The Space Shuttle Misdirection
The space shuttle Discovery launches successfully, speeding like Pegasus into the blue expanse.1 Live footage of the event was broadcast by all of the television networks. For Americans the successful launch was extraordinary because, for more than two years after January 1986, the country did not launch any space shuttles at all. That year, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the tragic deaths of astronauts on board shook the world.2 One could say that the launch of the Discovery two years later helped realize the dreams of many people.
The space shuttle program best exemplifies the American spirit as it was described by Henry Steele Commager: “the American came to believe that nothing was beyond his power, and to be impatient with any success that was less than triumph.”3 The exploration of space embodies precisely that belief. The process of manufacturing, launching, and controlling the space shuttle is extraordinarily complex. One need only see the dizzying array of hundreds of computers in the control center to imagine the technological capabilities required. The United States space administration [NASA] has spent the two and a half years since the Challenger accident improving the space shuttle program, making more than 400 technological improvements in total.
The convictions of Americans are just like [the incident] described above. They are confident that there is always a way, unremitting in their perseverance. That spirit has led them to pursue a great number of extremely bold and daring ideas, such as the Star Wars program and the space shuttle.4 It also prompted them to embrace many smaller, less eye-catching inventions, such as a machine for opening envelopes, a machine for opening cans, an electric pencil sharpener, and so on. It should be noted that such a belief is a very important force for advancing social development.
However, this belief can also have an alienating effect.5 These beliefs have led Americans to come up with numerous ways to resolve the problems they face, the result being a high degree of scientific and technological development. However, with great scientific and technological development also comes an illusion: it seems that the agent ultimately solving a difficult problem is not human; rather, science and technology become the ultimate power while man becomes their slave.
A professor and I were discussing this and we felt the same way. This illusion dominates a large part of [American] society. Faced with various complicated socio-cultural problems, Americans often think about them as if they were scientific or technological problems. Alternatively, they become a problem of money—a result of commercialism—rather than a problem of human beings and their subjective [experience]. The same is true in the political arena. Their approach to dealing with the growing capabilities of the Soviet Union was the desperate attempt to develop equipment that would be superior to Soviet weapon systems, including, eventually, the Star Wars program. Their method for dealing with terrorism is to strike the opponent with advanced firepower. Their solution to handling threats to international waters is a powerful and well-equipped fleet. The way to deal with regimes they do not like is to supply the opposition with vast numbers of advanced weapons. [Other] typical examples of this [attitude] are the devices provided to the disabled, such as the automatically guided wheelchair, the bedside service device that obeys commands, and eyeglasses that can provide orientation. With these aids, persons with disabilities can move freely, but as human beings, their problems are not solved. The same holds true in politics and international relations.
On one hand, [the American] people put excessive faith in technology, and on the other hand, technology is also becoming a part of politics. After the successful launch of the Discovery, Forrest McCartney, director of the Kennedy Space Center, said: “Certainly, every American must be proud today.”6 President Reagan watched the television broadcast in Washington and delivered a speech in which he said “America is back in space.”7 In fact,the space program has been a measure of the geopolitical balance since its inception. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union successfully landed on the moon, sending the Americans into a fury. President Kennedy ordered an all-out effort to develop the space program, and the subsequent landing of a man on the moon with the Apollo missions overtook the Soviet Union. Behind technological competition lies political competition; the political necessitates the technological, which, in turn, supports more political competition.
In the twentieth century, an important trend for humanity is the high degree to which [our] politics and technology are now integrated. Politics without technology cannot become strong politics. Of course, no technology without politic[al support] can become a powerful technology, either.
As a result of the combination of technology and politics, technology itself is alienated. The phenomenon is on particularly stark display in the United States. Sometimes it is not man that masters technology, but technology that masters man.
If the Americans are to be overtaken, one thing must be done: surpass them in science and technology. However, [the situation] many nations find themselves in is not the same [as in the United States]. It is not sufficient for them to simply possess technology; [they also must reach specific] cultural, psychological, and sociological conditions.
The Americans have long been in a position of superiority, having come into their dominant status shortly after World War I. In the 70 years since, several generations have been born in the United States. Those born after World War II are now already in their forties. That generation of Americans is even more steeped in the atmosphere of “America is Number One” This has shaped a certain mentality. The United States is a nation of people who cannot bear the thought of losing. Their sense of technological superiority has gradually developed into a feeling of national superiority. [To them, the idea] that any nation might surpass them is unimaginable.
