What shall we do with Andromeda

1965 essay with 2015 foreword

By William Wetherall

California Engineer
Vol. 43, No. 6, March 1965, pages 22-23, 30, 32


Contents

Foreword: Half a century ago

A prefatorial challenge
The status of technology
The destiny of technology
The cost of technology
The opponents of technology
The proponents of technology
On sociological problems
On philosophical problems
The problem of moral responsibility
In conclusion


Foreword: Half a century ago

1962 was a big year for me. I had just returned to my electrical engineering studies at Berkeley. I had taken an eighteen-month leave of absence from college to work for the then Department of Navy, at the now defunct San Francisco Naval Shipyards. My colleagues were civilian engineers, and I helped them install and test fire-control radar and sonar systems for state-of-the-art ship-launched guided missiles and torpedoes, and vintage antiaircraft batteries. We spent a lot of time at sea, on everything from ancient mine-sweepers and submarines, to brand-new frigates and aircraft carriers.

The engineering students I ran with at Berkeley called each other "red hots". We were proud of the 12-1/2-inch Keuffel & Esser Log Log Duplex Decitrig slide rules we carried everywhere, often slung from our belts, though not (contrary to folklore) strapped to our legs. We were loaded for any bear of a problem our profs and TAs could throw at us, so long as we could reduce it to an equation, into which we could assign values to all variables, and crank out an answer. We knew next to nothing, and were taught even less, about the social and political complications of life, like girls and Cold War politics.

Then came the Cuban Crisis. We should not have been shocked. The campus was dotted with bomb shelters and other "Civil Defense" facilities. Like many other engineering students, I had studied radio activity, and had even taken part in field exercises in which we walked a grid in a park with a Geiger counter, measured the level of radiation at each point, plotted the data on a map of the park, and located the hot spots. It was like an Easter egg hunt, but the eggs were vials of radioactive material the instructor had buried in the ground.

Not a few engineering students, myself included, became totally disillusioned by the prospects of working for the "military industrial complex". We knew that roughly 70 percent of all electrical engineers worked in the defense industry. We also knew that most sectors of the glamorous aerospace industry were satellites, if you will, of the defense industry. The technology that would out-orbit Sputnik was the same technology that would put the United States ahead of the Soviet Union in the ICBM race.

I stopped going to lectures in the College of Engineering and began auditing courses on subjects ranging literally from archaeology to zoology. I read a lot of fiction, from Ayn Rand to Zane Grey. I read several volumes on information theory and the history of science and technology. I read Walden Pond. My report card for the Spring 1963 semester was full of withdrawal Fs, for failing to sit for my final exams. Early in the summer, while working as a surveyor for the Tahoe National Forest, I received a letter informing me that I had been put on academic probation for a year, during which I would not be allowed to enroll.

Late that summer I was ordered to take my Selective Service physical, the first stage in the process of being drafted into the military. In order to be able to choose an occupational speciality, I enlisted in the US Army and indicated my desire to be a surgical technician. I was in infantry boot camp when Kennedy was assassinated. After finishing training as a medic and truck driver, I drove an ambulance in a Strategic Army Corps medical battalion. I spent one-month participating in a field exercise called Desert Strike.

In the heat of the Mojave in California and Arizona, a couple of active Army divisions and Air Force groups fought over the colorado River. I was on the side that wore Roman crests on their battle helmets. The object of the umpired maneuvers was to test the ability of US forces to fight a desert war. But the ambulance support was not simulated. In addition to the real blisters, crotch rot, clap, and other military malignancies, soldiers were bitten by scorpions, killed in vehicle accidents, crushed by tanks in night operations, and blistered to death in the unforgiving sun. But Operation Desert Storm would not come until twenty years after another war had been fought, and lost, in the hot steamy jungles of Vietnam, on the other side of the same Eurasian continent.

I cannot remember precisely what went through my mind in late October and early November 1962 as I listened, with other students at Arch Place, the private lodging house where I boarded, to the news on the showdown between Kennedy and Khrushchev over the buildup of Soviet offensive missiles on Cuba. All I recall is that I wondered what kind of career awaited me, and what sense it made, if any, to devote my life to the design, manufacture, sales, and service of devices that could destroy the entire planet.

I had already launched my writing career, as it were, with letters to the editor of the Daily Californian, the Berkeley campus paper. I had also published a critique of local education in The Union, a hometown paper, which had also run a column I wrote while at Fort Ord called Life in the Army. But the Cuban Crisis, and readings of books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, compelled me to write longer and deeper about the contradictions of technological advancement and civilization. I read, and wrote, from sanctuaries in various US Army posts, but did not finish my first essay until around the time of the Tonkin Gulf incident of August 1964. And though I was soon to be caught up in what would became a full-scale war, at the time I had little understanding or interest in what seemed to be just another minor skirmish in a far off corner of the world.

