#3603 Created 04/17/2014 Updated 04/17/2014
But the formation of SHOT (Society for the History of Technology) in 1957 market the institutional embodiment of a methodology that came to be known as "contextualism" or "constructivism." Proponents of this approach see technology as inextricably embedded in society.
While social constructivism was emerging in the technology history, business history followed a different path, viewing technology as a fundamentally defining or determining variable in the story of Western industrial progress.
[mentions and explains thomas c. cochran and alfred d. chandler jr.)
If technology is social constructed...how does one explain the strikingly persistence of "core" industries over time, or their parallel clustering in disparate national settings? 69
Like its close cousins--ethical, logical, theological, physical, psychological, and historical determinism--technological determinism is antithetical to human freedom. Just at the doctrine of theological determinism assets the ineluctable, inevitable character of God, technological determinism holds that technology possesses a logic--the logic of efficiency--that acts independently of and determinatively upon human affairs. In each variety of determinism, human actions are determined unilaterally, not interactively. [41, 359-73] 69
[several philosophers have suggested soft determinism, wherein only some human actions are determined. ...God is said to providentially determine some outcomes, leaving other to choice. Similarly many historians reject the notion of complete historical determinism yet speak of a "necessary overall direction" in history that results from one or more underlying "laws" of development (such as the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic). Still others, most notably William James, have rejected the validity of this distinction by arguing that determinism is an "all or nothing" proposition (15, pp. 373-8; 41, p. 368).
[mumford, ellul, winner and others] share common themes; that technology is "autonomous," meaning it operates according to an internal logic and is neutral tin relation to human values; and that its influence on society is becoming overwhelming, largely because society has internalized and sanctified technology's attributes. But while technology may have become the single most determinative force in human affairs, the transformation is both "destructive and correctable" for "soft" determinists discern a measure of human freedom,. for them, technology is ominous but not omnipotent [16:22,pp. 443-53; 30; 44).45
(Sicilia notes) Thomas Hughes ... "identifies a number of common patterns of evolution and enduring attributes, most notably the tendency of large technological systems to assume "momentum." "Massive Systems, he writes, "have a characteristic analogous to the inertia of motion in the physical world. Their mass of technical, organizational and attitudinal components tends to maintain their steady growth and direction." such "powerful vested interests" take the form of skills, hardware, infrastructure, attitudes, financial investment--virtually any component of a system that possesses semi-permanence or an abiding interest in continuity  72
John Staudenmaier identifies several facets of technology that lend it momentum through their inherently "enduring nature" existing technical concepts, artifacts, government policy, financial interests, technological enthusiasm, and cultural values. [40, pp. 149-67] 72
(he notes that the QWERTY keyboard is an example of "path dependency", illustrated by Paul David, of how "historical decisions at critical,formative junctures in a technology's development can set a course from which it is difficult to retreat, even when the logic of efficiency dictates otherwise." 72
We also know that technology reconfigures consumer options, tending to extinguish earlier possibilities. Each choice affects the range of choice at the next step. When a new system is introduced, its diffusion often renders prior systems obsolete, in a process akin to Joseph Schumpeter's "creative destruction"  Automobile travel not only outpaced the horse, its diffusion make horse-travel virtually impossible in modern urban life. ...
Momentum, path dependency, creative destruction and related concepts suggest ways in which technologies gain power, direction, and focus. By attributing to technology certain salient characteristics, they contradict the assertion that technology is "neutral." At the same time these formulations preserve human freedom and do not wrench technology from the social fabric. 73
In technology history, as in other realms of history, we are confined to a domain of propensities and probabilities rather than certainties. Technology does not determine society, but is more deterministic tin some manifestations that in others. One important task for the historian, then, is to identify these conditions.
Three propositions: 1. The greater a technology's efficiency, the greater generally its deterministic nature. 73
2. Technology is more deterministic when employed within the context of the firm than when not. 74
3. In the long run, large technological systems tend toward rigidity, but also evolve by accommodating the needs of both system advocates and system users. 74