What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Technology?

I’ve been of two minds with regards to the usefulness of the word technology. One of those two minds has been more or less persuaded that the term is of limited value and, worse still, that it is positively detrimental to our understanding of the reality it ostensibly labels. The most thorough case for this position is laid out in a 2010 article by the historian of technology Leo Marx, “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept.

Marx worried that the term technology was “peculiarly susceptible to reification.” The problem with reified phenomenon is that it acquires “a ‘phantom-objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” This false aura of autonomy leads in turn to “hackneyed vignettes of technologically activated social change—pithy accounts of ‘the direction technology is taking us’ or ‘changing our lives.’” According to Marx, such accounts are not only misleading, they are also irresponsible. By investing “technology” with causal power, they distract us from “the human (especially socioeconomic and political) relations responsible for precipitating this social upheaval.” It is these relations, after all, that “largely determine who uses [technologies] and for what purposes.” And, it is the human use of technology that makes all the difference, because, as Marx puts it, “Technology, as such, makes nothing happen.”[1]

As you might imagine, I find that Marx’ point compliments a critique of what I’ve called Borg Complex rhetoric. It’s easier to refuse responsibility for technological change when we can attribute it to some fuzzy, incohate idea of technology, or worse, what technology wants. That latter phrase is the title of a book by Kevin Kelly, and it may be the best example on offer of the problem Marx was combatting in his article.

But … I don’t necessarily find that term altogether useless or hazardous. For instance, some time ago I wrote the following:

“Speaking of online and offline and also the Internet or technology – definitions can be elusive. A lot of time and effort has been and continues to be spent trying to delineate the precise referent for these terms. But what if we took a lesson from Wittgenstein? Crudely speaking, Wittgenstein came to believe that meaning was a function of use (in many, but not all cases). Instead of trying to fix an external referent for these terms and then call out those who do not use the term as we have decided it must be used or not used, perhaps we should, as Wittgenstein put it, ‘look and see’ the diversity of uses to which the words are meaningfully put in ordinary conversation. I understand the impulse to demystify terms, such as technology, whose elasticity allows for a great deal of confusion and obfuscation. But perhaps we ought also to allow that even when these terms are being used without analytic precision, they are still conveying sense.”

As you know from previous posts, I’ve been working through Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology (1977). It was with a modicum of smug satisfaction, because I’m not above such things, that I read the following in Winner’s Introduction:

“There is, of course, nothing unusual in the discovery that an important term is ambiguous or imprecise or that it covers a wide diversity of situation. Wittgenstein’s discussion of ‘language games’ and ‘family resemblances’ in Philosophical Investigations illustrates how frequently this occurs in ordinary language. For many of our most important concepts, it is futile to look for a common element in the phenomena to which the concept refers. ‘Look and see and whether there is anything common to all.–For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.'”

Writing in the late ’70s, Winner claimed, “Technology is a word whose time has come.” After a period of relative neglect or disinterest, “Social scientists, politicians, bureaucrats, corporate managers, radical students, as well as natural scientists and engineers, are now united in the conclusion that something we call ‘technology’ lies at the core of what is most troublesome in the condition of our world.”

To illustrate, Winner cites Allen Ginsburg — “Ourselves caught in the giant machine are conditioned to its terms, only holy vision or technological catastrophe or revolution break ‘the mind-forg’d manacles.'” — and the Black Panthers: “The spirit of the people is greater than the man’s technology.”

For starters, this is a good reminder to us that we are not the first generation to wrestle with the place of technology in our personal lives and in society at large. Winner was writing almost forty years ago, after all. And Winner rightly points out that his generation was not the first to worry about such matters either: “We are now faced with an odd situation in which one observer after another ‘discovers’ technology and announces it to the world as something new. The fact is, of course, that there is nothing novel about technics, technological change, or advanced technological societies.”