I finished "What shall we do with Andromeda?" while studying to be a medical laboratory technician at the Sixth US Army Medical Laboratory at Fort Baker just north of the Golden Gate Bridge between the bridge and Sausalito, or directly across San Francisco Bay from Letterman Army Hospital where we also did some training. I was, of course, delighted that California Engineer accepted my manuscript. For it was, to say the least, a very unconventional piece of writing. Nothing quite like it had ever appeared in the magazine. I wonder if the editors was as overwhelmed then, as I am now in hindsight, by its cocky rhetoric. Whatever they thought of it, they touched not a word, not even its odd neologisms, which fortunately never made it into a dictionary. Did the editors even try looking them up? Or did they just feel the guy sounds like he knows what he's talking about, so besides it has a nice ring to it?

In any event, here it is, every real and imaginary word of the original article, reproduced exactly as they were printed over three decades ago. Some silly spelling errors have been corrected in brackets, but the sprinkling of British spellings have been left to puzzle over. And the "pre-liberation" use of masculine terms to represent all humankind remains a testimony to how "real men" wrote in those more arrogant days.

While reflecting on the pompous rage that drove me to write what I did over fifty years ago, I am aware of how much of that youthful anger, though now much quieter and more moderate, still simmers in the furnace of my brain, and still fires my gravest misgivings about the human condition, but as well my deepest hopes.

William Wetherall
8 August 2015, Hakusan, Abiko
(Foreword first written 1 January 1998, Kotobuki, Abiko)


What shall we do with Andromeda

By William Wetherall

A prefatorial challenge

It has been insinuated by critics alleged to know that we scientists and engineers are a philosophically unruly lot. It is thought, for example, that we so engross ourselves in research and development that we largely ignore the sociological problems created and amplified as a direct consequence of our technical efforts.

These implications of apathy are not wholly unjustifiable. For certain we have been honestly challenged, and for certain we are obliged to modify our intellectual attitudes to include the adoption of practical standards that would measurably counter our isolationist tendencies.

Perhaps the first step toward the dissolution of our worldly aloofness should involve our becoming more acquainted with the general scope of such sociological problems about which it is felt our duty in particular to be both well-informed and much concerned. Indeed, to synoptically review these problems is the purpose of this essay.


The status of technology

The past one-hundred years have witnessed an accelerating technological achievement that when extrapolated into the future leaves the sensitive heart palpitating and the perceptive mind sunk in thoughts of infinite fantasy. Chemists are preluding a most revolutionary discovery, the secret of the mechanism of simple life. Physicists are on the verge of harnessing the elusive energies of the universally fundamental element hydrogen. As applied scientists, engineers are this very moment counting down the space flights preparatory to placing man on the moon. What will it be like then . . . to ponder concepts fresh from the great depths of this universe . . . of which we seem so very small a part?

The advances being made in theoretical science are not so grandiose, however, as to overshadow the objectives being attained in the realm of practical research and development. Diurnally, we are reminded how the highly sophisticated efforts of medical science have successfully extended human longevity. As frequently, we remark how manufacturing and distributing techniques seem near perfection, and yet with each passing year we almost casually proclaim the industrial revolution to have just begun. At every world's fair we glimpse at what future life might entail, and we are impressed. What will it be like then . . . to be able in minutes to circumnavigate this world . . . of which we seem so very small a part?

We have thus far said everything of our aspirations and accomplishments but nothing of our foibles and failures. The economic neuroses wrought in our country by governmental control of agricultural price indices are becoming economic psychoses. As nationally pathogenic are the labor conditions resulting from the ambivalancy [ > ambivalency ] of uncontrolled populatory expansion in conflict with unrestrained industrial automation. Entangled as we are in the global arena of militant endeavor, we cringe before the intimidations of internecine martial engagement that sublimate our anxieties. We are horrified with the knowledge of what modern warfare could obliterate. What will it be like then . . . to clear debris . . . of which we will seem so very small a part?

Essentially, our technological labors have given us a way of life capable of multiplying our numbers by billions . . . capable, also, of dividing our numbers by . . . whatever great-number we choose. Thus we understandably wonder where these labors are leading us and question that the gratifications will outweigh the griefs.


The destiny of technology

We know where technology, has been and we know where technology is. Let us now focus our attentions on the destiny of technology. In other words, what are we going to do tomorrow?

Are we to continue on our present technological path, always toward the stars, ever scratching our ever itching curiosity, frequently forcing onto humanity ways of life which in many instances will prove antagonistic to the sort of protocol which at the time substantiates the traditional character of humanity? Are we to occasionally attenuate our technological paces with the intent of permitting humanity to catch its breath? Are we to decide upon a limit at which we will agree to bring the momentous machine of science to a halt, planning to be complacent, say, with having colonized Mars?

