Defining the philosophy of technology

The philosophy of technology ought to be an important field within contemporary philosophy, given the centrality of technology in our lives. And yet there is not much of a consensus among philosophers about what the subject of the philosophy of technology actually is. Are we most perplexed by the ethical issues raised by new technological possibilities — genetic engineering, face recognition, massive databases and straightforward tools for extracting personal information from them? Should we rather ask about the risks created by new technologies — the risks of technology catastrophe, of unintended health effects, or of further intensification of environmental harms on the planet we inhabit? Should we give special attention to issues of “technology justice” and the inequalities among people that technologies often facilitate, and the forms of power that technology enables for some groups over others? Should we direct our attention to the “existential” issues raised by technology — the ways that immersion in a technologically intensive world have influenced our development as persons, as intentional and meaning-creating individuals? Are there issues of epistemology, rationality, and creativity that are raised by technology within a social and scientific setting? Should we use this field of philosophy to examine how technology influences human society, and how society influences the development and character of technology? Should we, finally, be concerned that the technology opportunities that confront us encourage an inescapable materialism and a decline of meaningful spiritual or poetic experience?

A useful way of approaching this question is to consider the topics included in the Blackwell handbook, A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, edited by Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen Friis, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks. The editors and contributors do a good job of attempting to discover philosophical problems in issues raised by technology. The major divisions in this companion include Introduction, History of Technology, Technology and Science, Technology and Philosophy, Technology and Environment, Technology and Politics, Technology and Ethics, and Technology and the Future.

The editors summarize the scope of the field in these terms: 

The philosophy of technology taken as a whole is an understanding of the consequences of technological impacts relating to the environment, the society and human existence. (Introduction)

As a definition, however, this attempt falls short. By focusing on “consequences” it leaves unexamined the nature of technology itself, it suggests a unidirectional relationship between technology and human and social life, and it is silent about the normative dimensions of any critical approach to the understanding of technology.

Another useful approach to the topic of how to define the philosophy of technology is Tom Misa’s edited collection, Modernity and Technology. (Misa’s introduction to the volume is available here.) Misa is an historian of technology (he contributes the lead essay on history of technology in the Companion), and he is a particularly astute observer and interpreter of technology in society. His reflections on technology and modernity are especially valuable. Here are a few key ideas:

Technologies interact deeply with society and culture, but the interactions involve mutual influence, substantial uncertainty, and historical ambiguity, eliciting resistance, accommodation, acceptance, and even enthusiasm. In an effort to capture these fluid relations, we adopt the notion of co-construction. (3)

This point emphasizes the idea that technology is not a separate historical factor, but rather permeates (and is permeated by) social, cultural, economic, and political realities at every point in time. This is the reality that Misa designates as “co-construction”.

A related insight is Misa’s insistence that technology is not one uniform domain that is amenable to analysis and discussion at the purely macro-level. Instead, at any given time the technologies and technological systems available to an epoch are a heterogeneous mix with different characteristics and different ways of influencing human interests. It is necessary, therefore, to address the micro-characteristics of particular technologies rather than “technology in general”.

Theorists of modernity frequently conjure a decontextualized image of scientific or technological rationality that has little relation to the complex, messy, collective, problem-solving activities of actual engineers and scientists…. These theorists of modernity invariably posit “technology,” where they deal with it at all, as an abstract, unitary, and totalizing entity, and typically counterpose it against traditional formulations (such as lifeworld, self, or focal practices). … Abstract, reified, and universalistic conceptions of technology obscure the significant differences between birth control and hydrogen bombs, and blind us to the ways different groups and cultures have appropriated the same technology and used it to different ends. To constructively confront technology and modernity, we must look more closely at individual technologies and inquire more carefully into social and cultural processes. (8-9)

And Misa confronts the apparent dichotomy often expressed in technology studies, between technological determinism and social construction of technology:

One can see, of course, that these rival positions are not logically opposed ones. Modern social and cultural formations are technologically shaped; try to think carefully about mobility or interpersonal relations or a rational society without considering the technologies of harbors, railroad stations, roads, telephones, and airports; and the communities of scientists and engineers that make them possible. At the same time, one must understand that technologies, in the modern era as in earlier ones, are socially constructed; they embody varied and even contradictory economic, social, professional, managerial, and military goals. In many ways designers, engineers, managers, financiers, and users of technology all influence the course of technological developments. The development of a technology is contested and controversial as well as constrained and constraining. (10)

It may be that a diagram does a better job of “mapping” the field of the philosophy of technology than a simple definition. Here is a first effort:

The diagram captures the idea that technology is embedded both within the agency, cultures, and values of living human beings during an epoch, and within the social institutions within which human beings function. Human beings and social relations drive the development of technologies, and they are in turn profoundly affected by the changing realities of ambient technologies. The social institutions include economic institutions (property relations, production and distribution relations), political institutions (institutions of law, policy, and power), and social relations (gender, race, various forms of social inequality). In orange, the diagram represents various kinds of problems of assessment, implementation, development, control, and decision-making that arise in the course of the development and management of technologies, including issues of risk assessment, distribution of burdens and benefits of the effects of technology, and issues concerning future generations and the environment.

A general definition of technology might be framed in these terms: “transformation of nature through labor, tools, and knowledge”. And a brief definition of the philosophy of technology, still preliminary, might go along these lines: 

The philosophy of technology attempts to uncover the multiple issues raised by “transformation of nature through labor, tools, and knowledge” within the context of large, complex societies. These issues include normative questions, questions of social causation, questions of distributive justice, issues concerning management of risk, and the relationship between technology and human wellbeing.

Thinking about pandemic models

One thing that is clear from the pandemic crisis that is shaking the world is the crucial need we have for models that allow us to estimate the future behavior of the epidemic. The dynamics of the spread of an epidemic are simply not amenable to intuitive estimation. So it is critical to have computational models that permit us to project the near- and middle-term behavior of the disease, based on available data and assumptions.

Scott Page is a complexity scientist at the University of Michigan who has written extensively on the uses and interpretation of computational models in the social sciences. His book, The Model Thinker: What You Need to Know to Make Data Work for You, does a superlative job of introducing the reader to a wide range of models. One of his key recommendations is that we should consider many models when we are trying to understand a particular kind of phenomenon. (Here is an earlier discussion of the book; link.) Page contributed a very useful article to the Washington Post this week that sheds light on the several kinds of pandemic models that are currently being used to understand and predict the course of the pandemic at global, national, and regional levels (“Which pandemic model should you trust?”; (link). Page describes the logic of “curve-fitting” models like the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model as well as epidemiological models that proceed on the basis of assumptions about the causal and social processes through which disease spreads. The latter attempt to represent the process of infection from infected person to susceptible person to recovered person. (Page refers to these as “microfoundational” models.) Page points out that all models involve a range of probable error and missing data, and it is crucial to make use of a range of different models in order to lay a foundation for sound public health policies. Here are his summary thoughts:

All this doesn’t mean that we should stop using models, but that we should use many of them. We can continue to improve curve-fitting and microfoundation models and combine them into hybrids, which will improve not just predictions, but also our understanding of how the virus spreads, hopefully informing policy. 

Even better, we should bring different kinds of models together into an “ensemble.” Different models have different strengths. Curve-fitting models reveal patterns; “parameter estimation” models reveal aggregate changes in key indicators such as the average number of people infected by a contagious individual; mathematical models uncover processes; and agent-based models can capture differences in peoples’ networks and behaviors that affect the spread of diseases. Policies should not be based on any single model — even the one that’s been most accurate to date. As I argue in my recent book, they should instead be guided by many-model thinking — a deep engagement with a variety of models to capture the different aspects of a complex reality. (link)

Page’s description of the workings of these models is very helpful for anyone who wants to have a better understanding of the way a pandemic evolves. Page has also developed a valuable series of videos that go into greater detail about the computational architecture of these various types of models (link). These videos are very clear and eminently worth viewing if you want to understand epidemiological modeling better.Social network analysis is crucial to addressing the challenge of how to restart businesses and other social organizations. Page has created “A Leader’s Toolkit For Reopening: Twenty Strategies to Reopen and Reimagine”, a valuable set of network tools and strategies offering concrete advice about steps to take in restarting businesses safely and productively. Visit this site to see how tools of network analysis can help make us safer and healthier in the workplace (link). 

