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$s$ Hacking and Power: Social and technological determinism in the digital age, by Tim Jorday (Tim Jordan)

How Technological Determinism Shapes International Marketing (James W. Gabberty, Robert G. Vambery)

John Street, Politics & Technology ()

Promotion ()

Technological Determinism in Canadian Telecommunications: Telidon Technology, Industry and government (Donald J. Gillies, Ryerson Polytechnical Institute)

Technopoly, Neil Postman ()

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John Street, Politics & Technology
           #3585   Created 04/12/2014   Updated 01/12/2020

Definitions of Technology

The initial assumption, then, is that technology is constituted by human-made objects which have instrumental value.

...a technology does not have to be a 'machine' in the conventional sense. The pencil is a technology. ...so too is a chemical used to fertilize the land or prolong the life of food. The technology does not itself have to be artificial (that is, manufactured); it may be naturally occurring. What determines its status as 'technology' is the deliberate and conscious use of it by human agents. This general definition conflates the distinction Marx made between a tool and a machine. For Marx, a tool was something controlled by its human user, without whom the the tool could not be operated. A machine, by contrast, did not depend on the human user, either for its power or its operation. (Marx, 1954, p. 351-5)

At the same time, technology does not just refer to the physical form, the pieces of metal, the electronic components, the chemical compound. Technology refers to the way in which the parts are organized, through the application of knowledge. to realist their particular purpose. This broadens our understanding of technology quite considerably. Firstly, it draws in the principle which enable the components to have their effect. .... The second way in which our notion of technology is broadened is by including the structures which enable it to operate within society. A complex piece of mechanical engineering only becomes 'a car' when there are roads and regulations which enable it to operate as a means of transport; otherwise it is a museum piece. People have to be organized, as well as scientific principles applied, for a technology to have a proper existence. 8

'Technology', therefore, is not just the hardware, nor is it just the set of arrangements which enable that technology to operate; it is also a set of decisions about how that technology ought to work. 9

Daniel Bell also embraces this broad definition of technology: 'the organization of a hospital or an international trade system is a social technology, as the automobile or a numerically controlled tool is a machine technology. An intellectual technology is the substitution of algorithms (problem-solving rules) for intuitive judgements' (Bell, 1973, p 29; his emphasis).

Technology seems to both shape and reflect the type of society we live in. Such a thought underpins the interpretations put upon Marx;s claim that 'Technology discloses man's mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them (quotes in Rosenberg, 1981, p. 9). 10

Our technology enables us to realize certain wishes, and in doing this we change our conception of ourselves and the world. Think of the development of transport technology. As the cliché has it, travel broadens the mind. It does much more besides. Roads have to be built, regulations introduced, industries created, and so on. The decisions which contribute to this infrastructure set the agenda for 'transport'. And in the process, a bias is crated in favor of certain questions and issues; in particular, how to improve, or cope with, the system that is already in place. At the same time, the political agenda is required to accommodate new political issues: road deaths, pollution, motorway routes, and so on. No all technologies have so extensive an effect, but those that do are sometimes singled out as 'base technologies' (Jamison, 1989), or 'defining technologies' (Bolter, 1986). They contribute, it is said, to the basic political character of society.

chapter 2 political change and technical change

The theory of technological determinism bears some resemblance tothat of autonomous technology. They both represent technology as the driving force of social change, but hey differ in their portrait of how this process works. The theory of technological determinism makes no particular claims about the ideological rationale provided by technology are about the extent of its impact. It does, however, contend that technology sets the conditions for the operation of the political system, including the political agenda, even if it does not determine the policy output. Within this general approach, there are two strands to technological determinism. One refers to the tendency of technology to force change on society; the second is directed specifically at the type of change involved.

Technological determinism takes literally Marx's claim from A Contribution to the Crit5ique of Political Economy that "The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life (Marx, 1975, p. 424).

from Capital:31

"Modern Industry never looks upon and treats the existing form of process as final. The technical bis of that industry is therefore revolutionary, while all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative,. By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually causing changes not only in the technical basis of production, but also in the functions of the labourer, and in the social combinations of the labour-process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionizes the division of labour within the society, and incessantly launches masses of people from one branch of production to another (Marx, 1954, p. 457). 31

What Marx appears to be saying is that technology establishes a particular set of power relations. 31

The economist Robert Heilbroner (1972) makes a spirited attempt to defend this 'strong determinism' reading of Marx. He presents his argument in two stages. In the first, he seeks to establish that technological change follows a pre-0rdained path, and is therefore not subject to political or social influence. the second stage then addresses the question of whether technology shapes society. (Heilbroner)"defends the first proposition, that technology acts independently, on three grounds:31

1. If the same discovery is made simultaneously indifferent contexts, this suggests that technology contains a logic of its own which is independent of its associated agents.

2. The tendency of technology to develop in steady stages, rather than in sudden leaps, suggests a process of evolution contained within the logic of technology.

3. There is an element of predictability to technology's development. Again, this suggests that technology contains an inner logic.

If there grounds hold, says Heilbroner, then we have grounds for seeing technical change as an independent process.