Are we to halt technological progress now? Are we to regress to the horse and buggy age? Why not regress to the horse age? Why not regress all the way back to the age during which men were reliant upon their own extremities for transportation? What is the ontological difference between the crude bear grease of buckboard mechanics and the highly refined, hybrid lubricants of astronautics, between these and the synovial fluids of articulatics?

But why stop our colonization efforts at Mars? Why not explore the remainder of the Milky Way? Our galaxy investigated, populated and devoided [ > devoid ] of resources, what shall we do with Andromeda?


The cost of technology

With mixed emotions, contemporaries of the generations immediately preceding our space age watched their settlements evolve into burroughs [ > boroughs ], their horses and coaches into trains, automobiles and airplanes, their fresh air and streams into cultures of pollution, their native horizons into refractory stacks and television antennas, and their forests and valleys into asphalt, grease and blood. Such a revolutionary alteration of the face of humanity as so dramatically effected this past century has been termed a progress, a progress which did not come cheap, a progress which cost our grandfathers their traditions just as future progress will undoubtedly cost our grandchildren's grandfathers their traditions.

It is no wonder that our nation is a mixture of diverging opinions, the majority favoring rapid transit systems, the minority preferring, still, to walk a country mile. It has been argued, however, that the relinquishment of traditions is not too great a price for progress. But then, too, it has been asked with candour, what is progress?


The opponents of technology

None of tile splendorous achievements of science disguise the fact that our rampaging technology is the source of particular sociological problems the solutions to which may very well prescribe the end to what we have come to regard as normal human existence. We are no closer today, be it even for science and technology, to knowing what the universe is let alone why it is. Granted, we have gained approximate knowledge concerning the mechanical nature of many sensible entities, but these gains differ little from those made in adding chopped parsley to a heap of mashed potatoes. A bit more sophisticated, so we're told . . . making life easier, for some . . . but solving fundamental sociological problems, not for many. With good reason we question that future generations will prove capable of eluding the pit of economic and moral confusion the lip of which we today are so dangerously near.

Many educators have since Sputnik I furthered their political careers by pointing to the apparent needs of our nation and crowning science with curricular priority. We rationally question that such priority is justifiable by patriotic referral to the ulterior social motives deriving from intersovereign competition in such areas as cosmic exploration, nuclear arms production and indoctrinal education.

By virtue of our unharnessed technology we may already have rendered ourselves vulnerable to economic inundation. For example, imagine the depressed bedlam the state of California would encounter if our nation should ever succeed in practicing what it preaches to desire as regards total disarmament.


The proponents of technology

Despite certain material and social fluctuations that have affected our human ecology, we are today the very same emotional creatures we were milleniums [ > millenniums / millennia ] ago. Never once have we paused at being envious of our neighbors and loving of ourselves. Yet these intrinsic motivations are incomparable to perhaps the most culturally influential motivation, that of wonder. We ask, for example, have there been many men, having seen the night and heard its song, who failed to wonder . . .

What are those lights, beckoning eyes,
   that maketh the heavens bright at night?
What are those whispers, graceful wings,
   that giveth my mind peaceful flight?
What are those things that maketh me wonder;
   why do I wonder what they are?
What are those things that maketh the splendor
   that maketh a twinkling star so far?

A partial understanding of the forces underlying our inquisitive nature can be gained by considering the ancient interrogatory triad, what is man, where is man, and why is man? The secret to the powerful curiosity reflected by this triad is latent in the cogency of all questions prefixed by what, where, and why. Questions falling in these categories are decreed fundamental as they are believed to provide the impetus that moves the bulk of creative human activity. These, then, are the sort of questions we are compelled to answer, and technology in its broadest sense, coupled with the diversified intellect that formulates the substance of all true science, is our most profound technique of enquiry.


On sociological problems

One sociological phenomenon whose mere existence can be directly related to technological achievement is the expansion of human population. The problematical aspects of this phenomenon can be summarized by these generalities: (I) if man should find himself largely confined to his universal cradle, will that cradle prove dimensionally suited for the continual expansion of human population, and (II) if the earth does prove to be dimensionally suited for such populatory expansion, will man prove to be psychologically suited for the compressed environment to which he would be constrained to acclimate himself or perish?

There are at least two sociological problems which are intimately associated with the problematical aspects of a continually expanding human population. One of these is the problem of automation as it affects gross unemployment. The other of these is the problem of diminishing natural resources.

Now in theory there exist a number of practicable solutions to many of our sociological dilemmas. But it seems not enough merely to supply solutions per se, for it is invariably asked what philosophical justifications accompany these solutions. For example, incessant demands for theologically satisfactory arguments favoring the proposition of birth control as all expediency against over population frequently impair even the experimental facilitation of birth control education for social groups in greatest need of planned parenthood counselling. Evidently we are perplexed by sociological enigmas that are characterized in particular by their philosophical elusiveness.


