Does Technology Drive History? eds. Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx (MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1994)

Beginning of the dot com boom

Describing technology as an agent of social change

Essays from historians, economists, and technologists

depends on whether you think
Techies can save us.

x – technology is conceived in almost exclusively artifactual terms, and its materiality serves to reinforce a tangible sense of its decisive role in history.
xi – the thingness of tangibility of mechanical devices … helps to create a sense of causal efficacy … a virtually autonomous agent of change … An invention, once introduced into society, is thus depicted as taking on a life of its own.
xii – At the “hard” end of the spectrum, agency (the power to effect change) is imputed to technology itself, or to some of its intrinsic attributes … Critics of “hard” determinism question the plausibility of imputing agency to “technology” … no technology, no matter how ingenious and powerful, ever has initiated an action not preprogrammed by human beings.
xiii – Instead of treating “technology” per se as the locus of historical agency, the soft determinists locate it in a far more various and complex social, economic, political, and cultural matrix. … the truth is that no one can say exactly what accounts for the special propensity to innovate that initially developed in the West

Merritt Roe Smith – Technological Determinism in American Culture
2 – The intellectual heritage of technological determinism can be traced to the enthusiasm and faith in technology as a liberating force expressed by leaders of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.
3 – deterministic thinking can be seen in the conception and popular acceptance … of progress … the pursuit of technology and science in the interest of human betterment (intellectual, moral, spiritual) and material prosperity.
5 – From the start, technological determinism proved highly compatible with the search for political order.
13 – advertisers encouraged people to believe that technology, broadly construed, shaped society rather than the other way around. (frickin’ marketing and yellow journalism)
15 – Technology had now become the cause of human well-being.
23 – Technology and science not only became the great panacea for everyday problems; they also stood for values at the core of American life.
26 – The critics (Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Twain) worried that Americans, in their headlong rush to mechanize and rationalize production, were sacrificing moral progress for material power, thus abandoning a concern that was central to thinkers of Jefferson’s generation.
32 – technological systems, with their inherent political qualities, are not value neutral. Indeed, they invariably favor the interests of some over the interests of others. (Langdon) Winner consequently maintains that societies, if they are to be equitable and effective, must understand precisely what sorts of implications new technologies may carry with them before they are introduced. (good luck with that)

Michael L. Smith – Recourse of Empire: Landscapes of Progress in Technological America
38 – In the United States, generations of leaders and pundits have mistaken technology for the answer, rather than the question…. At some level, postwar Americans may have suspected for some time that faith in technology-as-progress can serve as a substitute for a more genuine participatory democracy. Without a clear sense of alternative routes, however, sheer momentum can steer the chase.
42 – More than anything else, hatred of the railroad, and of the social organization of technology and capital it represented, fueled the great nineteenth-century grassroots movement that came to be called Populism. (and grew into Socialism and Communism)
48 – The persuasive force of “What will they think of next?” as a national creed rests in the assurance of unimaginable wonders just beyond the horizon. (somewhere, over the rainbow)
49 – The new uncertainties of the nuclear age permeated visions of technology with a tacit acknowledgement that some new unveilings might be less welcome than new-model cars … the cornucopia of wonders might continue to expand, or it might dissolve into nuclear war.
51 – In spite of the proliferation of challenges to unexamined optimism, Americans have been reluctant to discard their vision of technology-as-progress…. In the absence of greater access to decision-making, citizens have been confined to the role of consumers, lacking the shared capacity to view gradations of social possibilities for technology. Too often, our vocabulary has been limited to oversimplified pro- vs. anti-technology sentiments. (global climate change anyone?)
52 – social expertise requires collective effort and should no longer be confused with technical expertise

