History and Technology

Technology and Its Impact on Society

James Redfield, the author of “The Celestine Prophecy,” said “History is not just the evolution of technology; it is the evolution of thought.” This change in understanding shapes how we interact with the world and each other, and ultimately shapes the course of history. The “soft” view of technology suggests that while technology is certainly a powerful force in shaping society, it is not the only factor at play. This view holds that technology is influenced by a range of socioeconomic factors, including culture, politics, and economics. Alternatively, the “hard” perspective on technology posits that technology is not merely a mediating force but rather the primary driving force behind social change. Karl Marx said, “The hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” His conviction is that the mode of production exerts a substantial influence on the structure and power relationships of a society, rather than being determined by individual decisions or behaviors.

Technology has played a significant role in shaping history, but does it ever lead to anomie? Technology impacts the way society’s function and interact and has influenced the development of political and social systems. The mode of production, or the way in which goods and services are produced, can have a major impact on the superstructure of society, including the relationships between different groups of people. Multiple discovery refers to the phenomenon where different individuals or groups independently discover or invent the same thing at roughly the same time. This suggests that invention and discovery are not entirely random, but rather happen along a well-defined frontier of knowledge, where many people are working on similar problems and ideas. It is often said that technology and scientific discoveries tend to evolve gradually and incrementally.

Technical realization, or practical implementation, doesn’t usually precede sufficient understanding and knowledge of the underlying principles and concepts, except in experiments in which application and knowledge happen simultaneously. Limitations to the design and development of new machines and technologies are material competence, technical expertise, and manufacturing/assembly competence. The need to produce a product economically and efficiently is one of the main reasons why specialization of industry and the division of labor are used. These techniques allow for higher quality and lower cost production by breaking down the production process into smaller, specialized tasks. In a capitalist society, the size of capital can be a constraint on technology. As businesses accumulate capital, they may use that capital to diversity their industrial functions, which can provide a buffer against market fluctuations and financial risks. This diversification can also lead to the development of new capabilities and expertise, which can in turn help the business improve its technical capabilities.

Technology and Economic Systems

Capitalism is often considered to be a system that fosters productivity and technological progress. The introduction of new technologies can often require a certain level of education and skills to operate and maintain them, which can lead to similar social phenomena within the workforce, such as the level of education and distribution of jobs and wages. The inducements a society offers influence the development and adoption of new technologies. These incentives, that often stem from public policy, can take many forms, such as subsidies, tax breaks, grants, and research funding. In the United States there is a long history of government support for interchangeable parts, which is often associated with the development of mass production and the use of labor-saving machinery. This support has helped to make the US manufacturing sector highly efficient and competitive on the global stage. Additionally, labor costs in the US tend to be high, which also provides an incentive for manufactures to invest in machinery that can perform tasks more efficiently than manual labor.

While new technologies and industry connections can play a key role in driving economic growth, there are other factors that are also important. A society must have the right social conditions, such as an educated workforce, a stable political environment, and access to capital and other resources in place to fully take advantage of new technologies and innovations. Additionally, a society must have institutions and policies in place that support innovation and economic growth, such as strong property rights, a well-functioning legal system, and open markets. Capitalist economies have historically been associated with high levels of technological innovation and growth, however, it’s important to note that they can present some drawbacks as well, like inequality and environmental degradation.

Laissez-faire is an economic and political ideology that advocates for minimal government intervention in the economy. However, when technological change is unleashed without any guidance or regulation, it can lead to negative consequences for certain industries or individuals. Karl Marx believed that technology is a means by which capitalists exploit workers and increase their profits. He proposed the working class should overthrow the capitalist system and establish a communist society. Communism is a political and economic ideology that calls for the collective ownership of property and resources, with the goal of achieving a classless society. The government or community controls the economy and typically private property. The imperious political control to buffer the disruptive technological consequences is inhibited by laissez-faire ideology.