Social network analysis is crucial to addressing the challenge of how to restart businesses and other social organizations. Page has created “A Leader’s Toolkit For Reopening: Twenty Strategies to Reopen and Reimagine”, a valuable set of network tools and strategies offering concrete advice about steps to take in restarting businesses safely and productively. Visit this site to see how tools of network analysis can help make us safer and healthier in the workplace (link). 

Another useful recent resource on the logic of pandemic models is Jonathan Fuller’s recent article “Models vs. evidence” in Boston Review (link). Fuller is a philosopher of science who undertakes two tasks in this piece: first, how can we use evidence to evaluate alternative models? And second, what accounts for the disagreements that exist in the academic literature over the validity of several classes of models? Fuller has in mind essentially the same distinction as Page does, between curve-fitting and microfoundational models. Fuller characterizes the former as “clinical epidemiological models” and the latter as “infectious disease epidemiological models”, and he argues that the two research communities have very different ideas about what constitutes appropriate use of empirical evidence in evaluating a model. Essentially Fuller believes that the two approaches embody two different philosophies of science with regard to computational models of epidemics, one more strictly empirical and the other more amenable to a combination of theory and evidence in developing and evaluating the model. The article provides a level of detail that would make it ideal for a case study in a course on the philosophy of social science.

Joshua Epstein, author of Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling (Princeton Studies in Complexity), gave a brief description in 2009 of the application of agent-based models to pandemics in “Modelling to Contain Pandemics” (link). Epstein describes a massive ABM model of a global pandemic, the Global-Scale Agent Model (GSAM), that attempted to model the spread of the H1N1 virus in 1996. Here is a video in which Miles Parker explains and demonstrates the model (link). 

Another useful resource is this video on “Network Theory: Network Diffusion & Contagion” (link), which provides greater detail about how the structure of social networks influences the spread of an infectious disease (or ideas, attitudes, or rumors).

My own predilections in the philosophy of science lean towards scientific realism and the importance of identifying underlying causal mechanisms. This leaves me more persuaded by the microfoundational / infectious disease models than the curve-fitting models. The criticisms that Nancy Cartwright and Jeremy Hardie offer in Evidence-Based Policy: A Practical Guide to Doing It Better of the uncritical methodology of randomized controlled trials (link) seem relevant here as well. The IHME model is calibrated against data from Wuhan and more recently northern Italy; but circumstances were very different in each of those locales, making it questionable that the same inflection points will show up in New York or California. As Cartwright and Hardie put the point, “The fact that causal principles can differ from locale to locale means that you cannot read off that a policy will work here from even very solid evidence that it worked somewhere else” (23). But, as Page emphasizes, it is valuable to have multiple models working from different assumptions when we are attempting to understand a phenomenon as complex as epidemic spread. Fuller makes much the same point in his article:

Just as we should embrace both models and evidence, we should welcome both of epidemiology’s competing philosophies. This may sound like a boring conclusion, but in the coronavirus pandemic there is no glory, and there are no winners. Cooperation in society should be matched by cooperation across disciplinary divides. The normal process of scientific scrutiny and peer review has given way to a fast track from research offices to media headlines and policy panels. Yet the need for criticism from diverse minds remains.

Good government and the pandemic

Governments at multiple levels are making decisions that affect all of us in ways that really matter. Our health may be protected, or we may contract a serious and life-ending illness; our jobs may be preserved, or we may be furloughed; our savings and retirement funds may be buffered, or they may be wiped out. So what do we want from government when it makes decisions of this degree of seriousness?

It is not particularly hard to answer this question. We want government to fulfill its mission of preserving the public good in the most prudent possible way. We want to see a process of reasoned decision-making, informed by honesty and integrity; full commitment to science and evidence; commitment to the common good by legislators and executives; policies that are informed by accurate knowledge of what citizens in all parts of society need and want; and effective design and administration of public policy. We want decisions that respect the laws and institutions of our democracy. And we want government fully committed to serving all the people without bias or preference. We want good government, without irrational impulsive decisions by officials, without corruption and self serving, without a craven attempt to use the tools of government for the advantage of one’s political party or one’s followers. 

Many aspects of this ideal have been challenged in our national politics for years: climate denial; disregard of racial disparities in criminal justice, education, and health; corporate capture of regulatory processes. And now in the past three years we’ve had to confront the threat posed to our democracy by right-wing extremism and hate-based political activism. We’ve had to worry about the deliberate efforts by the right to undermine voting rights, to create tax “reforms” that benefit corporations and ultra-rich individuals, and to capture the Federal court system with hacks whose only qualifications are their loyalty to the conservative agenda. We have had to ask whether our institutions of law and constitution will survive, and whether there are institutions, practices, and strategies that can make our democracy more resilient in the face of assault by right-wing populism. 

Is good government possible within a liberal democracy? Is this description a realistic expectation of the governments that serve us within liberal democracies? Or is this description simply naive idealism? 

It is certainly true that we have lost institutional capacity in government (in regulatory agencies, for example — EPA, NRC, FDA, FAA) as a result of the determined assault on government by conservatives and corporate interests. And, of course, there is the fact of corrupt and self-interested use of office by some elected officials and government officers — greatly exacerbated in the past three and a half years. But it is clear that honest, effective, and evidence-based democratic government is possible, and we need to struggle to make it a reality. The values expressed here are crucial to democracy. So it is our task as citizens to reaffirm the role that public institutions must play in a complex society like ours. 

In fact, the Covid-19 crisis has created some grounds for hope for the future of good government, as demonstrated at the level of state government. In Michigan, for example, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has followed an exemplary process in attempting to design policies and regulations that will best protect the Michigan population from the ravages of the pandemic. Her priorities have been admirable and appropriate, and her efforts to pull together the best possible advice from experts in the state, including experts in public health, workplace safety, logistics, and medicine from the state’s universities, provides a case study in prudent, forward-looking, and fact-based policy formation in a time of great uncertainty. Governors in other states have likewise shown wisdom and courage in leading their various agencies to create wise policies for public health. Governor Inslee in Washington, Governor Cuomo in New York, Governor Hogan in Maryland, Governor Newsom in California, and Governor DeWine in Ohio have all succeeded fairly well in creating rational and science-informed policies to preserve the public health of the populations of their states. (These six states represent about 29% of the whole population of the United States.) And, in the absence of effective Federal action in this crisis, governors have succeeded in creating regional partnerships with other states to coordinate their policies. Of course it is evident that there are also a handful of Republican governors who continue to deny the seriousness of the crisis and to act in flagrant disregard of the most basic public health policy recommendations. But it is clear that we have some good examples of government processes that have worked well at the state level. (At the national level, of course, it is a completely different story.) So good government is indeed possible. We must do our part by electing leaders and legislators who are committed to the principles of good government.

Can the functions of government be delegated to voluntary individual action? The pandemic sheds light on this question too. The efforts that some states pursued in February and March to beg citizens to practice voluntary social distancing were fundamentally ineffective. Spring break in Florida, crowds in California, people saying “they have faith that God will take care of them” — as a public we didn’t do very well in self-designing or self-imposing sound public health behaviors. And as epidemiologists have demonstrated throughout this crisis, it doesn’t take many non-compliant individuals to keep the exponential growth of infection going. Free-riding (“I can go to the grocery store without a mask if enough other people don’t”), failure to understand non-linear processes (“there are just a few cases in Seattle, how bad can it get”), and perverse magical thinking (“it will all blow over in a while, and I’ll probably be OK”) seem to have motivated enough people to behave badly that voluntary measures were doomed to failure. One part of the problem is the complexity of a disease epidemic. Most citizens simply could not incorporate the mathematics of an epidemic into their practical thinking. They could not accept that on this nice sunny day, devastating disaster was already unfolding. So the power and regulatory authority of the state was needed. (Even mandatory measures don’t seem to be enforceable in many places.) 