Robert L. Heilbroner – Do Machines Make History?
55 – can we explain why technology evolves in the sequence it does? … how does the mode of production affect the superstructure of social relationships?
55 – the steam-mill follows the hand-mill not by chance but because it is the next “stage” in a technical conquest of nature that follows one and only one grand avenue of advance. (bunk)
56 – most advances, particularly in retrospect, appear essentially incremental, evolutionary (emphasis added, this is exactly the problem with narratives, they attempt to explain things that appear obvious with hindsight. Of course energy and mass are the same, I knew that!)
57 – the development of the technology of production presents a fairly smooth and continuous profile rather than one of jagged peaks and discontinuities. (spoken like a true economist, go back and read Kuhn, Gladwell, and even Taleb (much as I despise the egotistical bastard))
57 – A major constraint always operates on the technological capacity of an age, the constraint of its accumulated stock of available knowledge
58 – For the ability of many industries to cooperate in producing the equipment needed for a “higher” stage of technology depends not alone on knowledge or sheer skill but on the division of labor and the specialization of industry. And this in turn hinges to a considerable degree on the sheer size of the stock of capital itself. Thus the slow and painful accumulation of capital … becomes an independent regulator of the reach of technical capability.
59 – the technology of a society imposes a determinate pattern of social relations on that society
60 – Different technological apparatuses require not only different labor forces but different orders of supervision and coordination.
62 – the very activity of invention and innovation is an attribute of some societies and not of others
63 – The general level of technology may follow an independently determined sequential path, but its areas of application certainly reflect social influences.
64 – Not until the emergence of a market system organized around the principle of private property did there also emerge an institution capable of systematically guiding the inventive and innovative abilities of society to the problem of facilitating production.

Robert L. Heilbroner – Technological Determinism Revisited
69 – Machines make history by changing the material conditions of human existence. It is largely machines … that define what it means to live in a certain epoch (I’m sure it has nothing to do with the people, environment, or social/political/economic/military interactions that occur)
71 – There must be a systematic reduction of complexity of cause into simplicity of effect, enabling us to explain how the development of new machineries of production can alter the social relationship … the mechanism is, of course, economics (yougottabekiddingme)
72 – economic determinism, and its technological correlate, have relevance only in the capitalist social order (making it a worthless theory, I’m done)

Bruce Bimber – Three Faces of Technological Determinism
81 – Until we are able to agree about what precisely we mean by this concept we are unlikely to resolve the question of whether technological determinism is a useful lens through which to interpret history. … at least three distinct approaches to explaining historical change … receive the label “technological determinism” Normative accounts (where societies attach cultural and political meaning to technology) Nomological accounts (inevitable technological order based on laws of nature) and Unintended Consequences accounts
82 – Normative account: technology can be considered autonomous and deterministic when the norms by which it is advanced are removed from political and ethical discourse and when goals of efficiency or productivity become surrogates for value-based debate over methods, … means and ends.
83 – Nomological account: given the past, and the laws of nature, there is only one possible future … technology itself exercises causal influence on social practice
85 - Unintended Consequences account: derives from observations of the uncertainty and uncontrollability of the outcomes of actions … even willful, ethical social actors are unable to anticipate the effects of technological development. … technology is at least partially autonomous
86 – technological determinism should hold that history is determined by laws or by physical and biological conditions rather than by human will; this makes it deterministic … at all times and all places in history
87 – Technology is the medium through which physical laws, some of which we can learn through science, shape the course of human events. Only by meeting this standard can technological determinism differentiate itself from … other determinisms … so-called soft determinism cannot be determinism at all.
88 – Normative accounts … fail on both grounds … Unintended Consequences accounts also fail … Nomological accounts meet both tests
91 – for Marx, whatever significance technology has derives from its relationship to economic activity—its role as a productive force—rather than from any other social or historical influence
94 – For historical materialism to be technologically deterministic, the overall growth in human labor and the availability of technology and other means of production must derive from the internal characteristics of technology itself. … From the feudal era through the early manufacturing era, technology is not a primary factor in social change. (tell that to the Egyptians, Chinese, and Mayans)
96 – Marx is describing a process that is dependent not upon features of technology but upon human characteristics, such as the drive to accumulate and the resistance to alienation.
99 – whatever natural or inherent effects technology tends to produce are overcome by willful human actions. … Marx had in mind that technology is in the ultimate service of humanity, not the other way around.

