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.