consumption.” It’s all part of the “false consciousness” narrative they also peddle, which basically views humans as too ignorant to look out for their own good. In this worldview, people are sheep being led to the slaughter by conniving capitalists and tech innovators, who are just trying to sell them things they don’t really need.

Florman pointed out how preposterous this line of thinking is when he noted how critics seem to always forget that, “a basic human impulse precedes and underlies each technological development”:[71]

“Very often this impulse, or desire, is directly responsible for the new invention. But even when this is not the case, even when the invention is not a response to any particular consumer demand, the impulse is alive and at the ready, sniffing about like a mouse in a maze, seeking its fulfillment. We may regret having some of these impulses. We certainly regret giving expression to some of them. But this hardly gives us the right to blame our misfortunes on a devil external to ourselves.”[72]

Consider the automobile, for example. Industrial era critics often focused on it and lambasted the way they thought industrialists pushed auto culture and technologies on the masses. Did we really need all those cars? All those colors? All those options? Did we really even need cars? The critics wanted us to believe that all these things were just imposed upon us. We were being force-fed options we really didn’t even need or want. “Choice” in this worldview is just a fiction; a front for the nefarious ends of our corporate overlords.

Florman demolished this reasoning throughout his books. “However much we deplore the growth of our automobile culture, clearly it has been created by people making choices, not by a runaway technology,” he argued.[73] Consumer demand and choice is not some fiction fabricated and forced upon us, as the antitechnologists suggest. We make decisions. “Those who would blame all of life’s problems on an amorphous technology, inevitably reject the concept of individual responsibility,” Florman retorted. “This is not humanism. It is a perversion of the humanistic impulse.”[74]

A modern tweak on the conspicuous consumption and false consciousness arguments is found in the work of leading tech critics like Evgeny Morozov, who pens attention-grabbing screeds decrying what he regards as “the folly of technological solutionism.” Morozov bluntly states that “our enemy is the romantic and revolutionary problem solver who resides within” of us, but most specifically within the engineers and technologists.[75]

But would the world really be better place it tinkerers didn’t try to scratch that itch?[76] In 2021, the Wall Street Journal profiled JoeBen Bevirt, an engineer and serial entrepreneur who has been working to bring flying cars from sci-fi to reality. Channeling Florman’s defense of the existential pleasures associated with engineering, Bevirt spoke passionately about the way innovators can help “move our species forward” through their constant tinkering to find solutions to hard problems. “That’s kind of the ethos of who we are,” he said. “We see problems, we’re engineers, we work to try to fix them.”[77]

When tech critics like Morozov decry “solutionism,” they are essentially saying that innovators like Bevirt need to just shut up and sit down. Don’t try to improve the world through tinkering; just settle for the status quo, the critics basically state. That’s the kiss of death for human progress, however, because it is only through incessant experimentation with the new and different approaches to hard problems that we can advance human well-being. “Solutionism” isn’t about just creating some shiny new toy; it’s about expanding the universe of potentially life-enriching and life-saving technologies available to humanity.


This review of Samuel Florman’s work may seem comprehensive, but it only scratches the surface of his wide-ranging writing. Florman was troubled that engineering lacked support or at least understanding. Perhaps that was because, he reasoned, that “[t]here is no single truth that embodies the practice of engineering, no patron saint, no motto or simple credo. There is no unique methodology that has been distilled from millenia of technological effort.”  Or, more simply, it may also be the case that the profession lacked articulate defenders. “The engineer may merely be waiting for his Shakespeare,” he suggested.[78]

Through his life’s work, however, Samuel Florman became that Shakespeare; the great bard of engineering and passionate defender of technological innovation and rational optimism more generally. In looking for a quote or two to close out my latest book, I ended with this one from Florman:

“By turning our backs on technological change, we would be expressing our satisfaction with current world levels of hunger, disease, and privation. Further, we must press ahead in the name of the human adventure. Without experimentation and change our existence would be a dull business.”[79]

Let us resolve to make sure that Florman’s greatest fear does not come to pass. Let us resolve to make sure that the great human adventure never ends. And let us resolve to counter the antitechnologists and their fundamentally anti-humanist worldview, which would most assuredly make our existence the “dull business” that Florman dreaded.