The rapid rise of Japan during the post-war decades has been characterized by exceptionally fast development in high-tech fields, and it has already surpassed the United States in certain areas, such as electronics and automobiles. Japanese products have poured into the U.S. market, accompanied by a flood of Japanese money into the country. It has been said that a good amount of real estate in Hawaii has fallen into Japanese hands, and as they bought houses in droves it caused land prices to skyrocket. Americans are indignant about it and tend to be dismissive of the Japanese, and often disdainful in the way they talk about them. For a long time, Americans were reluctant to recognize Japan’s success. Harvard professor Ezra Vogel went to great lengths to make Americans understand this success, and his work Japan as Number One: Lessons for America was a real awakening for them.8 I believe Americans will encounter a similar situation again [in the future].
The space shuttle is also related to this intriguing intersection of politics and technology; in fact, this type of advanced technology epitomizes the relationship. Some scholars have come to that realization and have started critiquing “alienation.” As a physics professor by the name of Allen argued, after the Challenger disaster, NASA prioritized successful launches for the purpose of saving face and for political reasons.9
When I say misdirection of the space shuttle, it is really just a metaphor. In fact, I am referring to the misdirection of science and technology, and I believe it may take generations for Americans to recognize this misdirection.
Technology Governs Man
America is a country where everyone reveres individualism. Individualism reigns supreme and there is no power that has the authority to interfere with it. This is the impression one has when asking most people. [However,] those anxious about the excesses of individualism are also numerous. When they interact with Americans those coming from different cultural backgrounds will notice that American individualism is always evident even though not all aspects [of it are always obvious]. At times it is hard to accept.
Given their stance that individual freedom and the sanctity of the private sphere cannot be encroached upon, what force organizes more than two hundred million people, causing them to participate in every part of this great societal machine, allowing it to operate normally? In this lies a paradox: the normal operations of societies, especially large-scale ones, require their members to properly cooperate and act in concert, yet the people [in these societies] pursue values where the individual and the private sphere are paramount.
Political institutions harmonize. Laws harmonize. Gains, losses, and the relationship between them harmonize. Currencies harmonize. Other similar [forces] also harmonize. In all of these kinds of harmonization there is a power that cannot be overlooked: science and technology. The development of science and technology works in two respects.
In one respect, science and technology’s advanced development requires a more meticulous division of labor where every person has their own defined task. Thus science and technology guarantee the values of individualism. Automation and electronification cause every person to complete their designated work in their designated position with no need to depend on other humans, or to obey the commands of another human. They only need to depend on a machine; the only commands they obey are that of a machine. This is the aspect of human alienation analyzed by Herbert Marcuse.10 Applying science and technology–especially advanced technology–in a particular manufacturing process requires splitting this process into innumerable parts. Each and every part requires someone to take charge of it. Even if [any particular] part is minute, replacing the person [tasked with it] without training would be very difficult. The more advanced the technology, the more this is the case.
A seventeenth century artisan crafted their products from beginning to end. Today, circumstances have completely changed. Generally speaking, the development of science and technology has improved the status of individuals, increased individual self-consciousness, and strengthened the sense of individual responsibility. It has caused every individual to find their determined position in the great societal machine. [In contrast], in societies where technology is not as developed, or where traditional methods are used to produce [goods], any given individual’s position in that society is not very explicit, roles are interchangeable, and the probability of chaotic and unstable social organization is greater. The primary reason [for this] is that roles are fungible. This not only has economic implications but also political ones. As long as a large part of the people within a society are unclear about their [respective] roles then that society may find itself in the midst of systemic chaos.
In another respect, techno-scientific development demands exacting organization. On the one hand, science and technology need to be broken into small parts in order to operate. On the other hand, these parts ultimately must be linked together, becoming a complete entity. This is the strongest organizational force in [modern] society. While it lies outside the confines of politics and law, it is [nonetheless] very powerful. Science and technology use rational logic to persuade people to obey strict regulations, a process which curbs the supremacy of individualism. Imagine the space shuttle project and how many people are needed to work on it. Imagine how the company IBM organizes every individual to work for it. This type of command is not political but technological–what John Kenneth Galbraith calls “the imperatives of technology.”11
Contemporary human society is characterized by a peculiar phenomenon: it is immensely more difficult for people to obey political and legal commands than it is for them to obey techno-scientific imperatives. Before taking medicine everyone will cautiously study its “drug facts” label. But [when it comes to] putting an end to racial prejudice, [something that] requires obedience to a single [national] will, compliance with the exhortations of politicians is far less frequent.