We thus have concrete illustration of the fact that good government is both necessary and possible. So a fundamental demand of citizens upon their potential leaders must be one of commitment and competence: is this candidate committed to using government for the key functions of securing the health, safety, freedoms, and wellbeing of all citizens? And does he or she have the leadership competence and skill that will be needed to marshal the organizations and agencies of government in support of these fundamental goals? 

Right-wing extremism and the covid-19 crisis

No one needs to be brought up to date on the devastation already wrought by Covid-19, in the United States, in Europe, and in other parts of the world, and more is almost certain to come in the next two years. The virus is highly contagious in social settings — not as contagious as measles, but more so than other viral diseases. It has a high mortality rate for older individuals, but it kills patients of every age. It can be spread by persons who do not yet show symptoms — perhaps even by people who will never develop symptoms. The disease has the great potential of overwhelming health systems in regions where it strikes hardest — northern Italy, New York City, Britain, Detroit. There is no effective treatment for severe cases of the disease, and there is no vaccine currently available. This is the pandemic that sane governments have feared and prepared for, for many years. Ali Khan, an experienced and long-serving leader on infectious disease at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, provides vivid descriptions of the background scientific and public health infrastructure needed to contain viral outbreaks like ebola, monkeypox, MERS, and SARS (The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers). (Here is a list of possible global virus threats by the World Health Organization (link).

It is therefore plain to any sensible person that government-enforced public health measures are required in order to slow the spread of this disease. Countries that were slow to take the pandemic seriously and establish strong measures designed to slow the infection rate — like the United States and Great Britain — have reaped the whirlwind; the United States now has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world (link). And the stakes are incredibly high. The 1918 Spanish flu, for example, hit the city of Philadelphia with savage effect because the mayor decided not to cancel the Liberty Loan parade on September 28, 1918 (link); whereas cities like St. Louis made different decisions about public gatherings and had much lower levels of influenza.

The governors of most states in the United States have enacted physical distancing orders mandating “stay-at-home” requirements, business closures, closures of public places, and restrictions on public gatherings. And these measures have worked, on the whole. The governor of Michigan, my home state, for example, has assembled a world-class team of scientific and health advisers concerning the details of the shut-down orders, and a highly respected committee of business and health system leaders to work on developing a strategy for reopening the state in a way that does the best job possible of protecting the health of our ten million citizens. And the curve has flattened.

But now we come to the right-wing protests that have occurred in Lansing and other state capitals around the country (linklink). Guns, extremist placards, threatening behavior, and an armed invasion of the floor of the Michigan state house — what in the world is going on here? Protest of government policy is one of the fundamental rights of citizenship — of course. But why heavily armed protesters? Why racist, white-supremacist groups in the crowd? Why the hateful, vitriolic language towards elected officials? What are the underlying political motivations — and organizational resources — of these protests?

Cas Mudde has a perceptive analysis in the Guardian (link). His recent book The Far Right Today provides the broader context. Mudde sees the anti-lockdown demonstrations as being largely about Donald Trump’s increasingly desperate efforts to win reelection. Mudde calls out the financial ties that exist between these demonstrations and well-funded not-for-profit Republican organizations linked to Betsy DeVos (link).

And indeed, these protests look a lot like Trump campaign rallies, calling the faithful in “battleground” states. The hats, slogans, and behavior make it clear that these protesters are making a political statement in favor of their president. And the president has returned the compliment, describing these protests as reasonable, and encouraging more. The president’s behavior is, as usual, horrible. The idea that the president of the United States is actively seeking to interfere with the performance of the governors of many states in their duties of preserving the health and safety of their citizens, after himself failing abysmally to prepare or respond to the pandemic, is something out of a dystopian novel. Here is how Mudde describes the political strategy underlying this approach:

For Trump, the anti-lockdown protests provide him with visible popular support for his Covid-19 strategy. For the sake of his re-election, he is keen to move discussion from public health to the economy. Given that a clear majority of Americans support the stay-at-home policies, Trump needs the momentum to shift. The protests can help him, by taking his struggle from the White House to the streets, and thereby to the media. (link)

Where does the gun-toting extremism come into this political activism? One obvious strand of this “movement” is the extremist anti-government ideology that brought world attention to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover in 2016. These are radical militia adherents, rejecting the authority of the Federal government in all of its actions, and willing to overtly threaten the lives of others in their activism. Brandishing semi-automatic weapons is not political theatre; it is not “simply an assertion of second amendment rights”; it is a deliberate effort to intimidate and frighten the rest of society. And it is hard to avoid the question — what if these were anarchist protesters in black masks carrying semi-automatic weapons? Or Black Panthers? And what if the venue were the entrance to the White House, or the entrance to the Capitol Building in Washington? How would conservative Republicans react to these scenarios?

Another stream, not entirely distinct from the first, is the persistent and growing white supremacist movement in the right wing of conservative politics. Their involvement in these protests is opportunistic, but their potentially violent opposition to democratically elected government is in common. Here is a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center about involvement by extremist nationalist group the Proud Boys in the anti-lockdown demonstrations; link. Here is a snippet from the SPLC report:

Even though the Proud Boys weren’t behind efforts to get the protests off the ground, they quickly realized their value. They are the perfect platform for the proto-fascist group to make the case that the will of a small minority of Americans – the hyper-individualistic “patriots” who attend these rallies – should supersede democratic processes, and that individual desires should trump the collective public good. The protests also provide other benefits: the chance to launch their ideas into wider right-wing circles, further cement their status as core members of the Trump coalition, build relationships with local politicians and gain attention from outlets like Fox News.

(Neil MacFarquhar and Adam Goldman’s coverage in the New York Times of the white-supremacist terrorist organization, the Base, is sobering reading; link.)

It is certainly true that the pandemic is creating huge economic suffering for millions of Americans (and Europeans, Indians, Brazilians, …). People are suffering, and some much more than others. Poor people, hourly workers, small farmers, gig workers, and people of color are disproportionately victims to the economic recession, and people of color are vastly over-represented among the infected population and the death rolls of the disease. Closures of businesses have led to vast numbers of unemployed men and women. But notably, these demonstrations in Lansing and elsewhere don’t seem to be supported by the constituencies most at risk in the economic shutdown; the participants who show up to flaunt their guns and their reckless disregard for social distancing seem to be mostly angry activists pursuing their own agendas.

So an answer to the fundamental question here — why are we seeing this surge of right-wing extremist protests to pandemic policies? — seems to involve three related factors: political supporters of Donald Trump (President Trump’s efforts to normalize the pandemic and attack Democratic governors who are doing something about it); anti-government extremists who object to any exercise of the appropriate powers of the state; and opportunistic efforts by white supremacist organizations to capture the moment. Add to that the understandable concerns that citizens have about their immediate economic futures, and you have a combustible mixture. And the issue of trust in the institutions of government, raised in a recent post, is plainly relevant here as well; these extremist organizations are working very hard to undermine the trust that ordinary citizens have in the intentions, competence, and legitimacy of their elected officials.

Yes, the economic consequences of the pandemic are enormous. But the alternative is undoubtedly worse. Do nothing about physical distancing and the virus will sweep every state, every county, and every town. Experts believe that the unchecked virus would infect 20-60% of the globe’s population. And a conservative estimate of the mortality rate associated with the disease is on the order of 1%. Thomas Tsai, Benjamin Jacobson, and Ashish Jha do the math in Health Affairs (link), assuming a 40% infection rate. For the United States that implies an infected population within about eighteen months of about 98.9 million victims, 20.6 million hospitalizations, and 4.4 million patients needing treatment in ICUs. Both hospitalization rates and ICU demand greatly exceed the total stock available in the United States. Tsai et al do not provide a mortality estimate, but at a 1% mortality rate, this would amount to about a million deaths. It goes without saying that the health system, the food supply system, and virtually every aspect of our “normal” economy would collapse. So the only choice we have is rigorous physical distancing, a sound public health plan for cautiously restarting economic activity, massive increase in testing capacity, aggressive search for treatments and vaccine, and generous programs of Federal assistance to help our whole population make it through the hard times that are coming. And generosity needs to come from all of us — contributions to local funds for food and social assistance can make a big difference.