We can do better when we put our minds and hands to work innovating in an attempt to build a better future for humanity. Samuel Florman, the great prophet of progress, showed us the way forward.


Additional Reading from Adam Thierer:



[1]    Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (New York: Harper Collins, 2010).

[2]    Adam Thierer, “Defending Innovation Against Attacks from All Sides,” Discourse, November 9, 2021,

[3]    Samuel C. Forman, The Civilized Engineer (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1987), p. 26.

[4]    Samuel C. Florman, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering (New York, St. Martins Griffin, 2nd Edition, 1994), p. 53-4.

[5]    Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 53-4.

[6]    Samuel C. Florman, Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981), p. 186.

[7]    Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 76.

[8]    Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 77.

[9]    The Civilized Engineer, p. 38.

[10]   Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

[11]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 72.

[12]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 76.

[13]   The Civilized Engineer, p. 35.

[14]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 102.

[15]   Blaming Technology, p. 162.

[16]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 55.

[17]   Blaming Technology, p. 70.

[18]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 77.

[19]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 60.

[20]   Adam Thierer, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle,” Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology 14, no. 1 (2013), p. 312–50,

[21]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 62.

[22]   Blaming Technology, p. 9.

[23]   Hans Rosling, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (New York: Flatiron Books, 2018).

[24]   Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018).

[25]   Gregg Easterbrook, It’s Better than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear (New York: Public Affairs, 2018); Michael A. Cohen & Micah Zenko, Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).

[26]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 54.

[27]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 72.

[28]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 72.

[29]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 55.

[30]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 117.

[31]   David Hume, “Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations,” (1777),

[32]   The Civilized Engineer, p. 20.

[33]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 6.

[34]   The Civilized Engineer, p. 20.

[35]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 115.

[36]   The Civilized Engineer, p. 20.

[37]   Arthur Diamond, Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[38]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 19.

[39]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 147.

[40]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 148.

[41]   The Civilized Engineer, p. 30.

[42]   Adam Thierer, “Muddling Through: How We Learn to Cope with Technological Change,” Medium, June 30, 2014,

[43]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 84.

[44]   The Civilized Engineer, p. 71.

[45]   The Civilized Engineer, p. 72.

[46]   The Civilized Engineer, p. 72.

[47]   Adam Thierer, “Failing Better: What We Learn by Confronting Risk and Uncertainty,” in Sherzod Abdukadirov (ed.), Nudge Theory in Action: Behavioral Design in Policy and Markets (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016): 65-94.

[48]   The Civilized Engineer, p. xi.

[49]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 85.

[50]   Adam Thierer, “Is the Public Served by the Public Interest Standard?” The Freeman, September 1, 1996,

[51]   The Civilized Engineer, p. 84.

[52]   The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 22.

[53]   Adam Thierer, “Are ‘Permissionless Innovation’ and ‘Responsible Innovation’ Compatible?” Technology Liberation Front, July 12, 2017,

[54]   The Civilized Engineer, p. 79.

[55]   Blaming Technology, p. 106.

[56]   The Civilized Engineer, p. 158.

[57]   Blaming Technology, p. 41.

[58]   Blaming Technology, p. 40-1.

[59]   Adam Thierer, “Embracing a Culture of Permissionless Innovation,” Cato Online Forum, November 17, 2014,; Christopher Koopman, “Creating an Environment for Permissionless Innovation,” Testimony before the US Congress Joint Economic Committee, May 22, 2018,

[60]   The Civilized Engineer, p. 117.

[61]   Joel Mokyr, Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[62]   Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006); Deirdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2010).

[63]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 57.

[64]   Blaming Technology, p. 22.

[65]   The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 58.

[66]   Blaming Technology, p. 10.

[67]   The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 48, 53.

[68]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 70.

[69]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 49.

[70]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 16.

[71]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 61.

[72]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 61.

[73]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 60.

[74]   Blaming Technology, p. 104.

[75]   Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (New York: Public Affairs, 2013).

[76]   Adam Thierer, “A Net Skeptic’s Conservative Manifesto,” Reason, April 27, 2013,

[77]   Emily Bobrow, “JoeBen Bevirt Is Bringing Flying Taxis from Sci-Fi to Reality,” Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2021,

[78]   Existential Pleasures of Engineering, p. 96.

[79]   Blaming Technology, p. 193.

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