While he thinks that technology is a word “whose time has come,” he is not unaware of the sorts of criticisms articulated by Leo Marx. These criticisms had then been made of the manner in which Jacques Ellul defined technology, or, more precisely, la technique: “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”

Against Ellul’s critics, Winner writes, “While Ellul’s addition of ‘absolute efficiency’ may cause us difficulties, his notion of technique as the totality of rational methods closely corresponds to the term technology as now used in everyday English. Ellul’s la technique and our technology both point to a vast, diverse, ubiquitous totality that stands at the center of modern culture.”

It is at this point that Winner references Wittgenstein in the paragraph cited above. He then acknowledges that the way in which technology tends to be used leads to the conclusion that “technology is everything and everything is technology.” In other words, it “threatens to mean nothing.”

But Winner sees in this situation something of interest, and here is where I’m particularly inclined to agree with him against critics like Leo Marx. Rather than seek to impose a fixed definition or banish the term altogether, we should see in this situation “an interesting sign.” It should lead us to ask, “What does the chaotic use of the term technology indicate to us?”

Here is how Winner answers that question: “[…] the confusion surrounding the concept ‘technology’ is an indication of a kind of lag in public language, that is, a failure of both ordinary speech and social scientific discourse to keep pace with the reality that needs to be discussed.”There may be a better way, but “at present our concepts fail us.”

Winner follows with a brief discussion of the unthinking polarity into which discussions of technology consequently fall: “discussion of the political implications of advanced technology have a tendency to slide into a polarity of good versus evil.” We might add that this is not only a problem with discussion of the political implications of advanced technology, it is also a problem with discussions of the personal implications of advanced technology.

Winner adds that there “is no middle ground to discuss such things,” we encounter either “total affirmation” or “total denial.” In Winner’s experience, ambiguity and nuance are hard to come by and any criticism, that is anything short of total embrace, meets with predictable responses: “You’re just using technology as a whipping boy,” or “You just want to stop progress and send us back to the Middle Ages with peasants dancing on the green.”[2]

While it may not be as difficult to find more nuanced positions today, in part because of the sheer quantity of easily accessible commentary, it still seems generally true that most popular discussions of technology tend to fall into either the “love it” or “hate it” category.

In the end, it may be that Winner and Marx are not so far apart after all. While Winner is more tolerant of the use of technology and finds that, in fact, its use tells us something important about the not un-reasonable anxieties of modern society, he also concludes that we need a better vocabulary with which to discuss all that gets lumped under the idea of technology.

I’m reminded of Alan Jacobs’ oft-repeated invocation of Bernard Williams’s adage, “We suffer from a poverty of concepts.” Indeed, indeed. It is this poverty of concepts that, in part, explains the ease with which discussions of technology become mired in volatile love it or hate it exchanges. A poverty of concepts short circuits more reasonable discussion. Debate quickly morphs into acrimony because in the absence of categories that might give reason a modest grip on the realities under consideration the competing positions resolve into seemingly subjective expressions of personal preference and, thus, criticism becomes offensive.[3]

So where does this leave us? For my part, I’m not quite prepared to abandon the word technology. If nothing else it serves as a potentially useful Socratic point of entry: “So, what exactly do you mean by technology?” It does, to be sure, possess a hazardous tendency. But let’s be honest, what alternatives do we have left to us? Are we to name every leaf because speaking of leaves obscures the multiplicity and complexity of the phenomena?

That said, we cannot make do with technology alone. We should seek to remedy that poverty of our concepts. Much depends on it.

Of course, the same conditions that led to the emergence of the more recent expansive and sometimes hazardous use of the word technology are those that make it so difficult to arrive at a richer more useful vocabulary. Those conditions include but are not limited to the ever expanding ubiquity and complexity of our material apparatus and of the technological systems and networks in which we are enmeshed. The force of these conditions was first felt in the wake of the industrial revolution and in the ensuing 200 years it has only intensified.

To the scale and complexity of steam-powered industrial machinery was added the scale and complexity of electrical systems, global networks of transportation, nuclear power, computers, digital devices, the Internet, global financial markets, etc. To borrow a concept from political science, technical innovation functions like a sort of ratchet effect. Scale and complexity are always torqued up, never released or diminished. And this makes it hard to understand this pervasive thing that we call technology.