Societies with advanced techno-scientific development generally have higher degrees of social organization, whereas in areas without advanced science and technology the degree of social organization and rationalization will be lower. A large part of American social organization is performed by large companies and corporations implementing the logic of science and technology. In a society where the economy is not as developed, a strange phenomenon can often be seen. In areas [of that society] where advanced technology has developed, the degree of organization is much higher than the general societal standard.
Scholars have also researched this problem. The famous economist [John Kenneth] Galbraith voices this viewpoint in his work The New Industrial State. He argues that the widespread implementation of technology will bring about six outcomes:
First, the use of science and technology will split the beginning and ending phases [of production]. Second, capital used for production will increase. Third, time and financial resources expended in production will [become] more regular and be used for completing specific jobs. Fourth, technology will require specialized manpower. Fifth, science and technology [will] require a high degree of organization. Sixth, due to the use of time and financial resources, the need for large-scale organization, and the market conditions under high technology, society will require planning.
Therefore, Galbraith’s view is that the development and use of science and technology will necessarily lead to greater social organization. Various economic and techno-scientific systems will be decided by professional managers who administer the system in its entirety. Galbraith calls this the “technostructure.” The final result of this technological development is that a portion of the population assumes managerial functions automatically, [acting as] non-political administrators. This kind of management can alleviate the burden placed on political systems to a great degree. One of the functions of a political system is to harmonize human behavior. If one mechanism can keep this behavior within the scope of rational behavior, society will be easier to govern.
Another contemporary author, John Naisbitt, described the same phenomenon in his book Megatrends: The New Directions Transforming Our Lives. [His analysis] is more human, more psychological, and more physiological. He uses [the terms] “High Tech” and “High Touch” to describe this process. He uses the phrase “Forced Technology” to describe the great power that comes when technology governs man.12 As advanced science and technology is used it binds man ever more firmly into the techno-scientific process, leading to alienation. This causes [people] to resist this kind of governing power. They resist both the technology for electronic transfers and the technology used in automatic inquiry. Naisbitt attributes this to [the fact] that the techno-scientific causes man to lose [human] contact and interaction, thereby producing a rebellious mentality.
In fact, another layer can be added [to this]: the giant strides in techno-scientific development have perfected the means for governing man, possibly breaking through ordinary technological management and penetrating the inner world of every person, infiltrating people’s private sphere. In present-day America, there is generally no power that can break through faith in individualism and the barriers [surrounding] the private sphere. [But] science and technology have this power. They guarantee material rewards, which is another condition [for their success].
Man yearns for “high touch.” This is a sign of resistance against being governed [by technology] this way. [But this resistance itself] demonstrates the potency of governing men through technology.
That technology governs man is an outcome which completely contradicts mankind’s [earlier] expectations. [It is much like the saying] “as flowers planted carefully fail to bloom, a branch stuck thoughtlessly in the mud grows into a willow.”13 Those that advocated using science and technology in times past did not have a clear understanding of how they would eventually become a method for managing men, yet the use of science and technology has now become one of society’s greatest methods for managing men. To a great degree, American society is managed by a technological order. Man is more obedient to the technological than he is to the political. Techno-scientific development fragments society into small, interconnected nodes, with each person occupying their own node [in the chain]. Entering a node requires specialized technical expertise. The educational system also fundamentally revolves around this aim. Hence, education is also incorporated into this governing process. Education ceaselessly gives rise to and develops the power and culture of technology governing man.
Radicals criticize this phenomenon as alienation. From a human perspective, this [position] is tenable. However, there is no society that can do without technology, and the logic of technology has no other conclusion. Clearly, assigning value to science and technology, venerating science and technology, or even using science and technology are in no ways simply questions of production, economics, or technology itself. Therefore, as science and technology develop the questions we must consider are not that simple. All things have their advantages and disadvantages. The key [question] is how to make choices under certain historical conditions, and how we bring about the harmonization [of society] once these choices are made.
