History & Technology

History & Technology

James Redfield said, “History is not just the evolution of technology; it is the evolution of thought.” The “soft” view says technology is influenced by socioeconomic forces but is still a strong mediating factor in causing new social order, whereas the “hard” view says technology is the primum mobile (prime mover) of social history. “The hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist,” is a “hard” view. Technology makes part of history, and it undoubtedly imposes certain political and social characteristics, with the mode of production affecting the superstructure of social relationships. Is there a fixed sequence or a necessary path that technology must follow? What role does technology play in history and does it ever lead to anomie?

The concept of multiple discovery suggests that invention is not random, but happens along a well-defined frontier of knowledge. Like nature, technology doesn’t make sudden jumps. The lack of accumulated knowledge constrains technological advancement. Technical realization never precedes what people know, except in experiments in which application and knowledge happen simultaneously. Other limitations include material competence and technical expertise. Finally, there is the need to produce a product economically and efficiently. The competence to create technology is directly related to the ability of industries to change their products or processes to adapt to a change in a key product or process, rather than the ability to make a machine. We are concerned with the ability to fit the piston and the cylinder together, not only the ability to make a cylinder. The specialization of industry and the division of labor are techniques used to increase efficiency. The main constraint on technology in a capitalist society is the size of capital itself. As businesses slowly accumulate capital, there is a gradual diversification of industrial functions, which is an independent regulator of technical capability.

Similar technologies can led to similar social phenomena within the workforce like the level of education and wage rate. A factor that determines how technology advances is the direct result of the inducements (incentives) a society offers for these technologies, which often stem from public policySome societies don’t care about innovation and invention. In America, there is a lot of government support for interchangeable parts, and labor costs are high, which are conducive influences for labor-saving machinery. Social aspirations arise for technology that offers the best chance of realization, and capitalism is where society is most productive. Mass production with machines that save time and labor is how resources allocate to their highest value, according to the principles of economics, assuming there is a mass market and labor is not cheap. There must also be a market system that systematically guides inventors and innovators in solving the dilemma of economic production.

Even if the characteristics of new technologies are closely linked to industry connections, a society may not experience economic growth if certain social conditions are not met. Technological growth occurs mostly in societies that have capitalist motivations. Marx argued that technology is only an enabling factor in capitalist societies. Russia has a lot of technology, but is not capitalist. In communism, the government controls the economy, and private property (a precondition for technology) does not exist. Technology is an enabler that allows people and businesses to have power, because they control the machines that are the means of production. The people with power are no longer the government, which is somewhat alienated. As a result, you have capitalism. Imperious political control to buffer disruptive technological consequences is inhibited by laissez-faire ideology. This happens when technological change is simply unleashed and technological guidance is still elemental.

Determinism and Indeterminacy in the History of Technology

There is no one model that can accurately predict how technological change will unfold, due to the complex interaction of different variables and the interactive nature of theory and practice. John Ruskin said, “it cannot be separated with impunity.” “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 implicitly will not yield reliable results, and no valid conclusion can be drawn for different cases and technology in general. The study becomes too complex with too many variables at play and no model with reliable dependent-independent variables to compare.

The sameness and quality of products became important because without it an accurate selling price for a product could not be set. Without accurate prices, people find it difficult to know which product they want to buy. From 1890 to 1930, standardization could have followed strict rules on product safety and quality but instead, the government and businesses decided to maximize profits. 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 make the most profits. Moreover, fewer products meant fewer marketing costs for the business. However, there are downsides for consumers when businesses only want to make a profit, such as planned obsolescence. Cooperation between workers and managers, and between businesses themselves, helped increase profit. This exchange of ideas is much like the Golden Age, in which people did what was right. There were disputes, but the ultimate goal in and between businesses was to achieve a valued craft. Cooperation exists as long as the market is large enough to ensure that businesses do not have to compete for work. Or when it is in the best interests of companies to work together and share products and/or expertise.

Retrieving Socio-technical Change

Many years later, we see that vertical integration at Carnegie Steel was smart. At the time, they did not integrate vertically because they thought it would harm their company with no perceived benefit. Carnegie was repeatedly told of the benefits of the acquisition of invaluable iron but failed to move on it. It was economically rational, given the low costs of iron ore and the barriers to entry that would exist for other businesses, they just didn’t realize it. The macro-level is technologically deterministic; however, the micro-level is open to finding more, varied societal forces in historical processes. The meso-level is in between. The way we study technology depends on the level. There is often a theme of technology as not a gadget, but a term for the elaborate socio-technical networks that span society. Saying that technology causes social change is equivalent to saying that people create social change through the socio-technical networks they form and maintain.