For some time, through the early to mid-twentieth century we outsourced this sort of understanding to the expert and managerial class. The post-war period witnessed a loss of confidence in the experts and managers, hence it yielded the heightened anxiety about technology that Winner registers in the ’70s. Three decades later, we are still waiting for new and better forms of understanding.


[1] I’m borrowing the bulk of this paragraph from an earlier post.

[2] Here again I found an echo in Winner of some of what I had also concluded.

[3] We suffer not only from a poverty of concepts, but also, I would add, from a poverty of narratives that might frame our concepts. See the end of this post.

The Smart Phone in the Garden, Part Two

In The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx chronicled how the American literary tradition responded to the advent of Industrial Age machinery throughout the nineteenth century. The reaction was ambiguous. The arrival of the machine was framed by the pastoral ideal that represented America as a garden positioned precariously between the wilderness and civilization. For some, the appearance of the machine heralded the dissolution of the garden. For others, the machine was to be assimilated into the garden. Most, however, seem to have cared little for the garden.

In “The Celestial Railroad,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s revisiting of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the pilgrims rode a railroad in ease foregoing the travails of Christian’s journey. To their dismay they discover in the end that the railroad brought them not to the gates of the Celestial City, but to its infernal opposite instead. More likely than not, Hawthorne’s readers would have taken a more sanguine, if not downright utopian view of the railroad. A view not unlike that depicted in John Gast’s “American Progress” in which the railroad appears as an emblem of progress and empire.

John Gast, “American Progress” (1872)

These conflicting perspectives on technology and its place in American society run straight through the nineteenth century, across the twentieth, and into the twenty-first. Enthusiasts have consistently carried the day, but the critical counterpoints have never been insignificant. The contrapuntal tradition in Marx’s account was animated by an ancient literary convention that assumed real-world significance in the American context. This tradition of pastoral or Arcadian criticism sought to mitigate the perceived ills occasioned by the unbridled advance of civilization without advocating a return to the wilderness. The garden was thus positioned as a middle way between two poles.

As such, the garden was dependent on the two poles for its identity, in particular it was constituted by an evolving conception of “wilderness” that has itself been shown to depend on the advance of civilization. Tracing the evolution of the concept of “wilderness” in American thought is the aim of William Cronon’s 1995 chapter, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.”

In the opening paragraphs, Cronon makes the following provocative, counter-intuitive claim: “Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.” A little later on he adds, “As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.”

Of course, Cronon is not making a claim about the facticity of the natural world. It is there with or without us. He is making a claim about the idea or concept of the wilderness in American culture. It is a concept with a history and, as Cronon notes, early on the wilderness carried very different connotations than those it picked up during the nineteenth century. It was first the howling wilderness, a liminal and inhospitable place that could evoke holy dread. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, Thoreau could declare, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” A massive transformation had been effected in the symbolic value of the wilderness.

Cronon attributes this transformation to sources that he groups under the heading of the sublime and the frontier. Regarding the former, Cronon writes, “In the theories of Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, William Gilpin, and others, sublime landscapes were those rare places on earth where one had more chance than elsewhere to glimpse the face of God.” Consequently, it was both a majestic and inspiring place as well as a site of trepidation and dread. By the latter part of the 19th century, “the terrible awe that Wordsworth and Thoreau regarded as the appropriately pious stance to adopt in the presence of their mountaintop God was giving way to a much more comfortable, almost sentimental demeanor.” The sublime landscape was domesticated; it was, we might say, merely beautiful, picturesque. Cronon traces the evolution through the mountaintop experiences recorded by Wordsworth, Thoreau, and John Muir. Their moods differ, but for each the experience evokes a worshipful response – the mountaintop as cathedral.