1. The space shuttle Discovery was launched on September 29, 1988. It was the first space shuttle launched after the 1986 Challenger accident.
2. The space shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986 when a solid rocket booster propelling the Challenger into the upper atmosphere exploded. The explosion occurred 7 seconds after lift off and resulted in the loss of all seven astronauts on board.
3. This quotation originally appeared in Henry Steele Commager, “The Nineteenth-Century American,” The Atlantic, December 1949, but Wang likely read it on p. 5 of Commager’s 1950 book The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880's. Wang references this book at several points in America Against America, taking it as an accurate and representative summary of the American character as Americans see it.
4. The Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed the Star Wars Program, was a proposed missile defense system that Ronald Reagan announced to the American public on March 23, 1983. SDI proposals included a wide array of advanced weapon concepts, including lasers, particle beam weapons, and orbiting missiles. None of these technologies were successfully developed before the program was terminated in 1993.
5. The concept of “alienation” [异化] was familiar to any educated Chinese reader at the time Wang published America Against America. Hegel and those influenced by him proposed an essential oneness binding all men to each other and to the broader universe, a oneness unrecognized because historical circumstance, religious conviction, or philosophical error had artificially estranged man (“alienated”) from his true nature. Marxist discourse gave a materialist spin to the same basic idea. Marxists saw alienation in the estrangement of the laborer from the fruits of his labors; the alienated laborer did not own the objects he created, nor did he have any say in what he would spend his time creating. The end result was a system where men were oppressed by the products of their own hands. Socialist revolution was supposed to end this sordid state and restore completeness to the human essence.
In the early 1980s controversy about these ideas raged in Chinese intellectual circles. Conservatives and reformists debated whether alienation was possible in a socialist economy. In many ways this was a proxy for a much larger set of questions: if the socialist system also alienated men from their labors, why preserve it? The reformist wing of this discussion was particularly inspired by newly available writings from the young Karl Marx and the Western Marxist scholars who drew on Marx’s early ideas. This scholarship, referred to in Chinese as “western Marxism” or “Marxist humanism,” is what Wang alludes to in his analysis of American society. See also note 9.
For an intellectual history of Marxist humanism in China, see Cui Weiping 崔衛平, “Weishenme Meiyou Chunfeng Chuifu Dadi 為什麼沒有春風吹拂大地？中國八十年代人道主義論戰 [Why Does the Spring Breeze Not Warm the Earth? The 1980s Debate on Humanism in China],” Aisixiang 爱思想, 22 July 2008. For an English translation, see David Ownby, "The 1980s Debate on Humanism," Reading the China Dream. https://www.readingthechinadream.com/cui-weiping-the-1980s-debate-on-humanism.html
6. McCartney’s only statement to this effect came nearly two months later during the Discover’s second launch. McCartney told the press that this was “something that Americans can be proud and thankful for on Thanksgiving." See “Discovery Begins Hush-Hush Military Mission,” Deseret News, 23 November 1989.
7. Wang is probably paraphrasing the remarks Reagan delivered at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on September 22, in which he said: “When the Discovery takes off, seven precious souls will soar beside it, the seven heroes of the Challenger. With their lives, they moved a nation. They summoned America to reach higher still, as they wrote man's destiny into the stars. We pledge ourselves to pursue their vision of mankind's infinite, limitless destiny.”
Ronald Reagan, “Remarks at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas,” National Archives, September 22, 1988.
8. Published in 1979, Vogel’s book Japan as Number One: Lessons for America argues that America can improve its society by emulating the Japanese model of economic development. Vogel explores the cultural and institutional factors that contributed to Japan's success, emphasizing its education system, work ethic, and collaborative approach between government and industry. The book urges American policymakers and businesses to learn from Japan's experiences in order to stay competitive in the global arena.
To the Japanese the publication of Vogel’s book amounted to a moment of national pride. The Japanese translation of the book sold 450,000 copies in Japan in the first year that it was published, making it the all-time best seller of a Western non-fiction in the country. But it was met with skepticism within the United States, with some commentators criticizing the book for including misinformed and flawed analyses of Japanese modernization. For contemporary reviews of the book, see Edward Seidensticker, Donald C. Hellmann and Saito Takashi, “Review of Views of Japan as Number One, by Ezra F. Vogel,” Journal of Japanese Studies 6, no. 2 (1980): 416–39.