Thomas P. Hughes – Technological Momentum
102 – Technological determinism: the belief that technical forces determine social and cultural changes … technological momentum infers that social development shapes and is shaped by technology. (In other words, “soft” determinism)
103 – social and the technical interact within technological systems
106 – As a system matures, a bureaucracy of managers and white-collar employees usually plays an increasingly prominent role in maintaining and expanding the system, so that it then becomes more social and less technical.
107 – Neither the proponents of technical determinism nor those of social construction can alone comprehend the complexity of an evolving technological system.
108 – The interaction of technological systems and society is not symmetrical over time.
112 – A technological system can be both a cause and an effect; it can shape or be shaped by society. As they grow larger and more complex, systems tend to be more shaping of society and less shaped by it. … shaping is easiest before the system has acquired political, economic, and value components.
113 – technological momentum, like physical momentum, is not irresistible

Leo Marx – The Idea of “Technology” and Postmodern Pessimism
238 – One reason we are ambivalent about the effects of technology in general is that it is difficult to be clear about the consequences of particular kinds of technical innovation.
240 – advances of science and the practical arts were singled out as the primary, peculiarly efficacious, agent of progress. … more and more people in the “advanced” societies have had to consider the possibility that the progressive agenda, with its promise of limitless growth and a continuing improvement in the conditions of life for everyone, has not been and perhaps never will be realized. (technology can’t solve everything? Blasphemy!)
243 – The tangible, manifestly practical character of these artifacts matched the central role as chief agent of progress accorded to instrumental rationality and its equipment.… For ardent exponents of the rational Enlightenment, the chief goal was a more just, more peaceful, and less hierarchical republican society based on the consent of the governed.
246 – The advent of this typically abstract modern concept (Technology) coincided with the increasing control of the American economy by the great corporations.
248 – An aura of impartial cerebration and rational detachment replaced the sensory associations that formerly had bound the mechanic arts to everyday life, artisanal skills, tools, work, and the egalitarian ethos of the early republic.
249 – A common tendency of contemporary discourse, accordingly, is to invest “technology” with a host of metaphysical properties and potencies, thereby making it seem to be a determinate entity, a disembodied autonomous causal agent of social change—of history.
251 – the simple republican formula for generating progress by directing improved technical means to societal ends was imperceptibly transformed into a quite different technocratic commitment to improving “technology” as the basis and the measure of—as all but constituting—the progress of society.
252 – The stunning advances of Western science and the practical arts seemed to confirm that epistemological faith, and with it a corresponding belief that henceforth the course of history necessarily would lead to enhanced human well-being.
255 – Postmodernism not only rejects the romance of Progress; it rejects all meta-narratives that ostensibly embody sweeping interpretations of history.
256 – In contrast with the old notion of entrenched power that can be attacked, removed, or replaced, postmodernists envisage forms of power that have no central, single, fixed, discernible, controllable locus.
257 – This outlook ratifies the idea of the domination of life by large technological systems, by default is not be design. The accompanying mood varies from a sense of pleasurably self-abnegating acquiescence in the inevitable to melancholy resignation or fatalism.

John M. Staudenmaier – Rationality versus Contingency in the History of Technology
262 – By telling the story of a consensus, and avoiding the tragedies, nobilities, and follies of conflict, the historian implies that things inevitably turned out as they did because the inherent rationality of events ordained that they would.
264 – historians of technology find some aspects of their largely internalist origins hard to reconcile with the repugnance they feel for the myth of autonomous progress….progress ideology has an extraordinary and most underestimated hold on popular rhetoric in American culture.
267 – A contextual approach to the history of technology treats the values, biases, motives, and world views of design elites as important evidence for interpreting why a given technical design turned out as it did.
269 – On one side we find people comfortable with rationality … On the opposite side we find people who are comfortable with complexity, ambiguity, conflict, and unresolved issues. The first group says that progress is real, Western, and a very good thing…. On the other side we find people who are more at home talking about technology in terms of symbol and power.
270 – the first group reiterated their confidence in the gradual triumph of Western rationality over nature’s constraints and the incremental advance of scientific and technological progress over time. … The second group argued for a reading of the disorderly, sometimes technically irrational dimensions of design decisions as politically or culturally motivated, and of the concept of progress in particular as a conceptual tool by which technical elites try to dominate their inferiors.
272 – historians of technology share a common commitment. They try to open the black boxes, to demythologize the ideology of autonomous progress that would render such detailed attention futile, and to restore the essential humanity of the design process.

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