Standardization, Cooperation, and Vertical Integration in Industry

There is no one model that can accurately predict how technological change will unfold. John Ruskin said, “If we try to implicitly study technological change there are a dozen methods mapped across period and place that can’t be modeled linearly due to the interaction effects and unintended consequences.” Trying to study technological change can make it difficult to draw reliable conclusions because of the lack of reliable dependent-independent variables to compare.

From 1890 to 1930, the standardization of products did not always prioritize safety and quality. Once important, versatility in products was replaced by products with fewer functions, but more power and stability. As businesses recognized, they should produce only a few products and sell many more to maximize profits. Moreover, fewer products meant fewer marketing costs for the business. Cooperation between workers and managers, as well as between businesses themselves, can help to increase profits. This exchange of ideas is much like the concept of a Golden Age, in which people are working towards a common goal, achieving a valued craft, and doing what is best for the greater good. However, there are downsides for consumers when businesses only want to make a profit, such as planned obsolescence and over-concern about shareholder value. Vertical integration, the consolidation of the production process from raw materials to finished goods under one company, can be an effective strategy for increasing efficiency and reducing costs. Andrew Carnegie’s implementation of vertical integration at Carnegie Steel was a key factor in the company’s success and dominance in the steel industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The acquisition of invaluable iron was economically rational, given the low costs of iron ore and the barriers to entry that would exist for other businesses.

Social and Economic Factors in Technological Development

People create social change through the socio-technical networks they form and maintain. The design of the bicycle is an example of social determinism, as the final design was shaped by the needs and desires of the groups who used and interacted with it. Factors such as the terrain, culture, and economic conditions in a particular region all played a role in determining the final design. In the case of BASF, the company developed new chemical products and processes through research and experimentation, even when there was no immediate demand for them. Similarly, the Muscle Shoals Dam project was driven forward by a small group of entrepreneurs who saw the potential for hydroelectric power generation in the area, despite initial skepticism and lack of demand. In the case of the Electric Bond and Share Company the technological systems only broke because of the Great Depression. During this major historical event the Roosevelt administration blamed utility holding company magnates for huge stock losses due to irresponsible, even illegal, machinations of some holding companies. This led to the Holding Company Act of 1935, a US federal law that gave the Securities and Exchange Commission authority to regulate, license, and break up electric utility holding companies. This breaks up utility companies with more than two pricing levels, known as “tiers” and limits operations to a single state, subjecting them to effective state regulation. This aimed to increase the influence of the free market and competition between smaller and larger companies.

Technological Determinism and Marxist Perspectives

The nomological view of technological determinism is based on the idea that the laws of nature and physical principles drive the development and use of technology. This approach believes that machinery and some subhuman powers somehow function independently of history. Next, the normative view of technological determinism claims that technology is important in shaping history only where there is social desirability and societies attach cultural and political meaning to that technology. This approach deals mainly with the ethical side of technology and how technology is aligned with societal values, beliefs, and moral principles. It also deals with questions of goals, values, and means and ends, rather than focusing solely on efficiency or productivity. Lastly, the view of unintended consequences is somewhere in between the other two views.

G.A. Cohen was a philosopher who believed in determinism, the idea that past events casually determine future events. He also believed that technology plays a role in shaping the laws of nature that shape human history. G.A. Cohen and Robert Brenner were both Marxist scholars who believed that productive forces are not the only course for social development. They argued that the mode of production (i.e. the way in which goods and services are produced) plays a more significant role in shaping society than the level of technological development. Karl Marx believed that history is divided into two phases: the first phase is the pre-capitalist era, where societies were organized around a traditional mode of production. The second phase is the capitalist era, where societies are organized around capitalist mode of production.

In the first phase, technology is in the ultimate service of humanity, and has the potential to liberate people from the drudgery of work and to create abundance for all. That technology can be used to empower workers and to increase their control over the means of production. That the division of labor, not technology, is the primary way to understand the productive forces in a society. In the second phase of history the productive forces, such as technology and automation, play a more deterministic role in shaping society. The development of technology and automation is driven by the need to increase profits and productivity, rather than to meet the needs and desires of human beings. This industrial capitalism leads to an increase in the exploitation of workers, as they are forced to work longer hours for lower wages, while the capitalists enjoy the fruits of their labor. Marx breaks down the labor process into the activity of people, the subject of work, and the instruments of work, while Cohen breaks it down into means of production and labor power.