Did Marx invent “class conflict”?

Marx offered several theories of the modern world that he observed around him in mid-nineteenth-century Britain that have influenced much of turmoil that ensued in the following century and a half — theories about the “capitalist mode of production,” about the role that class conflict plays in historical change, about the determinants of the actions of the state. These themes are expressed in Capital, and in the The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto decades earlier. So one might imagine that these are theoretical constructions of Marx’s imagination, a particular way of interpreting the social realities that he observed. The Right blames “Marxism” for discontent among many citizens in western democracies. Marx was a “radical,” and his radical vision of conflict and exploitation guided his narrative about the nature of modern capitalist society. Adam Smith had one vision of the emerging modern society, Thomas Carlyle had a different one, and Marx had a yet another. The reason working people are discontent, according to the Right, is that there’s too much Marxism around, too many critical theories that provoke conflict.

But is this the right way of thinking about the matter? I don’t think so. It puts the poet of modernity first, with imagination and rhetoric, and the concrete social processes and contradictions second. But that gets the story backwards. Ideas, including ideas about social relations among different groups in society, have had a role in historical development in the two-plus centuries of economic development since Mr. Watt turned on his steam engine. But the real history was written by actors and groups, considering and framing their own struggles, and seeking to maintain their footing in a changing world. These actors were often illiterate, poor, and disadvantaged. But they brought their own practical understanding to their situation in the social world; they brought social identities, they brought moral frameworks, and they brought practical skills of action and interaction to their struggles to secure their livelihoods and dignity.

Consider the brief sketches that Charles Tilly offered in 1978 of “collective action” in early modern Britain in From Mobilization to Revolution. Here Tilly has described two “riots” by ordinary villagers in 1765 against the establishment of new “houses of industry” (poorhouses where the poor were compelled to work for food).

The confrontations at Nacton and Saxmundharn acted out pervasive characteristics of eighteenth-century conflicts in Great Britain as a whole. While David Hume and Adam Smith worked out the relevant theories, ordinary Britons fought about who had the right to dispose of land, labor, capital, and commodities. Attacks on poorhouses, concerted resistance to enclosures, food riots, and a number of other common forms of eighteenth-century conflict all stated an implicit two-part theory: that the residents of a local community had a prior right to the resources produced by or contained within that community; that the community as such had a prior obligation to aid its weak and resourceless members. (3)

And these protests were not guided by “revolutionaries” in the background; neither were they inarticulate cries of protest against changes they could not understand. Rather, these ordinary villagers recognized well the actions that were being taken against them, and they came forward to resist.

Not that the fighters on either side were mere theorists, simple ideologues, hapless victims of shared delusions. Real interests were in play. The participants saw them more or less clearly. At two centuries’ distance, we may find some of their pronouncements quaint, incomprehensible, or hopelessly romantic. In comfortable retrospect, we may question the means they used to forward their interests: scoff at tearing down poorhouses, anger at the use of troops against unarmed crowds. Yet in retrospect we also see that their actions followed a basic, visible logic. The more we learn about eighteenth-century changes in Great Britain, the clearer and more compelling that logic becomes.

The struggle did not simply pit different ways of thinking about the world against each other. Two modes of social organization locked in a battle to the death. The old mode vested power in land and locality. The new mode combined the expansion of capitalist property relations with the rise of the national state. Many other changes flowed from that fateful combination: larger-scale organizations, increasing commercialization, expanded commercialization, the growth of a proletariat, alterations of the very texture of daily life. The new mode won. The world of the moral economy dissolved. But when ordinary eighteenth-century Britons acted collectively at all, usually they acted against one feature or another of this new world. On the whole, they acted in defense of particular features of the moral economy. (4)

Tilly’s interest in this book is a familiar one that recurs throughout his long career: analyzing the historical details that provide sociological insight into the processes of “mobilization and rebellion” when men and women find themselves in circumstances that are existentially threatening for themselves and their families. And yet, Tilly understood what Marx sometimes did not: that it is not true that “workingmen unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” In any real historical situation (except perhaps the Warsaw ghetto during the uprising, or with Spartacus in Thrace) the potential rebels always have something to lose; mobilization and rebellion are always risky and costly. Mobilization and rebellion require explanation.

Here Tilly provides a very compact description of Marx’s theory of class as Marx works it out in his analysis of the politics of the 1848 revolution in France:

If that is so, we might pay attention to Marx’s mode of analysis. Implicitly, Marx divided the entire population into social classes based on their relationships to the prevailing means of production. Explicitly, he identified the major visible actors in the politics of the time with their class bases, offering judgments of their basic interests, conscious aspirations, articulated grievances, and collective readiness for action. Classes act, or fail to act. In general, individuals and institutions act on behalf of particular social classes. (There is an important exception: in analyzing Louis Napoleon’s seizure of power, Marx allowed that those who run the state may act, at least for a while, in their own political interest without reference to their class base.) In analyzing readiness to act, Marx attached great importance to the ease and durability of communications within the class, to the visible presence of a class enemy. When Marx’s political actors acted, they did so out of common interests, mutual awareness, and internal organization. (13)

So, no, Marx did not invent class conflict. Marx was not the inventor of class conflict or the spark who ignited a motivation to find a pathway to fundamental change in the relations of power and property that govern the lives of ordinary people. Rather, he was the John Snow of early capitalism, the scientist who worked out which pump handle was giving rise to the cholera of fundamental inequality. As that timeless philosopher, Bob Dylan, put it, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Marx was the weatherman, not the weather. E.P. Thompson put the point vividly in The Making of the English Working Class: class was “made” through concrete historical experiences, and conflict was an unavoidable component of this making; link.

Who, then, is the actual author of “class conflict”? The modern world, with its economic relations governed by a system of property guaranteeing various extremes of inequality, and no guarantee that a humane social contract will emerge protecting the life interests of all parties — this is the circumstance that invented class conflict. There are powerful, pervasive features of our economic system that generate and deepen inequalities. The only check to this process is the organized strength of ordinary men and women, demanding a fair share of social cooperation, and all too often this countervailing force has not been sufficient. Social democracy  is a solution (linklinklinklink) — provision of extensive prerequisites of a decent human life to every individual (education, healthcare, access to a job); full and equal rights of political participation, real equality of opportunity, use of progressive taxation to ensure that everyone benefits from economic cooperation — and yet social democracy has been unconscionably hard to sustain in western democracies.

And in case anyone thinks that this is just an antiquarian question, relevant to Nacton and Saxmundharn in 1765 but not to Detroit, Atlanta, or Seattle today — just consider the devastation created by the current pandemic for people all over the country who are on the disadvantaged side of the buffet line: disproportionately without healthcare, disproportionately represented in “frontline” positions in the coronavirus pandemic, disproportionately forced to return to work in unsafe conditions or lose what slender entitlements they currently possess, disproportionately represented in the lists of sick and dying, … This is class conflict in our contemporary world. And the genuinely important question for Chuck Tilly’s successors is this: what kinds of mobilization are possible in 2020 to address the appalling inequalities of power, property, opportunity, and wellbeing our society has created? How can ordinary working people achieve and maintain the social democracy (link) that alone promises to fulfill the compact of the equal freedoms and human fulfillment of all people?

The democratic dilemma of trust

In 2007 Chuck Tilly published an intriguing historical and theoretical study of the politics of equality and voice, Democracy. The book is a study of the historical movements towards greater democracy — and likewise, the forces that lead to de-democratization. The threat currently posed to western democracies by the rise of radical populism makes it worthwhile thinking once more about some of these theories.

Here is the definition that Tilly offers for democracy throughout the book: “In this simplified perspective, a regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected and mutually binding consultation” (13-14).