On philosophical problems

While determining the cost of technological progress we posed the question, what is progress? Let us elaborate on this question so as to demonstrate what exactly is meant by a philosophical problem.

If we were to define progress as the transmutation of fresh and just ideas into economically well-balanced systems of matter and mind, we would immediately encounter such difficulties as: what do we mean by concepts of fresh, just, and economically well-balanced? what is matter? what is mind? And to bewilder us beyond all hope of recovery from our intellectual stupor we could introduce such reaching questions as: is progress good? is progress natural? is progress controllable? The question what is progress? poses a philosophical problem that is notoriously prominent amongst the problems perhaps irresolvably clustered on the philosophical spectrum.

In fact, it becomes so difficult to discuss sociological problems transformed as philosophical problems that the practicality of becoming involved with philosophical problems is often doubted. Thus the following questions are well-asked: in what way can attempts to solve philosophical problems have practical significance? should scientists and engineers concern themselves with philosophical problems? by virtue of their vocations, what particular philosophical problems should scientists and engineers concern themselves with? These questions, being broad in scope, are of great sociological significance, and as such their answers are crucial to the dissolution of our social apathy.

A philosophical question of paramount importance to sociologists is the one which wonders if certain questions ought not be challenged. Another philosophical question, of sociological interest that will eventually demand consideration when we set out to contemplate a future course for science and technology wonders where the questions end. It seems as though the solutions to these problems require on our part, above all, a sense of selective discretion enabling us to segregate the nonessential questions from the essential ones so as to have definite targets on which to concentrate our philosophical . . . and ultimately our sociological . . . aims.


The problem of moral responsibility

In arriving at our criteria for continuing our technological progress, or for slowing, limiting, stopping or reversing it as a means to solving sociological problems believed to be the consequence of indiscriminant [ > indiscriminate ] technological progress, we will necessarily have to consider yet other philosophical questions, such as those of morals and of moral responsibility. For example, it has been argued that scientists and engineers need not assume moral responsibility regarding the applications of the knowledge and devices they make available to humanity. It is proclaimed the duty of scientists and engineers to conduct their research and development with attitudes unmolested by such thoughts as the consequences their efforts might have upon humanity. By whom, then, is moral responsibility to be assumed? By humanity, it is argued. But are not scientists and engineers a part of humanity?


In conclusion

Many of our colleagues who deal as exclusively with the humanities as many of us deal exclusively with the technologies insist that we scientists and engineers are not a part of humanity. Certainly we have provocation to demonstrate to these colleagues that we can be as sensitive as they to the sociological problems that so confound humanity. This next step toward the dissolution of what is apparently mutual philosophical apathy should place great emphasis on the bridging of the curricular chasm that so conspicuously gaps between those of our academic inclinations and those interested primarily in the humanities. Certainly by broadening our curricular horizons we could largely eliminate particular semantical difficulties that presently prohibit the degree of efficient communication between scientists and culturalists that is essential to social progress.

One can spend a lifetime philosophically questioning our contemporary way of life as illuminated by history and phophecy [ > prophecy ] and wondering what, if anything, is to be planned for tomorrow's generations. To be sure, decisions relating to the future administration of civilization will be made. Also, philosophical justifications for these decisions will be expounded, as it is popularly thought that whichever direction humanity should decide to go that it should have a conscious reason for going there.

To answer in the affirmative a question suggested above . . . there can be little doubt but that we scientists and engineers are a part of humanity. For this reason alone it remains our duty as conscientious and participating citizens to help determine and justify the degree to which humanity is to become slavishly dependent of technology.

There remains immeasureable [ > immeasurable ] latitude for further merging of the practical and liberal arts into effectively integrated curriculas [ > curricula / curriculums ] that would allow graduated scientists and culturalists to communicate without encountering semantical difficulties. This becomes necessary if are to preserve an American Capitalism that is apparently tending towards a Technocratic Socialism.

It is a final contention that our only hope for survival as truly free men is an empty hope if we don't immediately and vigorously concern ourselves with both the practical and the philosophical solutions to the sociological problems we are perhaps guilty of having fathered only to abandon on the doorstep of humanity. Only with these problems solved could we ask . . . what shall we do with Andromeda?


California Engineer

"The California Journal of Technology first appeared in February, 1903 as a medium of communication for students in engineering. It was the first college magazine in the west to specialize in the area of science and technology. The magazine was discontinued in February, 1914, but was revived by the Student Engineers Council as the California Engineer in January, 1923. By the mid-1960s, the magazine was sponsored by the Associated Students and maintained a circulation of about 1,500 copies per month." (www.lib.berkeley.edu/)