Macro-trends in Technology and Culture

Who would choose cell phones and Twitter over toilets and running water? Well, according to Kevin Kelly, certain rural Chinese farmers. In a recent essay exploring the possibilities of a post-productive economy, Kelly told of the remote villages he visited in which locals owned cell phones but lived in houses without even the most rudimentary forms of plumbing. It is a choice, Kelly notes, deeply influenced by tradition and culture. Kelly’s point may not be quite unassailable, but it is a fair reminder that technology is a culturally mediated phenomenon.

There are, generally speaking, two schools of thought on the relationship between technology and culture. Those tending toward some variety of technological determinism would argue that technology drives culture. Those who tend toward a social constructivist view of technology would argue the opposite. Ultimately, any theory of technology must account for the strengths and weaknesses of both of these tendencies. In fact, the framing of the relationship is probably problematic anyway since there are important ways in which technology is always cultural and culture is always technological.

For the purposes of this post, I’d like to lean toward the social constructivist perspective. No technology appears in a vacuum. It’s origins, evolution, adoption, deployment, and diffusion are all culturally condition. Moreover, the meaning of any technology is always culturally determined; it is never simply given in the form of the technology itself. Historians of technology have reminded us of this reality in numerous fascinating studies — studies of the telephone, for example, and the airplane, the electric grid, household technologies, and much else besides. When a new technology appears, it is interpreted and deployed within an already existing grid of desires, possibilities, necessities, values, symbols, expectations, and constraints. That a technology may re-order this grid in time does not negate the fact that it must first be received by it. The relationship is reciprocal.

If this is true, then it seems to me that we should situate our technologies not only within the immediate historical and social context of their genesis, but also within broader and more expansive historical trajectories. Is our use of computer technology, for example, still inflected by Baconian aspirations? What role do Cartesian dualisms play in shaping our relationship with the world through our technologies? To what degree does Christian eschatology inform technological utopianism? These seem to be important questions, the answers to which might usefully inform our understanding of the place of technology in contemporary society. Of course, these particular questions pertain especially to the West. I suspect another set of questions would apply to non-Western societies and still further questions would be raised within the context of globalization. But again, the basic premise is simply this: a given technology’s social context is not necessarily bounded by its immediate temporal horizons. We ought to be taking the long view as well.

But the rhythms of technological change (and the logic of the tech industry) would seem to discourage us from taking the long view, or at least the long view backwards in time. The pace of technological change over the last two hundred years or so has kept us busy trying to navigate the present, and its trajectory, real and ideal, casts our vision forward in the direction of imagined futures. But what if, as Faulkner quipped, the past with regards to technology is not dead or even past?

I’m wondering, for instance, about these large motive forces that have driven technological innovation in the West, such as the restoration of Edenic conditions or the quest for rational mastery over the natural world leading to the realization of Utopia. These early modern and Enlightenment motive forces directed and steered the evolution of technology in the West for centuries, and I do not doubt that they continue to exert their influence still. Yet, over the last century and half Western society has undergone a series of profound transformations. How have these shaped the evolution of technology? (The inverse question is certainly valid as well.) This is, I suppose, another way of asking about the consequences of post-modernity (which I distinguish from postmodernism) for the history of technology.

In a provocative and compelling post a few months ago, Nick Carr drew an analogy between the course of technological innovation and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

“The focus, or emphasis, of innovation moves up through five stages, propelled by shifts in the needs we seek to fulfill. In the beginning come Technologies of Survival (think fire), then Technologies of Social Organization (think cathedral), then Technologies of Prosperity (think steam engine), then technologies of leisure (think TV), and finally Technologies of the Self (think Facebook, or Prozac).”

I continue to find this insightful, and I think the angle I’m taking here dovetails with Carr’s analysis. The technologies of Prosperity and Leisure correspond roughly to the technologies of modernity. Technologies of the Self correspond roughly to the technologies of post-modernity. Gone is our faith in les grands récits that underwrote a variety of utopian visions and steered the evolution of technology. We live in an age of diminished expectations; we long for the fulfillment of human desires writ small. Self-fulfillment is our aim.

This is, incidentally, a trajectory that is nicely illustrated by Lydia DePillis’ suggestion that the massive Consumer Electronics Show “is what a World’s Fair might look like if brands were more important than countries.” The contrast between the world’s fairs and the CES is telling. The world’s fairs, especially those that preceded the 1939 New York fair, were quite obviously animated by thoroughly modern ideologies. They were, as President McKinley put it, “timekeepers of progress,” and one might as well capitalize Progress. On the other hand, whatever we think of the Consumer Electronics Show, it is animated by quite different and more modest spirits. The City of Tomorrow was displaced by the entertainment center of tomorrow before giving way to the augmented self of tomorrow.