And here is how he defines these four crucial features of democratic institutions:

The terms broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding identify four partly independent dimensions of variation among regimes. Here are rough descriptions of the four dimensions:

  1. Breadth: From only a small segment of the population enjoying extensive rights, the rest being largely excluded from public politics, to very wide political inclusion of people under the state’s jurisdiction (at one extreme, every household has its own distinctive relation to the state, but only a few households have full rights of citizenship; at the other, all adult citizens belong to the same homogeneous category of citizenship)
  2. Equality: From great inequality among and within categories of citizens to extensive equality in both regards (at one extreme, ethnic categories fall into a well-defined rank order with very unequal rights and obligations; at the other, ethnicity has no significant connection with political rights or obligations and largely equal rights prevail between native-born and naturalized citizens)
  3. Protection: From little to much protection against the state’s arbitrary action (at one extreme, state agents constantly use their power to punish personal enemies and reward their friends; at the other, all citizens enjoy publicly visible due process)
  4. Mutually binding consultation: From non-binding and/or extremely asymmetrical to mutually binding (at one extreme, seekers of state benefits must bribe, cajole, threaten, or use third-party influence to get anything at all; at the other, state agents have clear, enforceable obligations to deliver benefits by category of recipient) (14-15)

It is interesting to observe that this definition of democracy gives all of its attention to the behavior of government and the relationship of government to its citizenry. But twentieth-century history, and the early decades of the twenty-first century, make it clear that anti-democracy dwells in citizens as well as authoritarian wielders of state power. The use of coercion and violence is not the monopoly of the state. In Fascists Michael Mann emphasizes the role of fascist paramilitary organizations in the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and other organizations, and their brutal use of violence against their “enemies”. And his treatment of ethnic cleansing in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing likewise makes it clear that the impulses of right-wing organizations in civil society can lead to murderous violence in contemporary settings as well. This appears to be relevant in India today, with the blending of BJP party organizations and extremist nationalist organizations in civil society in the fomenting of anti-Muslim violence. So anti-democratic impulses are by no means the terrain of authoritarian states only. Contemporary white supremacist organizations in the United States seem to represent exactly this kind of danger.

The definition and explications that Tilly offers here can be understood in a normative way. Higher scores in these four dimensions mean a better society — a more democratic society. But they can also be understood as contributing to a political psychology of democracy: “This is what it will take for a democracy to be stable and enduring.” Citizens need to have rights of participation; these rights need to be genuinely equal; citizens need to be protected from arbitrary state action; and important decisions of public policy need to be decided through institutions and rules that bind state actors. And they need to be confident in each of these conditions in their existing political institutions.

One of the factors that Tilly emphasizes in his account of political democracy is the role of trust — trust between rulers and citizens, and of course, between citizens and rulers. There is an intimate connection between trust and that crucial idea of democratic theory, “consent of the governed”. Paying taxes, obeying local laws, accepting conscription — these are all democratic duties; but they are also largely voluntary, in the sense that enforcement is sporadic and only partially effective. Participants need to trust that these duties apply to all citizens, and that everyone is, roughly speaking, accepting his or her share of the burdens. If the governed have lost trust in the political institutions that govern them, then their continuing consent is in question.

Here and elsewhere (Trust and Rule) Tilly puts a lot of his chips on his idea of “trust networks” as a primary vehicle of social trust. But here Tilly seems to miss the boat a bit. He does not address the broad question of institutional trust; rather, his trust concepts all fall at the more local and individual-to-individual end of the spectrum. He characterizes trust as a relationship (81), which is fair enough; but the terms of the relationship are other individuals, not institutions or practices.

Trust networks, to put it more formally, contain ramified interpersonal connections, consisting mainly of strong ties, within which people set valued, consequential, long-term resources and enterprises at risk to the malfeasance, mistakes, or failures of others. (81)

Trust networks gain political importance when they intersect with patron-client relationships with governing elites; groups are able to secure benefits when their network is able to negotiate a favorable settlement of a policy issue, and then deliver the behavior (voting, demonstrations, public support) of the individuals within the trust network in question. This might be an ethnic or racial group, a regional association (farmers, small business owners), or a political advocacy movement (environmentalists, anti-tax activists). So trust is involved in making government work in these circumstances; but it is not trust between citizen and government, but rather among citizens within their own trust networks, and between the powerful and the spokespersons of these networks (link).

In fact, current mistrust in government seems to rest heavily on trust networks within the right: trust in Fox News, trust in Breitbart, trust in the organizations and leaders of the right, trust in the extended network represented by the Tea Party, trust in fellow members of various right-wing organizations who may be neighbors or Twitter sources.

But the challenge to our current democratic institutions seems to have to do with a loss of institutional trust — trust, confidence, and reliance in our basic institutions.

So the question here is this: why have large segments of the populations of western democracies lost a substantial amount of trust in the institutions of governance in their democracies? Why does the idea of a social contract in which everyone benefits from cooperation and public policy no longer have the grip that it needs to have if democracy is to thrive?

One answer seems evident, but perhaps too superficial: there has been a concerted campaign for at least fifty years of cultivating mistrust of government in the United States and other countries that has led to cynicism in many, rejection of government policy and the legitimacy of taxation in others, and loony resistance in others. (Think of the 2016 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, for example, and the extremist anti-government ideologies expressed by its activists.) This is propaganda, a deliberate effort to shape political attitudes and beliefs through the techniques of Madison Avenue. Grover Norquist’s explicit political goal was expressed in vivid terms: “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” This suggests that mistrust of government is due, in part anyway, to the results of a highly effective marketing campaign by conservatives aimed at producing exactly that mistrust in a significant portion of the population. The slogans and political language of extremist populism are chosen with exactly this effect in mind — to lead followers to despise and mistrust the “elites” who govern them in Washington (or Lansing, Albany, and Sacramento). It is genuinely shocking to see conservative activists challenging the legitimacy of state action in support of maintaining public health in the Covid-19 pandemic; if this is not a legitimate role for government, one wonders, what ever would be?

What gave conservatives and now right-wing populists and white nationalists the ability to mobilize significant numbers of citizens in support of their anti-government rhetoric? In Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America McAdam and Kloos offer the basis for explaining the decline of trust in US politics to two fundamental issues — white resentment over the new politics of race from roughly 1960 forward (positioning some voters to believe they are no longer getting their fair share), and the rising levels of inequality of wealth, income, and quality of life in the United States (leading some voters to believe they have been left out of the prosperity of the late twentieth century). These general factors made political mobilization around a conservative, anti-government, and racialized politics feasible; and conservative GOP leaders eagerly stepped forward to make use of this political wedge. (McAdam and Kloos provide an astounding collection of quotes by Republican candidates for president against Barack Obama in vile, racist terms.) (Here are earlier discussions of McAdam and Kloos; linklinklink.)

So what features of political and social life are likely to enhance trust in basic social institutions? Tilly refers first to Robert Putnam’s discussions of civic engagement and social capital, in Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy and Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. But he is not satisfied with Putnam’s basic hypothesis — that greater civic engagement leads to greater trust in political institutions, and eventually to a broader level of consent among citizens. Instead, he turns to theorizing about the challenges of democratic governance by Mark Warren, which he summarizes as “the democratic dilemma of trust” (93), and the potential that deliberative democracy has for rekindling democratic trust.

The deliberative solution, which Warren himself prefers, bridges the gap by making democratic deliberation and trust mutually complementary: the very process of deliberation generates trust, but the existence of trust facilitates deliberation. (93)

But significantly, Tilly does not take this line of thought very far; and he doesn’t explicitly recognize that the trust to which Warren refers is categorically different from that involved in Tilly’s own concept of a trust network.

I am surprised to discover that I find Tilly’s treatment of democracy to be deficient precisely because it is too much in the realist tradition of political science (link). Tilly’s theories of politics and the state, and the relationship between state and citizen, are too much committed to the cost-benefit calculations of rulers and the governed. This places him in the middle of fairly standard “positive” theories of democracy that have dominated American political science for decades. Tilly pays no heed here — and I cannot think of broader treatments elsewhere in his writings — to the political importance of the “mystic chords of memory” and the “better angels of our nature“. Those were the words of Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address, and they refer to the political emotions and commitments that secure us to a set of political institutions that we support, not because of the narrow shopping list of benefits and burdens that they offer, but because of their fundamental justice and their compatibility with our ideals of equality and personhood. But surely a democracy depends ultimately and its ability to cultivate that kind of trust and commitment among many of its citizens. Chuck, you’ve let us down!