9. Wang is probably referring to Allan James McDonald (1937–2021), the director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project for Morton-Thiokol, a NASA subcontractor. He refused to sign off on the launching of Challenger in 1986. In 2009, he co-authored Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, an insider account of how the pressure to stay on schedule led to the tragedy in 1986.
10. Like other members of the Frankfurt School, the life project of Herbert Marcuse was salvaging elements of critical analysis from socialists’ failure to achieve communist utopia in the Soviet bloc, the resilience of capitalist society in the face of economic shock, and the accommodation that Western socialist parties made with liberal political norms in light of these two developments. Key to this effort was reappropriating Marxist ideas to new conditions, often by leavening them with concepts developed by Nietzche, Freud, Heidigger, and other critics of enlightenment liberalism. Beginning with his 1941 essay “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology,” Marcuse began to center his account of alienation on technology itself. Technology, Marcuses insists, alienates man from his nature and the world around him. As he would later write, in a technological world “natural conditions and relations become instrumentalities… and as technics expand their role in the reproduction of society, they establish an intermediate universe between Subject (methodical, trans-forming theory and practice) and Object (nature as the stuff, material of transformation). It is in a literal sense a technological universe, in which all things and relations between things have become rational[ized]….. The technological negation of nature includes that of man as a natural being. Of course, the latter transformation begins with the beginning of history. Civilization is progress not only in the mastery of nature within and without man, but also in the suppression of nature within and without man… The project of the technological object-world demands,as corollary, the technological subject: man as universal instrument (bearer of labor power).”
See Herbert Marcuse, Herbert Marcuse: Toward a Critical Theory of Society, ed. Douglas Kellner (New York: Routledge, 2001), 45.
11. In The New Industrial State (1967), economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the phrase “the imperatives of technology” to describe the impact of technological advancements on the structure and functioning of modern industrial societies. In essence, he argues that increasingly sophisticated technology requires specialization of machinery, raw material, and workers–which in turn require an increase in capital and more sophisticated management. In Galbraith’s analysis, such technological progress has led to the emergence of a new order characterized by large corporations and an altered relationship between production and consumption. Galbraith argued that this made old models of entrepreneurship and ownership somewhat obsolete: decisions were made not by the individual calculations of CEOs or investors, but by drawing on “the specialized scientific and technical knowledge, the accumulated information or experience and the artistic or intuitive sense of many persons.” As “The final decision will be informed only as it draws systematically on all those whose information is relevant.… It follows both from the tendency for decision-making to pass down into organization and the need to protect the autonomy of the group that those who hold high formal rank in an organization – the President of General Motors or General Electric – exercise only modest powers of substantive decision.” John Kenneth Galbraith, The New Industrial State (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), 85.
12. The concept of "High Tech" and "High Touch" are central themes in John Naisbitt's 1982 book Megatrends: The New Directions Transforming Our Lives (NewYork: Warner Books, 1982). In the book, Naisbitt formulates a list of ten overarching “magatrends” that he believed were changing the way people lived. Among these ten trends was a shift from “forced technology” to a “high tech/high touch” way of life. “The more high technology around us,” he wrote, “the more the need for human touch.” In his analysis, automated technologies naturally lead to diminishing human interaction. However, people react to the increasing automation of daily life by seeking out opportunities and places where human connection is possible.This was a market opportunity for firms clever enough to seize it, and explained why some companies were hiring live receptionists to answer their phones and adopting other practices to ensure that their customers would associate human interaction with their brand.
For book reviews that cover these concepts see Michael Bisesi, “Review of Megatrends: The New Directions Transforming Our Lives,” Sloan Management Review 24 (summer 1983); Wick Allison, “Predicting the Future,” D Magazines, 25 January 2007.
13. A famous line from Guan Hanqing’s Yuan dynasty play Lu Zhailang, “As flowers planted carefully fail to bloom, a branch stuck thoughtlessly in the mud grows into a willow” [有意栽花花不发，无心插柳柳成行] is a Chinese proverb used to convey the idea that success and failure often have little to do with planning or intention, but instead are products of accident and fate.