Technological Momentum

The idea that technology is influenced by social development, and vice versa, is a difficult one to analyze because it varies depending on time and place. Younger developing systems can be more socioculturally influenced, while older, more mature systems are more determinist. The bicycle is a notable example of social determinism, with the final design closure after groups decided that the problems and desires associated with the bicycle were fulfilled. Now, we are dealing with technological systems for the interaction of technical, social, and environmental factors. Countless companies such as GE, EBASCO, and public utilities control complex systems. There is a correlation between the workers of the regulatory institutions of these systems and having an advanced degree.

Technology is hard to stop once it has gained momentum. The momentum of EBASCO’s technological systems only broke when the major historical event of the Great Depression had a strong enough impact. During the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration blamed utility holding company magnates for huge stock losses. They blamed the losses on 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 (SEC) authority to regulate, license, and break up electric utility holding companies. This breaks up utility companies with more than two tiers and limits operations to a single state, subjecting them to effective state regulation. The SEC aimed to increase the influence of the free market and competition between smaller and larger companies. This was beneficial for society’s welfare by providing more products and ensuring that the selling prices of larger businesses were reasonable. In the cases of BASF and Muscle Shoals Dam, there were solutions in search of a problem. Significant inventions arose from the stubborn and persistent will of a few entrepreneurs to find the need for a product where it didn’t exist before.

Three Faces of Technological Determinism

1. Nomological, based on the laws of nature.
2. Normative, claimed that technology is important in shaping history only where societies attach cultural and political meaning to that technology.
3. Unintended consequences, unlike the nomological approach, has laws, and unlike the normative approach, there is a social practice that governs technology.

The normative approach deals mainly with the ethical side of technology. Such as goals on how to get the most value from alternatives, means and ends, rather than dealing with efficiency or productivity. The nomological approach believes that machinery and some subhuman powers somehow function independently of history. Social change is dictated by political resources, not in terms of social desirability. This method tries to limit the broad category of technological determinism, which is a start to understanding the cause and effect of machines on social roles.

G. A. Cohen believed that previous events casually determine future events and that technology influences the laws of nature that determine people’s history. He and Robert Brenner argue that productive forces are not the only course for social development. However, I digress, what if productive forces are the primary mover of history, then what forces of production exist? Marx thought that technology is in the ultimate service of humanity, not the other way around. He believed the division of labor, not technology, was the way to tell the productive forces in society. Although the second phase of history is more deterministic with automation and industrial capitalism. 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 does not cause or facilitate class struggles. However, those who have control over the productive process may alienate the laborers, which this proletariat may not escape. He believes the driving forces are the means to accumulate and resist alienation with technology as a so-called fuel for history’s engine. A basic drive for self-expression is a necessary factor in Marx’s Theory of History.

The form of self-expression lies in the growing desire for production. Conditions that facilitate productive development in history include:

1. An expanding population.
2. Increasing social intercourse.
3. The availability of science and technology, particularly in the later phase of capitalism.

Recourse of Empire

The two paintings aim to predict the future of technology and economic growth. Technological social influences are closely linked to the spread of technology. In “Across the Continent. Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” by Frances Flora Bond Palmer in 1868, the technology allows the group with superior technology to dominate the group with less or no technology. 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.

The next painting, “Science on the March”, depicts the progression of technology from 1902 to 2002. We should already be flying the cosmos. It is creative, but not accurate. and does a poor job of predicting the future. Popular Science should stick to the science part and do less of the history. When they considered adopting the metric or English system of units, they chose the English system out of practicality for merchants. They found it easier to use because they could relate the measurements to their body parts. I think we should have stayed with metric and not come up with a new set of units.

Technological Determinism Revisited

Wars are at the center of subjects of premodern history because they embody such background forces as class struggle and rational maximizing. We tend to assign “powers” to technologies when they just are not there. “The machine throws out anthropomorphic habits of thought” and Marx’s expectation that the railroad in India would dissolve the caste system. Routine tells us that technological change is resisted, but not the form of resistance.

The Idea of “Technology” and Postmodern Pessimism

Medical progress has gotten rid of diseases and allowed the population to expand by lowering the death rate and prolonging life. These are positive outcomes for medical progress, but they think overpopulation and baby boomers that can’t work are bad for a society’s functioning. I don’t agree with this completely and think this is not taking into account a more important effect, like why people choose to give birth. The goal of technology during the Enlightenment era was less hierarchical republican society and more democracy. The old idea is power can be attacked, removed, or replaced, but modernists feel it doesn’t come from a single, centralized source, so it can be affected. That it is everywhere and nowhere. It usually develops at local levels, rather than diffusing from high central powers.