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Here are Abraham Lincoln’s closing words in his First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861), expressing to his commitment to preserve the Union:

While the people retain their virtue, and vigilance, no administration, by any extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the government, in the short space of four years.

My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well, upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you, in hot haste, to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied, still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied, hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty.

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect and defend” it.

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Social factors driving technology

In a recent post I addressed the question of how social and political circumstances influence the direction of technological change (link). There I considered Thomas Hughes’s account of the development of electric power as a “socio-technological system”. Robert Pool’s 1997 book Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology is a synthetic study that likewise gives primary attention to the important question of how society shapes technology. He too highlights the importance of the “sociotechnical system” within which a technology emerges and develops:

Instead, I learned, one must look past the technology to the broader “sociotechnical system” — the social, political, economic, and institutional environments in which the technology develops and operates. The United States, France, and Italy provided very different settings for their nuclear technologies, and it shows. (kl 86)

Any modern technology, I found, is the product of a complex interplay between its designers and the larger society in which it develops. (kl 98)

Furthermore, a complex technology generally demands a complex organization to develop, build, and operate it, and these complex organizations create yet more difficulties and uncertainty. As we’ll see in chapter 8, organizational failures often underlie what at first seem to be failures of a technology. (kl 1890)

For all these reasons, modern technology is not simply the rational product of scientists and engineers that it is often advertised to be. Look closely at any technology today, from aircraft to the Internet, and you’ll find that it truly makes sense only when seen as part of the society in which it grew up. (kl 153)

Pool emphasizes the importance of social organization and large systems in the processes of technological development:

Meanwhile, the developers of technology have also been changing. A century ago, most innovation was done by individuals or small groups. Today, technological development tends to take place inside large, hierarchical organizations. This is particularly true for complex, large-scale technologies, since they demand large investments and extensive, coordinated development efforts. But large organizations inject into the development process a host of considerations that have little or nothing to do with engineering. Any institution has its own goals and concerns, its own set of capabilities and weaknesses, and its own biases about the best ways to do things. Inevitably, the scientists and engineers inside an institution are influenced — often quite unconsciously — by its culture.

There are a number of obvious ways in which social circumstances influence the creation and development of various technologies. For example:

  1. the availability of technical expertise through the educational system
  2. the ways in which consumer tastes are created, shaped, and expressed in the economic system
  3. the ways in which political interests of government are expressed through research funding, legislation, and command
  4. the imperatives of national security and defense (World War II => radar, sonar, operations research, digital computers, cryptography, atomic bomb, rockets and jet aviation, …)
  5. The needs of corporations and industry for technological change, supported by industry laboratories and government research funding
  6. The development of complex systems of organization of projects and efforts in pursuit of a goal including the efforts of thousands of participants

Factors like these influence the direction of technology in a variety of ways. The first factor mentioned here has to do with the infrastructure needed to create expertise and instrumentation in science and engineering. The discovery of radar would have been impossible without preexisting expertise in radio technology and materials at MIT and elsewhere; the rapid development of atomic fission for reactors and weapons depended crucially on the availability of advanced expertise in physics, chemistry, materials, and instrumentation; and so on for virtually all the technologies that have transformed the world in the past seventy years. We might describe this as defining the “supply” side of technological change. Along with manufacturing and fabrication expertise, the availability of advanced engineering knowledge and research is a necessary condition for the development of new advanced technology.

The demand side of technological development is represented by the next several bullets. Clearly, in a market society the consumer tastes and wants of the public have a great deal of effect on the development of technology. Smart phones were difficult to imagine prior to the launch of the iPhone in 2007; and if there had been only limited demand for a device that takes photos and videos, plays music, makes phone calls, surfs the internet, and maintains email communication, the device would not have undergone the intensive development that it actually experienced. Many apparently “useful” consumer devices never find a space in the development and marketing process that allow them to come to maturity.

The development of the Internet illustrates the third and fourth items listed here. ARPANET was originally devised as a system of military and government communication. Advanced research in computer science and information theory was taking place during the 1960s, but without the stimulus of the government-funded Advanced Projects Research Agency and sponsorship by the Defense Communications Agency it is doubtful that the Internet would have developed — or would have developed with the characteristics it now possesses.

The fifth item, describing the needs and incentives experienced by industry and corporations guiding their efforts at technology innovation, has clearly played a major role in the development of technology in the past half century as well. Consider agribusiness and the pursuit by companies like Monsanto to gain exclusive intellectual property rights in seed lines and genetically engineered crops. These business interests stimulate research by companies in this industry towards discovery of intellectual property that can be applied to technological change in agriculture — for the purpose of generating profits for the agribusiness corporation. Here is a brief description of this dynamic from the Guardian (link):

Monsanto, which has won its case against Bowman in lower courts, vociferously disagrees. It argues that it needs its patents in order to protect its business interests and provide a motivation for spending millions of dollars on research and development of hardier, disease-resistant seeds that can boost food yields.

Why are there no foot-pump devices for evacuating blood during surgery — an urgent need in developing countries where electric power is uncertain and highly expensive devices are difficult to acquire? The answer is fairly obvious: no medical-device company has a profit-based incentive to produce a device which will yield a profit of pennies. Therefore “sustainable technology” in support of healthcare in poor countries does not get developed. (Here are examples of technology innovations that would be helpful in rural healthcare in high-poverty countries that market-driven forces are never likely to develop; link.)

The final item mentioned above complements the first — the development of business organization systems parallels the development of systems of expertise and training at universities. Engineering, operations research, and organizational theory all progressed dramatically in the twentieth century, and the ways that they took shape influenced the direction and characteristics of the technologies that were developed. Thomas Hughes describes these complex systems of government, university, and business organizations in Rescuing Prometheus, a book that emphasizes the systems requirements of both engineering as a profession and the large organizations through which technologies are developed and managed. Particularly interesting are the examples of the SAGE early warning system and the ARPANET; in each case Hughes argues that these technologies could not have been accomplished without the creation of new frameworks of systems engineering and systems organization.

MIT assumed this special responsibility [of public service] wholeheartedly when it became the system builder for the SAGE Project (Semiautomatic Ground Environment), a computer-and radar-based air defense system created in the 1950s. The SAGE Project presents an unusual example of a university working closely with the military on a large-scale technological project during its design and development, with industry active in a secondary role. SAGE also provides an outstanding instance of system builders synthesizing organizational and technical innovation. It is as well an instructive case of engineers, managers, and scientists taking a systems and transdisciplinary approach. (15)

It is clear from these considerations and examples, that technologies do not develop according to their own internal technical logic. Instead, they are invented, developed, and built out as the result of dozens of influences that are embodied in the social, economic, and political environment in which they emerge. And though neither Hughes nor Pool identifies directly with the researchers in the fields of the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) and Science, Technology, and Society studies (STS), their findings converge to a substantial extent with the central ideas of those approaches. (Here are some earlier discussions of that approach; linklinklink). Technology is socially embedded.

The Malthusian problem for scientific research

It seems that there is a kind of inverse Malthusian structure to scientific research and knowledge. Topics for research and investigation multiply geometrically, while actual research and the creation of knowledge can only proceed in a selective and linear way. This is true in every field — natural science, biology, social science, poetry. Take Darwin. He specialized in finches for a good while. But he could easily have taken up worms, beetles, or lizards, or he could have turned to conifers, oak trees, or cactuses. The evidence of speciation lies everywhere in the living world, and it is literally impossible for a generation of scientists of natural history to study them all.

Or consider a topic of current interest to me, the features that lead to dysfunctional performance in organizations large and small. Once we notice that the specific workings of an organization lead to harmful patterns that we care about a great deal, it makes sense to consider case studies of an unbounded number of organizations in every sector. How did the UAW work such that rampant corruption emerged? What features of the Chinese Communist Party led it to the profound secrecy tactics routinely practiced by its officials? What features of the Xerox Corporation made it unable to turn the mouse-based computer interface system into a commercial blockbuster? Each of these questions suggests the value of an organized case study, and surely we would learn a lot from each study. But each such study takes a person-year to complete, and a given scholar is unlikely to want to spend the rest of her career doing case studies like these. So the vast majority of such studies will never be undertaken. 