Why did technological innovation take this path? Was it something in the nature of technology itself? Or, was it rather a consequence of larger sea changes in the character of society? Maybe a little of both, but probably more of the latter. It’s possible, of course, that this macro-perspective on the the co-evolution of culture and technology can obscure important details and result in misleading generalizations, but if those risks can be mitigated, it may also unveil important trends and qualities that would be invisible to more narrowly focused analysis.

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8 thoughts on “Macro-trends in Technology and Culture

  1. I enjoyed this essay, Michael, but I didn’t get the point regarding the Chinese farmers choosing to buy cell phones rather than invest in indoor plumbing. In what way was this influenced by the culture and tradition of the Chinese? In Kelley’s article he simply points out the fact that the people he saw had made this choice, but doesn’t go much into an analysis of why. Perhaps it has largely to do with marketing campaigns of some kind? or simply with availability- it may simply be easier to buy the cell phones than to make the improvements in plumbing?
    Kelley seems to be saying that this choice is made all around the world, independent of culture and tradition.
    What seems a little sad to me, is how, in the language of Wendall Berry, these farmers, through choosing to use cell phones, are becoming part of a global economy, rather than strengthening a local economy. One can imagine them gaining the know-how to manage their plumbing systems, but not likely gaining the know-how to repair broken cell phone towers or fix their phones themselves.
    I’m not saying that there aren’t some real benefits from cell phones for these people, but its not obvious to me what connection this choice has to their culture and traditions.

    • Boaz,

      You’re right, in the main post he does not make that connection explicit, but in the comments below he does more so. I’m thinking in particular of this reply by Kelly:

      “It doesn’t take the permission of a local government to build an outhouse. As you say, many farmsteads in China do have outhouses, where they save the shit to spread on their fields — and have been doing that for thousands of years. It would cost them no more to build an outhouse than to buy a nice shirt. This is a choice that is greatly influenced by tradition and culture. (Tibetans have an aversion to collecting shit.)”

      But you raise a good point. The motives at play are not exactly obvious.

  2. Ok, I know that Kelly has traveled a lot and likes writing about this experience, but its not obvious to me how deep is his understanding of these other cultures. He also writes in that post, “Connection before plumbing. It is an almost universal choice.” suggesting that he thinks this choice is independent of the culture of those making it.

    Anyway, I think its a pretty big difference between the question of why technological development occurs in a particular way and its relationship to the culture of those doing that development, versus technological adoption for those who buy/adopt this technology, without a hand in its development. Like television, a generation before, it looks like the technology spreads independent of the cultures it touches, and changes those cultures to be closer to those like the culture who created that technology.

    • I agree that the nature of the relationship between technology and culture is not straightforward or obvious. As I suggested in the post, I wouldn’t stake my claim to Kelly’s observations. You make the case for the more tech determinist position, and generally speaking I do lean in that direction myself. And yet, I can’t bring myself to embrace it without reservation. I’m not sure about the television. It would take a detailed history of adoption and use in different cultures to establish your point, and I’m simply uninformed about the subject. Your claim seems intuitively right, but I’ve learned to be a little skeptical about what seems intuitively right to me in cases like this. I do know of other cases were it might seem to me as if the American experience (to take my own case) were simply generalizable, and yet it turns out not to be the so. The automobile for example takes on a different role in American society than it does in European society, particularly in relation to public transport. That said, it’s complex topic and it would require a vast deal of knowledge to arrive at conclusions, I’m certainly not there yet!

      • I wasn’t really saying that technology determines its own development over-all. I think this is somehow the argument Kelly makes in his book “What Technology Wants”. He says its an organism with its own logic, co-evolving perhaps with people.

        I like the questions you ask about the connection between culture and technology in the west, such as “To what degree does Christian eschatology inform technological utopianism?” and the others. But aren’t these mostly questions about how the values and culture of the people making the technology determine its direction? With Chinese rural farmers that had basically no role in the development of the technology, I would look more to global economical reasons for adoption of particular technologies. At least, I’d want a deeper analysis than Kelly gives to believe the cultural explanation.

        You point to the narrowed vision of the tech shows and their focus on self-improvement as being connected to the focus on development of “technologies of the self”. This seems reasonable and interesting to look for these cultural ties. But I was just pointing out that one needs to be careful in applying the same reasoning to those other cultures who are sold the technology at a later stage. I’d like to learn more about how different cultures take on foreign technologies and adapt them to their own ends. I can believe this to some extent, but I tend to see more of the cultural imperialism angle.

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