Leo Marx on the Sources of our Technological Pessimism

Are we living in an age of technological optimism or technological pessimism?

In “The Idea of ‘Technology’ and Postmodern Pessimism,” Leo Marx, a leading historian of technology and American culture, argues that while technological optimism had been the default mode of American culture throughout most of its history, technological pessimism asserted itself to an unprecedented degree in the second half of the twentieth century. His essay traces the roots of what he terms “postmodern pessimism” in the earlier, dominant technological optimism and the evolution of our terminology for what comes to be known as “technology.” This latter semantic history, not unlike that which undergirds his more recent “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept,” throws light on significant shifts in the nature of technology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These shifts fuel a new way of conceptualizing technology which in turn becomes a precondition for the emergence of technological pessimism.

Marx begins by reminding us of the “progressive world picture” which emerges out of the Enlightenment. For the cultures of modernity, “conceptions of history,” he explains, “serve a function like that served by myths of origin in traditional cultures: They provide the organizing frame, or binding meta-narrative, for the entire belief system.” And the “conception of history” animating Enlightenment society expected “steady, continuous, cumulative improvement in all conditions of life” driven by the advance of science and what was then called, among other phrasings, “the practical arts.” The West’s “dominant belief system,” in Marx’s words, “turned on the idea of technical innovation as a primary agent of progress.”

But then come the shifts Marx perceives in the concept of technology. The first development is artifactual, it relates to the actual technological artifacts. The introduction of mechanical, chemical, and electric power led to the development of “large-scale, complex, hierarchical, centralized systems,” examples of which include the railroads and electrical power systems. In other words, these new technologies are no longer discreet artifacts, more or less independent in their function; they are vast, technological systems.

The second important development is ideological. The earlier Enlightenment notion of progress viewed technology as a necessary, but not sufficient cause of progress which was understood as a movement toward “a more just, republican society.” This political vision was gradually replaced by a technocratic notion of progress which amounted merely to the continued improvement of technology.

Alongside these artifactual and ideological transformations, the terminology applied to the phenomena in question was also evolving. Older words or phrases for what we today would simply label technology included the “mechanical arts” or the “practical arts” — it was an older nomenclature better fitted to traditional, craft based technologies. But this terminology seemed inadequate to describe the reality of emerging complex technological systems. Marx points to Thomas Carlyle’s 1829 essay, “Signs of the Times,” as an instance of the search for a new vocabulary with which to name the shifting technological landscape. Carlyle suggested that his was an “Age of Machinery,” but by “machinery” he meant more than the material machines themselves. Included in the term was the “mechanical philosophy” associated with Descartes and Locke, the systematic division of labor, and the emergence of bureaucratic organization.

By the late nineteenth century the “abstract, sociologically and politically neutral … word ‘technology,’ with its tacit claim to being a distinctive, independent mode of thought and practice like ‘science,’ began to fill the semantic void. In Marx’s view, it would not be until the 1930’s that the term would achieve “truly wide currency.” By mid-century it was used more or less as we use it today, to denote a remarkably wide array of tools and techniques, singularly and in complex combination.

The term’s elasticity, according to Marx, fit the new reality “in which the boundary between the intricately interlinked artifactual and other components — conceptual, institutional, human — is blurred and often invisible.” Marx goes on to add, “by virtue of its abstractness and inclusiveness, and its capacity to evoke the inextricable interpenetration of (for example) the powers of the computer witht eh bureaucratic practices of large modern institutions, ‘technology’ (with no specifying adjective) invites endless reification.”

The consequence is a “common tendency” to “invest ‘technology’ with a host of metaphysical properties and potencies, thereby making it seem to be a determinate entity, a disembodied autonomous causal agent of social change.”

Recalling the second, ideological development, the semantic evolution just describe took place alongside of related evolution in the concept of “progress.” The development of technology had been previously understood to be a means to the end of constructing a “just, republican society.” By the late nineteenth century the advance of technology was synonymous with “progress”; it was the no longer a means, it was the end.

Marx again: “At this time … the simple republican formula for generating progress by directing improved technical means to societal ends was imperceptibly transformed into a quite different technocratic commitment to improving ‘technology’ as the basis and the measure of — as all but constituting — the progress of society.” For a discussion of the visual and artistic representation of this development in the nineteenth century see an earlier post, “The Art of Technology and Empire.” Marx cites the Italian Futurists, Mondrian, the Precisionists and Constructivists, Le Corbusier, and the International Style as later twentieth century symptoms of the shift in values.

Finally, returning to the topic of the essay, “postmodern pessimism,” Marx concludes that amidst the smoldering ruins of World War II the techno-utopianism dissolved. The disenchantment with technology, exhibited since the early nineteenth century by an “adversary culture” with roots in the Romantic critique of the Enlightenment, now gained traction with the wider culture. It was all the more plausible because of the way “technology” had been invested with autonomous, casual agency and the manner in which progress and technology had been elided. Ironically, the postmodern critique of modernist technological systems often came hand in hand with a valorization of new electronic and digital means of communication; this, in Marx’s view, merely replaces one technocracy with another.

The point Marx seeks to drive home at the end of his analysis is this: We have, by our terminology and our ideology obscured the social and political dimensions of the technological systems we’ve created and in so doing consequently obscured the role of human agency. He sardonically concludes his essay by observing that “it might be well to acknowledge how consoling it is to attribute our pessimism to the workings of so elusive an agent of change.”

Some thoughts to wrap up. First, the history Marx traces, both semantic and ideological, is important in its own right. Also, Marx makes an important point regarding the power of our categories to shape our thinking. If we feel a loss of agency in the face of modern technological systems, is it in part because of the adoption of the abstract language of “technology”? Perhaps. But, as Marx shows, the term filled a real semantic void, and these systems are real enough as is there inertia or momentum.

This essay also reminded me of my recent exchange with PJ Rey regarding his essay on trust in complex technologies. These complex systems may make us more aware of our embeddedness in social reality, but because of the sense of a loss of agency that they can engender I suspect it is a rather angst ridden sociality that we partake of. My sense is still that it is not quite “trust” we have in these systems, much less in the experts who designed them, so much as it is a cheery apathy or indifference born out of an inability to imagine an alternative to acquiescence. Those who resist may appear to be misanthropic cranks, but their resistance may have more to do with a distrust in the system (warranted or not), than some sort of misplace individualism.

Finally, Marx is right to press us to take responsibility for our decisions and their consequences. “Technology made me do it” will not get us any farther than Flip Wilson’s “the devil made me do it.”


Update: Take a look at Doug Hill’s thoughtful comment on Marx’s view in the comments section of the  following post.

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