This observation has very intriguing implications for the nature of our knowledge about the world — natural, biological, and social. It seems to imply that our knowledge of the world will always be radically incomplete, with vast volumes of research questions unaddressed and sources of empirical phenomena unexamined. We might take it as a premise that there is nothing in the world that cannot be understood if investigated scientifically; but these reflections suggest that we are still forced to conclude that there is a limitless range of phenomena that have not been investigated, and will never be.

It is possible that philosophers of physics would argue that this “incompleteness” result does not apply to the realm of physical phenomena, because physics is concerned to discover a small number of fundamental principles and laws about how the micro- and macro-worlds of physical phenomena work. The diversity of the physical world is then untroubling, because every domain of physics can be subsumed under these basic principles and theories. Theories of gravitation, subatomic particles and forces, space-time relativity, and the quantum nature of the world are obscure but general and simple, and there is at least the hope that we might arrive at a comprehensive physics with the resources needed to explain all physical phenomena, from black-hole pairs to the nature of dark matter.

Whatever the case with physics, the phenomena of the social world are plainly not regulated by a simple set of fundamental principles and laws. Rather, heterogeneity, exception, diversity, and human creativity are fundamental characteristics of the social world. And this implies the inherent incompleteness of social knowledge. Variation and heterogeneity are the rule; so novel cases are always available, and studying them always leads to new insights and knowledge. Therefore there are always domains of phenomena that have not yet been examined, understood, or explained. This conclusion is a bit like the diagonal proof of the existence of irrational numbers that drove Cantor mad: every number can be represented as an infinite decimal, and yet for every list of infinite decimals it is simple to generate another infinite decimal that is not on the list.

Further, in this respect it may seem that the biological realm resembles the social realm in these respects, so that biological science is inherently incomplete as well. Even granting that the theories of evolution and natural selection are fundamental and universal in biological systems, the principles specified in these theories guarantee diversification and variation in biological outcomes. As a result we might argue that the science of living systems too is inherently incomplete, with new areas of inquiry outstripping the ability of the scientific enterprise to investigate them. In a surprising way the uncertainties we confront in the Covid-19 crisis seem to illustrate this situation. We don’t know whether this particular virus will stimulate an enduring immunity in individuals who have experienced the infection, and “first principles” in virology do not seem to afford a determinate answer to the question.

Consider these two patterns. The first is woven linen; the second is the pattern of habitat for invasive species across the United States. The weave of the linen is mechanical and regular; it covers all parts of the space with a grid of fiber. The second is the path-dependent result of invasion of habitat by multiple invasive species. Certain areas are intensively inhabited, while other areas are essentially free of invasive species. The regularity of the first image is a design feature of the process that created the fabric; the irregularity and variation of the second image is the consequence of multiple independent and somewhat stochastic yet opportunistic exploratory movements of the various species. Is scientific research more similar to the first pattern or the second?

I would suggest that scientific research more resembles the second process than the first. Researchers are guided by their scientific curiosity, the availability of research funding, and the assumptions about the importance of various topics embodied in their professions; and the result is a set of investigations and findings that are very intensive in some areas, while completely absent in other areas of the potential “knowledge space”.

Is this a troubling finding? Only if one thought that the goal of science is to eventually provide an answer to every possible empirical question, and to provide a general basis for explaining everything. If, on the other hand, we believe that science is an open-ended process, and that the selection of research topics is subject to a great deal of social and personal contingency, then the incompleteness of science comes as no surprise. Science is always exploratory, and there is much to explore in human experience.

(Several earlier posts have addressed the question of defining the scope of the social sciences; linklinklinklinklink.)

Literature and memory

As a way of finding some interesting distraction in the social isolation of Covid-19 I have been reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. The book primarily treats the way that literate English soldiers, educated in a certain way and immersed in a particular public school culture, found words and phrases to capture part of their horrendous experiences in trench warfare over the months or years that extended between the moment of enlistment and death. Pilgrim’s Progress plays a central role in many depictions, and some of Britain’s most striking poetry of the twentieth century comes from this time.

Fussell is primarily interested in exploring the ways that British poets who served during World War I chose to express their experience of war and the violence, fear, and chaos of the trenches. He captures the bitterness, irony, and cynicism created in this generation by the war in authors and poets like Robert Graves (Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography), Siegfried Sassoon (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man), Edmund Blunden (Undertones of War), and Wilfred Owen (“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”).

The book is interesting in part because of the particular moment that we are all enmeshed in right now, from Mumbai to Milan to Manchester to Detroit. The world of Covid-19 feels a bit apocalyptic — even if there are no heavy artillery pieces thundering away in the distance. It seems certain that we will all have memories of this period that will be clear and sharp, and colored by the illness and deaths of so many people around the world and the country. Also similar is the pervasive sense of the utter incompetence and arrogance of the national government (in the United States, at least), in its lack of preparation and foresight and its continuing efforts to minimize the crisis. Just as the officers and soldiers of 1916 despaired at the complacent idiocy of the general staff, so we have come to despair at the moral and scientific buffoonery that emanates from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Reading Fussell led me to reread Robert Graves in his autobiography, Good-Bye to All That. Graves himself was seriously wounded by artillery fire during the battle of the Somme, at the age of twenty. His colonel mistakenly wrote a letter of condolence to his mother, saying “I very much regret to have to write and tell you your son has died of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well and is a great loss” (Graves, 274). That turned out to be premature; Graves survived the war. But a pleasure he took with him throughout his life came from the words that were said about him when it was believed in London that he was dead: “The people with whom I had been on the worst terms during my life wrote the most enthusiastic condolences to my parents: my housemaster, for instance” (281). But there was a disadvantage in being dead: “The only inconvenience that my death caused me was that Cox’s Bank stopped my pay and I had difficulty in persuading it to honour my cheques.” An advantage was also possible, though; he was able to make changes to his own obituary. During recovery in Wales with his friend Siegfried Sassoon, he writes, “We made a number of changes in each other’s verses; I remember that I proposed amendments which he accepted in his obituary poem ‘To His Dead Body’ — written for me when he thought me dead.” And he and Sassoon agreed about the idiocy of the war: “We no longer saw it as a war between trade-rivals; its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.”

The items that Graves took back with him to the front following his recovery are quite interesting — the list makes one think of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam book, The Things They Carried.

I went back as an old soldier; my kit and baggage proved it. I had reduced the Christmas tree that I first brought out to a pocket-torch with a fourteen-day battery in it, and a pair of insulated wire-cutters strong enough to cut German wire (the ordinary British army issue would only cut British wire). Instead of a haversack I had a pack like the ones the men carried, but lighter and waterproof. I had lost my revolver when I was wounded and had not bought another; rifle and bayonet could always be got from the battalion. (Not carrying rifle and bayonet made officers conspicuous in an attack; in most divisions now they carried them, and also wore trousers rolled down over their puttees like the men, because the Germans had been taught to recognize them by their thin knees.) Instead of the heavy blankets that I had brought out before I now had an eiderdown sleeping-bag in an oiled silk cover. I also had Shakespeare and a Bible, both printed on india-paper, a Catullus and a Lucretius in Latin, and two light weight, folding, canvas arm-chairs, one as a present for Yates the quartermaster, the other for myself. I was wearing a very thick whipcord tunic with a neat patch above the second button and another between the shoulders; it was my only salvage from the last time out except the pair of ski-ing boots which I was wearing again, reasonably waterproof — my breeches had been cut off me in hospital (293-294)

The whipcord tunic was the same clothing he wore when wounded by shrapnel at the Somme — hence the neat patches in two places front and back.