Marx believes technology, in and of itself, does not cause or facilitate class struggles. However, those who have control over the productive process, i.e. the capitalists who own the means of production, may alienate the laborers, who are forced to sell their labor power in order to survive, which this proletariat may not escape. He believes that the driving forces of history are the means to accumulate and resist alienation, with technology serving as a kind of fuel for history’s engine. He believed that human beings are not simply motivated by the need to survive, but also by the need to create and express themselves. He believed that work is not just a means of survival, but also a form of self-expression and self-realization, this basic drive is a necessary factor in Marx’s Theory of History. The form of self-expression lies in the growing desire for production. He believed there are several conditions that facilitate productive development in history. These include: an expanding population, increasing social intercourse, and the availability of science and technology, which is particularly important in the later phase of capitalism.

Paintings Depicting Technological Progress and Expansion

“Across the Continent. Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” is a painting by Frances Flora Bond Palmer that depicts the westward expansion of the United States during 1868. It can be seen to reflect the idea that the group with superior technology, represented by the settlers, were able to dominate and displace the group with less or no technology, represented by the indigenous people. The colonial settlers are working hard while the Native Americans are choking on the train smoke. Telephone lines represent technological advances, and the train symbolically drives westward, where the gold rush draws nearly 300,000 settlers to California. The vast landscape is ready and awaiting technological progress. “Science on the March” is a painting that depicts the progression of technology from 1902 to 2002.


Comparing Warfare, Social Hierarchies, and Power Dynamics in Premodern and Postmodern Societies

It is generally agreed that warfare was more prevalent in premodern societies than it is in modern times. This is likely due to a combination of factors, including the lack of centralized governments, the absence of effective means of communication and transportation, and the limited availability of resources. Class struggle and rational maximizing has always existed and still exists in modern times, the forms and modalities have changed over time and it’s not as violent as it was in premodern times. Marx, in his book “The British Rule in India”, wrote that the railroad would “dissolve the caste system and create a new and homogeneous society” in India. However, this was not the case, while it did bring greater mobility and integration to some extent, it also reinforced existing social hierarchies and power dynamics in many cases.

The goal of technology during the Enlightenment era was primarily to increase scientific understanding and improve society through reason and progress. While ideas about less hierarchical republican social structures and more democracy were discussed among Enlightenment thinkers, technology itself was not seen to directly achieve these political goals. The traditional view on power is that it comes from a centralized source and therefore susceptible to attack or removal. The modern view sees power as developing at the local levels and is decentralized, diffuse, and distributed, and therefore more difficult to affect in a decisive way.

Technology and Politics

The failure of communism can be attributed to a variety of factors, including lack of political and economic freedom, corruption, and lack of incentive for innovation and hard work. Additionally, many Communist governments were also known for their human rights abuses and inability to respond to the changing needs of their populations. In contrast, democracy provides a system of government where people have a say in the decision-making process through free and fair elections. It allows for the expression of diverse opinions and provides for individual freedoms and liberties. Democracy is also built on the principle of the rule of law, which helps to ensure that everyone is treated equally and fairly under the law. It’s important for countries to work together and collaborate on the development and regulation of technology to ensure that its effects are positive and beneficial for all, rather than just for a select few. While technology and machines may play a role in shaping events, it is ultimately the actions and decisions of individuals that drive historical change.