The frontier and everything that it came to represent for Americans supplies the second set of associations that transformed the cultural value of the wilderness. In Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous formulation, the frontier was the crucible of American character. “Seen in this way,” Cronon explains, “wild country became a place not just of religious redemption but of national renewal, the quintessential location for experiencing what it meant to be an American.” Of course, Turner produced his thesis just as the frontier was closing and so the frontier myth possessed a nostalgic and elegiac tone from the start: “Those who have celebrated the frontier have almost always looked backward as they did so, mourning an older, simpler, truer world that is about to disappear, forever.”

The wilderness then was freighted with religious and national symbolism and it was constituted as that which was receding and withdrawing before the incursions of civilization. It was at this time that, according to Cronon, “ Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists.” These tourists

“brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled. For them, wild land was not a site for productive labor and not a permanent home; rather, it was a place of recreation. One went to the wilderness not as a producer but as a consumer …”

Cronon sagely goes on to observe,

“Country people generally know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal. In contrast, elite urban tourists and wealthy sportsmen projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape and so created wilderness in their own image.”

“Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated,” Cronon concludes further on, “could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land.” The binary of wilderness and civilization, in other words, abandons the garden ideal altogether.


“To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.”

As I read him, Cronon’s discussion anticipates more recent debates about the relationship between offline and online experience. It would seem, for instance, that wilderness dualism presaged digital dualism. Moreover, his critique of the early wilderness tourists raises important questions for those who would today advocate greater degrees of disconnection. See, for example, Alexis Madrigal’s sensible point in “Are We Addicted to Gadgets or Indentured to Work?” and compare it to Cronon’s own question:

“Why, for instance, is the ‘wilderness experience’ so often conceived as a form of recreation best enjoyed by those whose class privileges give them the time and resources to leave their jobs behind and ‘get away from it all?'”

The remainder of Cronon’s essay raises further suggestive parallels and in the next post in the series I’ll take those up.


My thanks to Eric E. for pointing me to Cronon’s article.

Previous post.

The Smartphone in the Garden

[Update: If you are seeing this older post in your RSS feed, it is because I updated the post to correct a glaring factual error and the post inadvertently re-published.]

Following an extended stay in Europe, Henry James returned to America in 1904.  Shortly after landing in New York, he made his way to New Hampshire. There he was struck by how the landscape impressed itself upon him. It was full of “the sweetness of belated recognition, that of the sense of some bedimmed summer of the distant prime flushing back into life and asking to give again as much as possible of what it had given before.” James wondered what it was that triggered this reaction, “shamelessly ‘subjective’” as it may have been, but he interrupted his own introspection: “When you wander about in Arcadia, you ask as few questions as possible.” Recounting this experience in The American Scene, however, he could not help but return to the questions: “Why was the whole connotation so delicately Arcadian, like that of the Arcadia of an old tapestry, an old legend, an old love-story in fifteen volumes …?”

James’ reflections were noted by Leo Marx in the closing chapter of his classic, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. First published in 1964, The Machine in the Garden is a rich, absorbing study of the tension between the pastoral ideal and the intrusion of machine technology throughout American history. In the first part of the work, Marx explains how, soon after the European discovery of the New World, the pastoral ideal was seized upon to describe America. Thomas Jefferson in particular translated what had been a literary construct into “a guide to social policy.” America was to be a society wherein the opposition between nature and civilization was resolved in favor of a delicately balanced, harmonious relationship; it was not a wilderness, but a garden.

America’s quasi-mythic self-understanding, then, included a vision of idyllic beauty and fecundity. But this vision would be imperiled by the appearance of the industrial machine, and the very moment of its first appearance would be a recurring trope in American literature. It would seem, in fact, that “Where were you when you first heard a train whistle?” was something akin to “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” The former question was never articulated in the same manner, but the event was recorded over and over again.

