‘In science, the one rule is that what can be done will be done’, declared Rabbi Moses Tendler, professor of medical ethics at Yeshiva University in a 1997 interview with Newsweek magazine. Rabbi Tendler’s comment is a neat summation of something called the ‘inevitability thesis’, an idea from the philosophy of technology that once a technology is introduced what follows is an inevitable development of that technology.
The inevitability thesis suggests particular technologies make possible outcomes that would not have been possible in earlier times, outcomes that are inevitable because they are the technology carried to its fullest extent. So genetic science developments create the possibility of cloning, which becomes the inevitable outcome of the science, and development in weapons create the possibility of massacres, which become the inevitable outcome of the advance in technology.
Might the inevitability thesis not also be applied to the technology of banking? That electronic banking systems virtually unregulated by government created the possibility of an extreme outcome? That the Anglo Irish Bank story was simply the inevitable outcome of the way the banking system was allowed to develop?
In the years before electronic technology, would it have been possible to engage in the surreptitious transfers of billions of Euro? Would it have been possible to sell bonds to purchasers who would not question too closely the operation of the bank? As the humblest ordinary customer of a high street bank can vouch, it is now possible to conduct numerous transactions without catching the eye of any cashier and certainly not having too worry about attention being paid by the branch manager.
Were it not for technological development, the capacity of a small bank, with less than a thousand customers, to bankrupt the country would not have existed. The series of paper transactions required would quickly have attracted the attention of auditors and regulators. Moving €7 billion to and fro in order to strengthen the end of year balance might have been an altogether different matter in the days of handwritten drafts.
But, if we believe the inevitability thesis, if we accept the rule that what can be done will be done, why do we continue to be surprised at broadcasts of tapes of the 2008 conversations between the former senior executives of Anglo? Anglo was no more than a logical conclusion of what we permitted.
There is a question to be asked which is much bigger than what action might be taken against the boorish members of the Anglo cast. It’s a question about what sort of society we want. See Anglo as a mere aberration and sooner or later another aberration will occur, see it as part of a system that simply does not serve the needs of ordinary people, and fundamental change becomes possible.