A perennial debate in technology studies is over the question of agency and determinism. Does technology drive history? Is technology socially constructed? Who or what exercises agency in sociotechnical development? In this blog, I summarize and analyze the ideas that have emerged from this debate that I find most useful. Specifically, I touch on the work of Jacques Ellul and Langdon Winner.
For Ellul, “when technique enters into every area of life, including the human, it ceases to be external to man and becomes his very substance.” Donna Haraway has taken this point to the extreme, suggesting that humans are cyborgs, inextricably linked to their devices, not only to participate in social life, but in their conceptions of self. “This transformation, so obvious in modern society,” wrote Ellul, “is the result of the fact that technique has become autonomous.” By autonomous, Ellul meant that “technique pursues its own course more and more independently of man.” Humans are directed to technical ends by their reliance upon its means for every aspect of their lives, whereby humans are “reduced to the level of a catalyst…” It is not technology alone that requires this relationship, but the role of technology in society. “When technique enters into the realm of social life, it collides ceaselessly with the human being to the degree that the combination of man and technique is unavoidable, and that technical action necessarily results in a determined result.” This characterization has led some to dismiss Ellul’s philosophy as “technological determinism.” Winner rejects that Ellul commits to determinism, and finds utility in this approach – that of autonomous technology – when he presents Ellul’s vision “that technology is somehow out of control by human agency.” In this view, “far from being controlled by the desired and rational ends of human beings, technology in a real sense now governs its own course, speed, and destination.” Ellul argued that “there can be no human autonomy in the face of technical autonomy.”Continue reading →
In Technics & Civilization, among Mumford’s other work, he develops a rich historical account of technological development. Being “the last generalist,” I would imagine unfamiliar readers today might be surprised by Mumford’s ability to eloquently transcend disciplinary boundaries among sociology, anthropology and history. He was particularly skilled at conveying nuance and the important interactions among environment, artifacts, techniques, human organization, labor, infrastructure and so forth. Additionally, Mumford articulates an approach to ‘social construction’ that avoids the solipsistic idealism now popular. Instead, technics and society are constantly engaged in remaking one another – and confining and constraining one another. Certain innovations are either promoted with vigor and others stalled or abandoned because technics serves the worldview and values of the society that shapes it. Simultaneously, existing technics transform how we see and relate to ourselves, one another and our environment. This process is shaped by values, as specific paths are chosen among others because they fit the ethics and motives of those steering innovation, but also as the material, machinic and organizational demands of existing technics. Winner’s discussion of autonomous technology carries a similar theme to the latter point, addressing specifically how existing technical systems create demands of their users and the society in which they are embedded. Social reproduction in a highly complex technological society generates a considerable momentum for increasing the role of technology in social and individual life, an apparently out-of-control juggernaut. Mumford demonstrates that this has deep historical roots, particularly over the last 1,000 years. This is not the experience of industrial society, but the experience of civilization in toto. Continue reading →
When Kirkpatrick Sale was finishing up Rebels Against the Future, he was interviewed by Kevin Kelly for Wired. This interview, however, became more of a debate, between a technophile and someone urging caution and limits with regard to technology – a neo-Luddite.
Kelly begins by wondering whether the Luddites accomplished anything “other than arson and a lot of vandalism.” Perhaps a brief history is in order for some of my more casual readers. Even Kelly doesn’t seem to understand the Luddites, as he claims:
The Luddite cottagers thought it was inhuman to be put out of work by machines. But what’s really inhuman is to have cloth made by human labor at all. Cloth should be made by machines, because machines make much better cloth than humans. Making cloth is not a good job for humans… Continue reading →
In The Techno-Human Condition, Allenby and Sarewitz confront the growth of transhumanism as a movement and the history of humans engaging with technics that have shaped the species’ evolution. They additionally issue a particular critique of the Enlightenment. The limits of reason in complex, global technosystems is deeply explored and effectively trounced upon. In reading this text, one might be inspired to recall Horkheimer and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment. However, in such a comparison, we might realize a primary weakness at the heart of Allenby and Sarewitz’s project. Horkheimer and Adorno found in the Enlightenment not simply the limits or reason, but a commitment to domination of nature, which extends to the complete domination of humankind. The pinnacle of the Enlightenment is not found in transhumanism (as in Allenby and Sarewitz), but in the concentration camp. If we might update this scenario, we could say the pinnacle of the Enlightenment is perpetual war for oil fought by drone planes and cyborg soldiers in which millions of civilians are murdered (only on the enemy side, of course). Continue reading →
Between the politics of technology and the social construction of technological systems (SCOTS), exists considerable tension over three distinct problems centered on the commitment of SCOTS to relativism. First, the SCOTS program can find no useful criteria to judge a technology. But can society in “an age of high technology” (Winner 1986) afford this position? Second, the defining of the “social groups” or actors involved in shaping a technology during the innovation and diffusion stages brackets off the agents in consideration. What about those impacted by a technology who are outside this consideration? And, while Latour (in Bijker and Law 1992) wants us to consider the nonhuman, the SCOTS program disregards issues related to the processes by which resources are made available and sustainable access to them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the question of whether the socio-political structure and the status of actors should be left out of the discussion. “Where’s the power?” we might ask.