Technology change

The past century has witnessed an amazing amount of technology change, and the pace seems to be quickening. How does a technology develop, and how do social conditions and institutions interact with this process?

These aren’t new questions, of course. There is a well developed field of the history of technology, with its own research traditions and assumptions (see the journal Technology and Culture, for example). There is a related field of research called “social construction of technology” (SCOT), which looks particularly intently at the second of these questions. (Here is a nicepage by Robert Keel describing the central ideas of SCOT, through a consideration of Wiebe Bijker’s important work. Bruno Latour’s thinking falls into this category as well, including his “Actor-Network Theory”; link.) And there is even a field called the philosophy of technology, with Heidegger at one end and Carl Mitcham at the other. (Here is a nice article on philosophy of technology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) So lots of smart people are thinking about these questions. 

But some of the big questions don’t really require specialist knowledge to gain real insight through careful reflection. After all, we have our own phenomenological experiences — especially useful during the thirty years in which information and communication technologies have exploded in impact and reach. And in this area there are also some useful insights from Karl Marx’s view of history as well.

We could begin by postulating that technology is …

the extension of human capacities through the application of scientific knowledge in the design and creation of material artifacts.

Bicycles extended the range and speed of human-powered transportation. Electric lights extended the ability of people to engage in work and leisure after natural light waned. Armored motorized vehicles extended the ability of states to wage war over large territories. Steel plows extended the ability of immigrant farmers to break the sod of the grasslands of the middle west.

But how do these developments in material culture come about?

The most basic thing we can say is that human beings have material needs, and they are compelled to use tools and artifacts to transform materials provided by nature to satisfy needs. The ensemble of tools, artifacts, practices, and technical knowledge available to a population at a time is its technology. Moreover, human beings are innovative problem solvers. So they are capable of inventing and designing new tools and techniques. This capacity is a primary source of technology change. This is the heart of Marx’s insight in The German Ideology.

But technologies are also levers for power and wealth. Control over a technology — or strong influence over the way in which the technology is developed — can be a great source of power and wealth for specific groups. And so we need to look closely at the ways in which new technologies are being shaped in ways that serve specific social interests. This is much of what Marx was getting at when he focused on the forces and relations of production as being central to the historical development of a society.

Modern technologies generally require complex human systems in order for them to be broadly implemented. Thomas Hughes documents these complex systems in the case of electric power in Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Research institutions, engineering firms, municipal governments, and power companies combine to develop and establish the power generation and distribution that basic advances in the understanding of electricity made possible. These institutions aren’t guided by a benign optimizing intelligence that produces the optimal implementation for aiding human wellbeing. Rather, they are propelled by private interests, profitability, political competition, and government action. The market plays a role, the demands of the consuming public come in, and the political interests of decision makers and policy mavens are key as well. Technology doesn’t direct its own path of development, and neither do the abstract best interests of humanity. (Does the growth of a slime mold colony fit the situation — locally smart, globally stupid?)

Finally, detailed study of specific technologies — railroads, steel, chemicals, genetic informatics — demonstrates a very high degree of contingency in the sequencing of solutions to technical and organizational problems as the technology develops. And these contingencies have significant influence on the outcomes. So technology change is an instance of a path-dependent process. 

All of this suggests several important keys for studying the history of various technologies. First, don’t make the functionalist assumption that a technology will ultimately develop in a way that is most beneficial to human wellbeing. History is replete with great technical innovations that either quietly disappeared before they could benefit anyone, or were co-opted in ways that primarily benefited elites and power-holders. (The labor-saving water wheel in ancient Rome is a good example.) Second, look for the concrete interests that are at work as the institutional basis and technical solutions for a given technology are chosen. Hughes’s discussion of electric power is fundamental. And third, always understand that technology change is a process that demonstrates great contingency and path dependency. So expecting to anticipate the outcome in advance is highly questionable.

These observations have some relevance to the question of trying to understand the technological revolution we are currently experiencing, the information revolution. This will be the topic of an upcoming post.

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