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Technology, Technocracy, and Human Rights

2005-2006 Theme of the Human Rights Program (HRP) and the Science, Technology, and Society Program (STS) at Bard College

The Human Rights Program (HRP) and the Science, Technology, and Society Program (STS) at Bard College will present a combined program on "Technology, Technocracy, and Human Rights" for the 2005-2006 academic year consisting of evening lectures and a student-organized conference in early March. The goal of the series is not only to investigate case studies of technology in human rights, but also to address the underlying question of how in the last century technology, broadly defined, has defined the meaning and purview of human rights.

The exponential growth of technologies and technocratic forms of social organization in the modern period is both one of the key spurs for the development of human rights and one of the greatest challenges to their viability. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was prompted not least by the inability of the state system to adequately address the increasing technological means of destroying and degrading human life — indeed possibly humanity itself — as epitomized by the concentration camp and the atomic bomb. The political import of modern technology proved closely connected to the role of technical experts and the bureaucratic administration of society, a field that by the beginning of the twentieth century came to be called 'technocratic.' At least by the time of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem (1961), it was widely recognized that the combination of technocratic administration and lethal technologies presented one of the central ethical and political problems of modern life. The escalating scope of new atrocities has continued to redefine both the reality of human life and the demand for 'rights' in a manner that is closely linked to our technological systems, whether in the infrastructure of genocides or the creation of new forms of human injury, such as generational genetic mutation (Hiroshima, Bhopal) or psychological trauma from the grimly evolving technologies of torture.

Indeed, at nearly every level technological processes define the use and abuse of human rights norms in political practice. The relation of expert knowledge to popular perception and politics has defined the parameters of both 'protecting' human rights and ignoring them, from the claim for 'precision' warfare to justify humanitarian military intervention to the use of 'invisible' torture techniques (electrocution, drugs, psycho-sexual abuse) to evade detection. Similarly, the question of revealing and evidencing human rights abuses rest on techniques, from forensics to satellite imagery, defined by expert knowledge.

Despite the enormous potential for abuse in such knowledge, technical and technological process also provide a crucial new context in which human rights ideals can be enacted and realized. Writing in 1948, Arendt decried the possibility of enacting 'human rights' law since "the present sphere of international law still operates in terms of reciprocal agreements and treaties between sovereign states; and, for the time being, a sphere that is above the nation does not exist." More than half a century later, it could be argued that some such a sphere has come into existence precisely through the development of technological globalization. To the degree that a non-ideal 'new world order' (A.M. Slaughter) of secondary non-state, inter-organizational, and interregional relations has developed, it is founded on new possibilities of technological and economic interconnection. Thus the relative success of non-governmental actors in establishing, if not necessarily defending, human rights norms in the second half of the last century rests largely on new technical and bureaucratic realities, ranging from increased concern for foreign capital flows on the part of nations and corporations to new forms of media politicization ranging from letter-writing campaigns (Amnesty International) to internet-driven political movements.

Similarly, new forms of regional and global jurisprudence operate largely on a wide-spread system of technological monitoring, data aggregation, and media access to trials — whether in more powerful forms such as the European Court on Human Rights or the nascent ad hoc International Criminal Courts. Most clearly epitomized at the moment by the use of human rights as a common standard for ascension and development in the European Union, this same practice has affected the political practice of many of the fastest developing countries in the world. To the degree that ideals of 'human rights' are practically implemented or recognized in the modern world, they are thus often defined in conjunction with new global technologies and the technocracy that supports them. The attempt to democratize access to the systems of control and command at the basis of complex systems of organization, as well as to technical standards of injury, has thus become a central problem for human rights institutions in the modern period. Particular hope is often placed on new modes of technological and indeed technocratic organization, ranging from the 'open source' model of computer programming to new forms of sociation and politicization enabled by the internet that redefine, however tentatively, precisely the relations of knowledge and power on which earlier forms of technocracy rested.

The Janus face of technology in relation to human rights, its role in both new forms of atrocity that prompt the demand for extra-state rights and its nascent ability to instantiate these norms, ultimately could be argued to define the field itself. The definition of 'natural right,' as Arendt noted already in 1948, lost both of its pillars of nature and history in the twentieth century. The historical standards and traditions that defined human relations and 'humanity' proved to wash readily away before the onslaught of modern techniques and institutions such as the concentration camp, propaganda, behavior modification, and new modes of technocratic control. Yet also precluded is any return to the Enlightenment sense of a 'nature' that is in accord with, or can readily be used to define, our laws and standards. Natural science has long defined a world outside of any ready accord with our needs, much less our cognitive intuition or personal desires. Indeed, already by the time of the First World War, it was clear that natural science opened out to forces that could well be beyond the maturity of our political, military, and social systems. "History and nature have become equally alien to us," Arendt thus summarized, "namely, in the sense that the essence of humanity can no longer be comprehended in terms of either category."

For better or worse, in this regard technology, broadly defined, is one of the key mediating forms that defines humanity and human rights. Through technological processes we define and instantiate standards of behavior, modes of perception, and potentials for action in a world of rapidly changing — and possibly lethal — possibilities. To the degree that, as Max Weber argued, law only has meaning when it can be actualized through force, technology provides many of the new forms of force, whether violent or persuasive, that actualize the ideal of rights within national or international law. With the increasing pace of technological change, the problems of human rights in many ways have become more dire: rapid changes in technology threaten to undermine or circumvent 'commonsense' standards of privacy, dignity and individuality, even as this technology provides one of the few remaining means of trying to protect individual and collective rights. New technologies, sciences, or pseudo-sciences define ethnicity, 'historic' origins, gender norms, and class or regional bias in a manner that is at once less available for argumentation in everyday language even as it may be more open to innovative new solutions. The concept of 'human rights' is most visible and clearly delimited in international law, but it plays on these wider problems through standards that are largely enacted and traceable through technological means. The relation of technology, technocracy, and human rights thus has philosophical components that are closely related to grave and immediate practical applications. By devoting a year-long event series to this conjuncture, the joint initiative of HRP and STS at Bard College hopes to use the particular resources of the academic community to illuminate these crucial problems.


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