The Political and Feminist Dimensions of Technological Determinism

I agree that technology is not inherently rational and is for authoritarian control and domination. In my opinion, if we can’t define technology, how can we determine if it drives history or for that matter any field? I agree that you can’t classify certain technologies according to significance. Especially in highly advanced societies where many new technologies are only for entertainment. It’s difficult believing Marx’s search of technological determinism was to try to deny God. Technology is a technological revolution, and this is never safe in one country alone, only globally. I think this means a scientific revolution won’t ever succeed unless the revolution is global, because technology has such a great influence on so many people. But maybe it has more to do with what technology is. I agree that ultimately people, not machines, make history. The example of the 1990 Desert Storm, when Bush decided to declare war on Iraq, because of a series of unilateral decisions that left the war as the only outcome, is opinionated, but probably has a lot of truth. Most would agree that using nuclear weapons instead of negotiating peace is irrational. This irrationality explains why people hand over power to nuclear weapons. The threat of massive retaliation needing to be credible shows that power is lost from people to technology. I agree that the reason why Communism failed is that it tried to assert technology as an authoritarian and controlling entity. Democracy works much better than an impersonal technological system, and people want many choices, not only one. An interesting quote from the King, “Women have been culture’s sacrifice to nature”, blames women for making our culture less technical and more about nature.

Determinism and Pre-Industrial Technology

I agree that the top-down economic approach fails to look at significant power relationships. Showing three technologies that fail to have a social or economic impact, reiterates the idea of social filters on technological development. Block printing had little to no impact on medieval Islam culture. This is not surprising, because beggars used this invention in the perception of the Muslim people. Next, the letterpress had resistance because of religious opposition, which restricted the print of religious texts. I don’t understand why they would be against printing religious texts.

Technological Determinism in Agrarian Societies

Without investigating agrarian societies, we cannot determine if society has progressed. Are we better off from the advancement of technology? In so many ways, no. Peasants are not bounded by a lack of technology. They can transform their societies with new farming methods. The peasant can escape his role as a peasant if either the bourgeoisie realizes they are better off substituting technology for the peasant, or the peasant transforms society toward an urban rich technological city. Only when the whole city has become urban is the peasant no longer needed. Lynn White, Jr. (1978) believed the heavy plow in Northern Europe led to increased population density and urbanization. Studies suggest the heavy plow accounts for around 10% of the increase in population density and urbanization during the High Middle Age. He believed the plow made agriculture more productive but was neither necessary nor sufficient for progress and. He is surprised when White changes his mind about the reason for agricultural progress from tools to religion. Interestingly, the peasants resist the promotions of the horse and the plow, which would make the work go faster. They resisted quite effectively. The reason they resisted is they didn’t want their jobs replaced. Population expansion and larger productivity are directly related to the plow. I see little to no resistance when the technology increases the work for the peasants. The increase in work for the peasants doesn’t mean their work is inefficient but means they are producing more. Russia’s agriculture has suffered compared to warmer climates because in the winter the animals stay inside. They don’t graze the stubble, so by the spring they are weak and plow less, and there is less manure for the fodder fields, where they get their food from, and the other fields. Also, limited market exchange and rudimentary technology limited their economic growth.

Often the lords were less efficient than the peasants and not concerned about how much was produced. Peasants responded to new methods, but only from other peasants. If the lord suggested it then they thought he was exploiting them. To the peasants in Russia, not Europe, the thought of having a working class was a clear source of discontent. Lords were pleased with peasant life and feared a landless class would result if technology replaced their jobs.

Reform can happen in two ways. Peasants could either revolt against deeply seeded problems, or the elites could bring new ideas to the countrymen in the hopes that they would implement them. For this to happen, the countrymen must believe the ideas are in their best interest. “New technology always alters power relations.” So you must analyze a technology by looking at the ensuing change of power and the resistance or support of the technology. The reason China broke out of its poverty, unlike Russia, is it took advantage of rural labor markets. They also used the expanding population and produced not just one crop, but a large variety. The prediction is that China is heading toward capitalism. Markets, class differentiation, and property rights favor this path. A good indicator of this is that the rural population has continued to increase, but the per-capita income has stayed the same. As a result, peasants choose to work in urban areas and be part of the free market.