The decision to go to war in the Gulf War / Desert Storm (1990-1991) was indeed a result of a series of political and diplomatic decisions made by leaders, including President George H.W. Bush. While technology and military strategy were certainly factors, the ultimate decision to go to war was made by human beings, based on their political and ideological motivations. Many would indeed agree that the use of nuclear weapons is irrational, as it carries the risk of catastrophic harm to human lives, the environment, and international stability. That’s why many people advocate for the peaceful resolution of conflicts through negotiation and diplomacy, rather than relying on the use of force, including nuclear weapons. It could be argued that technology has played a role in shaping the nature of power and conflict, as the development of nuclear weapons has enabled countries to wield a new kind of power and changed the dynamics of international relations. However, it’s worth noting that the decision to use nuclear weapons is ultimately made by political leaders, and the technology is just a tool.

Agricultural Productivity and Resistance to Change

The top-down approach to economics, which is often characterized by central planning and control, can be problematic in that it ignores the important power relationships and dynamics that exist within a society. Technology can have both positive and negative social and economic impacts, and these impacts can be influenced by the presence or absence of social filters, such as regulations, policies, and norms. Block printing was a valuable tool for the dissemination of knowledge and ideas, and it was adopted and used by scholars, educators, and artists in Islamic civilization. Some religious opposition to the letterpress printing method existed in the medieval Islamic world, but it was not the only factor that limited the printing of religious texts. The primary reason for the limited printing of religious texts during this time was because calligraphy was considered a highly respected and valued art form in Islamic culture, and books and manuscripts were often produced by hand using calligraphic techniques.

Lynn White Jr., a historian and medieval scholar, argued in his influential article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” that the widespread use of the heavy plow in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages played a key role in the growth of population and urbanization. Studies suggest the heavy plow is responsible for ten percent of the increase in population density and urbanization during the High Middle Age. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, believed that the heavy plow was an important factor in the increase in agricultural productivity, but that it was not the sole cause of progress during the High Middle Ages. Other factors such as technological innovations, population growth, and economic changes also played a significant role in the progress. Emmanuel is surprised when White changes his mind about the reason for agricultural progress from tools to religion.

Interestingly, despite the potential benefits of the heavy plow and horse-drawn plow in increasing agricultural productivity, peasants were often resistant to their adoption. Perhaps the reason they resisted was they didn’t want their jobs replaced. Job loss and the fear of automation has been a common theme throughout history. On the other hand, people tend to resist changes that increase their workload or make their jobs more difficult. However, in some cases, they may embrace new technologies if they see clear benefits in terms of increased productivity, wages, or quality of life. The harsh winter conditions in Russia have historically impacted agriculture and limited its growth. Animals are unable to graze the stubble in the winter and become weaker, leading to reduced plowing and less manure for the fields. Additionally, limited market exchange and primitive technology further hindered the economic growth of Russian agriculture.

In many feudal systems, lords were often more concerned with maintaining their power and wealth rather than maximizing agricultural production. In feudal societies, new agricultural methods were often adopted and spread through the peasant communities, rather than being introduced by the lords. In feudal societies, lords were often seen as exploitative and unjust by the peasant population. As a result, if a lord suggested a new agricultural method, it was often met with skepticism and resistance from the peasant farmers. In Russia, not Europe, the idea of a working class was a source of discontent among the peasant population. The peasantry in Russia faced significant challenges and hardships, including harsh working conditions, limited access to land and resources, and a lack of political representation. Lords tended to resist technological innovations that threatened to replace the labor of the peasantry, as this would leave them with a landless class and potentially social unrest and political instability, which would threaten their own power and wealth.

Reform can occur in multiple ways, including through popular uprisings by the people against deeply seeded problems. Also, the elite can bring new ideas to the countrymen in the hopes that they would implement them. For any change to be successful, it is important that the people believe that the ideas are in their best interest. New technology often has the potential to disrupt existing power structures and redistribute power in society which causes either resistance or support of the technology. Rural labor markets were an important factor in China’s economic development The utilization of a large, growing population and a multi-crop agricultural production system were key elements of China’s rural labor market. The Chinese economy is often described as being a “hybrid” or “state-led capitalism,” reflecting the unique blend of market forces and state control that exists in the country. Markets, class differentiation, and property rights are often seen as important elements of a capitalist system. Many rural residents in China have sought out employment opportunities in urban areas, often in the hope of improving their economic prospects.