Front Page Titles (by Subject) Prediction and Control - Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Prediction and Control - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
Prediction and Control
“Technology Assessment from the Stance of a Medieval Historian” (Presidential Address to the American Historical Association). The American Historical Review (USA), 79 (1974): 1-13.
In 1972, a new federal bureau, the Office of Technology Assessment was established to advise Congress on legislative problems related to new technology and its probable impact. This is a political response to such crises as energy, population, and food supply. Government systems analysts will assess proposed technological change chiefly by cost-benefit calculations. Unfortunately, such a quantitative approach fails to ask about wider social and other immeasurable costs and benefits. The limits of knowledge or ignorance of history vitiates this approach which is blind to the complexity and unforeseeable ramifications of the effects of technological changes in the past.
To illustrate the limitations of government central planning and predictions in assessing technology, we can survey a few Western medieval innovations and their unforeseeable impacts. Even the most prescient medieval government futurologist could not predict certain developments. For example, brandy-alcohol was at first welcomed as a boon, a medicinal aquavitae without forebodings about its social harm. Shortsighted cost-benefit analysis, based on limited knowledge, would have woefully misassessed the new medieval crossbow, longbow, artillery, and gunpowder weapons. Who, also, could foresee that chimney flues by providing separate private sleeping and living rooms would promote such seemingly remote and unrelated consequences as the art of love and the spirit of individualism with all of its enormous social impact? How far into the future can the sharpest eye look and trace the sequence that leads in intricate steps from the invention of the spinning wheel to linen rags and paper, which in turn allowed cheaply produced books and the disturbing consequences of disseminating radical ideas and creating social unrest and revolution among the masses?
Other case studies such as the invention of eyeglasses and knit textiles (promoting infant longevity which led to the cult of children) show the limits of central planning and forecasting. Technology assessment must be based not simply on measurable elements but more so on the imponderables and unexpected. Systems analysis must become cultural analysis with a deep sense of history and its sense of the unexpected.