What is particularly interesting about The Great War and Modern Memory is the creative selectivity that it illustrates. Fussell chooses particular poets, particular poetic devices, and particular features of a subaltern’s war experience to tell his story. But there is a limitless range of choice in all these features. Fussell could have told many different stories, using boundlessly different sources and perspectives. There is no final and comprehensive story for building out the title “The Great War and Modern Memory“. Fussell’s genius is his synthetic ability to take a handful of details from multiple sources and fuse them into a powerful, unified story. His development of the theme of euphemism in war is a brilliant example. But of course it is just one such story. And there are limitless materials that would add insight to the story but that have never been studied — including countless military records of specific engagements, unpublished but archived memoirs and diaries of soldiers who served at the Somme or nameless corners in the trench system, or home-side newspaper accounts of life and war in France. Fussell makes use of materials like these, but his examples are only a small fraction of those available. 

Jay Winter’s introduction to the book captures Fussell’s perspective on his material very precisely: angry, disgusted at hypocrisy, and entirely cynical about the top officers. Part of what Fussell brought to this book in his own duffle bag of equipment was his own service in the US Army during the Battle of the Bulge, an experience he describes in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. And of course he wrote this book during the final years of the war in Vietnam — a war with similar futility, irony, and waste. Winter writes:

Fussell was a great historian, one who found a way to turn his deep, visceral knowledge of the horrors and stupidities of war into a vision of how to write about war. … How did he do it? By using his emotion and his anger to frame his understanding of memory, and his insight into the way language frames memory, especially memories of war. War, he knew, is simply too frightful, too chaotic, too arbitrary, too bizarre, too uncanny a set of events and images to grasp directly. We need blinkers, spectacles, shades to glimpse war even indirectly…. The indelible imprint Paul Fussell left on our understanding of war was on how language frames what he termed “modern memory”. (kl 102)

Paul Fussell was both an angry and a witty man. He was drawn to the poets and novelists of the Great War in Britain in part because they were, like him, truth-tellers about war. But his earlier work on Augustan poets of the eighteenth century predisposed him to the delights of irony and the savagery of words usefully applied to the cruel masters of the world. (kl 122)

This is sense-making — both by the poets like Graves and Sassoon whom Fussell analyzes, and by Fussell himself, in trying to work out the relationships that exist between experience, language, and poetry in our efforts to make sense of the Yossarian-like things we are often subject to in the crises of modern life.

Thomas Hughes on electric power as a sociotechnical system

We have quite a few ideas about how technology affects us personally and socially. But we are less aware of the ways in which facts about the contemporary social world influences the development of technology — at any given time in history. Technological change is a complex social process, and one that is influenced by multiple large social features — population dynamics, the education system, the institutions of property and the market that are in effect, and even political ideology.

Thomas Hughes’ important 1983 book Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 drew out the social and political influences that shaped the development of one of the most important contemporary technologies, electric power. Hughes offers a detailed narrative leading from the important scientific discoveries and inventions in the 1880s that created the possibility of using electricity for power and light; through the creation of complex organizations by such systems builders as Thomas Edison and Elmer Sprague to solve the many technical problems that stood in the way of successful implementation of these technical possibilities; to the establishment of even larger social, political, and financial systems through which systems builders implemented the legal, financial, and physical infrastructure through which electricity could be adopted by large cities and regions. (Simon Winchester tells some of the same story in a less technical way in The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible.)

Along the way, Hughes demolishes several important ideas about the history of technology. First, he refutes the notion that there was an inevitable logic to the development of electric power. At many points in the story there were choices available that did not have unique technical solutions. (VHS or Betamax?) The battle of the systems (direct vs. alternating current) is one such example; Edison’s work proceeded on the basis of the technology of direct current, whereas the industry eventually adopted Tesla’s alternative technology of alternating current. Each choice posed technical hurdles which required solution; but there is good reason to believe that the alternative not taken could have been adopted with suitable breakthroughs along the other path. The path chosen depends on a set of social factors — popular opinion, the press, the orientation of professional engineering schools, the availability of financing, and the intensity of the intellectual resources brought to bear on the technical problems that arise by the research community.

Second, Hughes establishes that, even when the basic technology was settled, the social implementation of the technology, including the pace of adoption, was profoundly influenced by nontechnical factors. Most graphically, by comparing the proliferation of power stations and power grids in London, Berlin, and Chicago, Hughes demonstrates that differences in political structure (e.g., jurisdiction and local autonomy) and differences in cultural attitudes elicited markedly different patterns of implementation of municipal and residential electric power. Chicago shows a pattern of a few large power stations in the central city, London shows a pattern of myriad small stations throughout the metropolitan area, and Berlin shows a pattern of a few large stations in the center of the city. Hughes argues that these differences of configuration reflected factors including municipal jurisdiction and the economic interests of large potential users. Moreover, these differences in styles of implementation can lead to major differences in other sorts of social outcomes; for example, the failure of London to implement a large-scale and rational system of electric power distribution meant that its industrial development was impeded, whereas Chicago’s industrial output increased rapidly during the same period.

Third, Hughes sheds much light on the social and individual characteristics of invention and refinement that exist internal to the process of technological change. He describes a world of inventors and businesses that was highly attuned to the current challenges that stood in the way of further progress for the technology at any given time. Major hurdles to further development constituted “reverse salients” which then received extensive attention from researchers, inventors, and businesses. The designs of generators, dynamos, transformers, light bulbs, and motors each presented critical, difficult problems that stood in the way of the next step; and the concentrated but independent energies of many inventors and scientists led frequently to independent and simultaneous solutions to these problems.

Fourth, Hughes makes the point that the development of the technology was inseparable from the establishment of “massive, extensive, vertically integrated production systems,” including banks, factories, and electric power companies (Hughes 1983, 5). “The rationale for undertaking this study of electric power systems was the assumption that the history of all large-scale technology—not only power systems—can be studied effectively as a history of systems” (p. 7). The technology does not drive itself, and it is not driven (exclusively) by the technical discoveries of the inventor and scientist. Rather, the eventual course of development and implementation is the complex result of social pulls and constraints, as well as the inherent possibilities of the scientific and technical material.

Finally, Hughes introduces the important concept of “technological momentum.” By this concept, he means to identify the point that a large technology—transportation, communication, power production—once implemented on a wide scale, acquires an inertia that is difficult to displace. Engineers and designers have acquired specialized knowledge and ways of approaching problems in the field, factories have been established to build the specialized machines and parts needed for the technology, and investors and banks have embedded their fortunes in the physical implementation of the technology. “Business concerns, government agencies, professional societies, educational institutions, and other organizations that shape and are shaped by the technical core of the system also add to the momentum” (p. 15). So VHS technology came to dominate Betamax, and the QWERTY keyboard has outlasted competitors such as the Dvorak keyboard arrangement.

Hughes demonstrates several important lessons for anyone interested in the development of modern technology systems. First, through his detailed account of a complex 50-year international process of design and implementation, he shows that the development of a large technological system like electric power is an example of a path-dependent and contingent process. Nonetheless, it is a process that can be explained through careful historical research, and a variety of large-scale social and institutional factors are pertinent to the outcomes. Second, he demonstrates the important scope of agency and choice within this story. Outcomes are contingent, and individuals and local agents are able to influence the stream of events at every point. And finally, through his concept of technological momentum, he provides a constructive way of thinking about the social influence of technology itself within the fabric of historical change—not as an ultimate determinant of outcomes but as a constraining and impelling set of limitations and opportunities within the context of which individuals strategize and choose.

Hughes gives further support for the point of plasticity of social change made frequently here by demonstrating the sensitivity of the course of technology development to the social and political environment. Technological possibilities and constraints do not by themselves determine historical outcomes—even the narrow case of a particular course of the development of a particular cluster of technologies. The technical and scientific setting of a particular invention serves to constrain but not to determine the ultimate course of development that the invention takes. A broad range of technical outcomes are accessible in the medium term. In place of a technological determinism, however, Hughes argues for technological momentum. Once a technology/ social system is embodied on the ground, other paths of development are significantly more difficult to reach. Thus, there are technological imperatives once a new set of technical possibilities come on the scene; but the development of these possibilities is sensitive to nontechnical environmental influences (e.g., the scope of local political jurisdiction, as we saw in the comparison of British, German, and American electric power systems).

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