He then moves to the second stage of the argument, that technical change determines social change. Here Heilbroner points to two features of society which seem to be determined by technology:

1. the social composition of the labour force -- the level of education, skills and so forth -- seem to correlate directly with teh 'needs' of the technological base; 2. The hierarchical organization of work is also affected by the technology. 32

Heilbroner observes that 'different ;technological apparatuses not only require different labour forces but different orders of supervision (Heilbroner, 1972, p. 34). 32

Gailbraith works with the notion of 'technological imperatives'. He argues that modern technology demands the creation of a particular type of political state. Without it, technology will not function, and without technology no wealth can be generated; without wealth, political demands cannot be met and political legitimacy cannot be maintained. the development of technology, argues, Gailbraih, is essentially the progressive application of the division of labour. He writes:

"Technology means the systematic application of scientific or otherorganized knowledge to practical tasks. Its most important consequence, at least for purposes of economics, is in forcing the division and subdivision of any such task into its component parts. (Gailbraith, 1974, p. 31). 33

[dd The development of technology has a profound effect on the role and function of the state. The sate has to respond in particular ways, as if it were being prompted by technology. 33 (incfreasing division of labor, central coordination requires entire systemic change from scientific research, higher education, manufacturing support, infrastructure changes, etc.] "Cars need roads and licensing authorities..." etc. 33

(chart on page 35)
/ funding/coord.duties\
technology---->div. of labor........................State-->Policy
\-->new technical elite--/ \

OBJECTIONS: vague. "Sometimes the word "determine' is used, suggesting a fixed causal link, a t other times words like 'shape' or 'guide' or 'influence' are employed, suggesting a less certain connection.

The concept of determinism,' writes Winner (1986, pg. 10) 'is much too strong, far too sweeping in its implications to provide an adequate theory. It does little justice to the genuine choices that arise, in both principle and practice, in the course of technical and social transformation.'

[Winner compares two ways determinism might work]

1. Changes of technology entail changes in the social world. Technology always (?) changes what people can do, and therefore how their lives are organized. Winner distinguishes between change being 'determined' and being 'conditioned'. The first refers to the idea that certain behavior or institutions are caused by technology--technology acts as the driving force. Being conditioned, on the other hand, suggests a form of 'reverse adaptation': 'the adjustment of human ends to match the character of available means (Winner, 1977, pp. 83, 229). .... People adapt their goals to fit their technical environment' they retain substantial choice and relative autonomy, and are not slaves to their technology. 36

Nathan Rosenberg (1981) attacks the stronger form of technological determinism by arguing that technology does not 'determine' anything because its own role is itself the result of economic interests which call certain technologies into existence and which establish the relations around them. Technological determinism looks at the problem from the wrong end. It is not technology that determines political practices, but politics that determines the use of technology.

In his (Harry Braverman) argues that technology itself cannot be regarded as independent of political or class interests. Science and technology, says, Braverman, are themselves ordered according to capitalist interests. the driving force behind the funding of science and the development of technology is the reduction of labor costs and the workers' control over their work. Albury and Schwartz summarize the general argument: 'the shape of particular disciplines and specialities in science and technology has been moulded by the determination of the capitalist class to mobilize all resources in their attempt to maintain ownership, power and control. ' 39 (Albury and Schwartz, 1982, p. 67)

George Basalla, The evolution of Technology (1989): "In other words, the invention of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines gave birth to the necessity of motor transportation. pp. 6-7 (his emphasis)

The state can be found promoting the introduction of technology, using it to sustain national prestige, deploying it to maintain internal and external security, and subsidizing its research and development.

In this new order governments depend for their survival on their ability to direct the development of technology.47

There are three dimensions to the state-technology relationship: --types of involvement (state as customer, regulator, and underwriter, such as military) --political structures of control(state as customer --limits of control

SCIENCE AS IDEOLOGY "The reporting of technology, like that of science, tends to be promotional. Many writers convey a fervent conviction that new technology will create a better world." (Nelkin, D. (1987) Selling Science: How the press covers science and technology (New York: W.H. Freeman) p. 173) 89

The net effects to create an image of science which has, on the one hand, a powerful appeal (it can solve our problems) but which, on the other hand, obscures the actual interests at work in its practice. 89 -----------------------

Technology cannot be parted from political processes, and politics cannot be analyzed independently of technology. 178

It is not just that politics shapes technology, but that technology shapes politics. MacKenzie concludes his study of nuclear weapons: 'technology in then nuclear world is not above politics as an autonomous determining factor, nor beneath it as a dependent effect, but part of it (MacKenzie, 1990, p. 412) What is true for the nuclear world is true for other technologies. 179

The way we see and experience the world, the way we come to define our place within it, all of these are achieved by and through forms of technology. At the same time the technology we employ and the ends it is intended to serve are themselves shaped by political processes. (Judy Wajcman argues that) technology is a form of culture through which male gender identity is constituted (Wajcman, 1991, . 158) 179

It is not the case that technology is just what we make it, or that we are simply made by our technology. It is that who 'we' are needs careful scrutiny. 'we' do not exist separately from the technology and the politics. As MacKenzie observes, 'changes in technology go hand-in-hand with changes, small and large, in the preconditios of thei ruse, in the way they are used, in who uses them and in the resons for thei ruse (macKenzie, 1990, p. 9).


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