In Marx’s view, the recurring vignette describing the startled recognition of the machine’s intrusion into the pastoral ideal was an American adaptation of the traditional “pastoral design.” The pastoral design was a literary convention with roots in classical antiquity. Within the pastoral design, the pastoral ideal of the harmony between man and nature, positioned between civilization on the one side and wilderness on the other, is troubled by the intrusion of some “counterforce” which signals the larger reality within which the pastoral ideal is played out. The gesture is made visible in the landscape paintings of the 17th century that introduced some momento mori into the idealized scenery. It is, for example, spelled out by Poussin when his shepherds stumble upon a grave with the inscription, “Et in Arcadia Ego.” Within the pastoral design, impinging disruptive forces always trouble the pastoral ideal.

The train whistle became, for a certain generation of American writers, a memento mori signaling death’s presence within the pastoral ideal of America. This ideal, however, was not eradicated by the industrial revolution. It was still alive in the imagination of Henry Adams, even if it appears more self-consciously quaint unto itself. Well into the 20th century, the artistic conventions of the genre are still visible, even in the technocratic vision of Charles Sheeler.

Sheeler’s “American Landscape” (1930) adopted the formal conventions of the landscape painting, down to the solitary human form provided to indicate the scale of all else, but, of course, the striking feature of Sheeler’s landscape is the total absence of land. The entire environment has been “mechanized.” Marx does not make this point, but I’m tempted to read the ladder in the lower right corner, the only archaic element in view, as a memento mori. A return to pre-industrial technology is the death that threatens. But, Marx notes, “this bleak vista conveys a strangely soft, tender feeling.” As is characteristic of Sheeler’s technological paintings, movement has been stilled. Sheeler, according to Marx, has “imposed order, peace, and harmony upon our modern chaos.”

It is useful to contrast Sheeler’s painting with an older attempt to harmoniously represent a new order which encompasses the machine into the ideal.

In “The Lackawanna Valley” (1855), George Innes depicts a more traditional landscape, but he has incorporated the machine into the scene, both by the presence of the train winding its way toward the foreground and the smoke rising from the mills or factories further in the background. Setting Innes and Sheeler side by side, creates a suggestive illustration of the evolution of the machine’s place within the pastoral ideal of American society. What was for Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau and others of their generation a potentially destructive intrusion into the pastoral ideal, is first assimilated into the ideal and then transfigures the ideal into its own image.

Sheeler’s painting is characteristic of a trend, but it should not be taken to suggest the death of the pastoral ideal for American society. Like all deeply rooted cultural ideals, it has a way of reinventing itself and reemerging. Marx’s history, in fact, can be usefully understood as context for our present debates about the Internet and society. Seen in this light, Sherry Turkle’s Cape Cod narrative can be understood as an elaboration of a genre that goes back at least as far as Hawthorne’s “train whistle” notes. Here is Turkle writing in the NY Times:

“I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod, and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices.”

It is no longer the industrial machine that has entered the garden, it is now the smartphone.


(More to come.)

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.

Leo Marx and Jacques Ellul on Technological Determinism

My post earlier today alluded to a long standing debate regarding the personal and social consequences of technology. It is usually described as a debate about technological determinism, a phrase that’s been thrown around in these pages often enough, usually to indicate that I don’t espouse the theory it names while I, at the same time, find its polar opposite likewise inadequate. While the poles of this spectrum — and it is a spectrum of opinion, not a binary opposition — may be clear enough, I thought it might be useful to take a brief look at a two individuals who have articulated these poles rather clearly and forcefully — American historian Leo Marx and the late French sociologist Jacques Ellul.

“Technology,” Leo Marx warned in a recent essay in Technology and Culture, is a hazardous concept. In his 2010 essay, Marx explored the history of “technology” as a concept arguing that it arose to fill a linguistic void created by the emergence, in the 19th century, of sociotechnical systems that could no longer be adequately described by the existing repertoire of terms that included “machinery,” “the mechanical arts,” “the useful arts,” “improvement,” and “invention.” Already, by the mid-19th century, such constructions seemed inadequate and even quaint. Marx consequently concludes that “technology” is one of those keywords, such as “culture” in Raymond Williams analysis, that reflexively index the historical situation in which they rose to prominence. It is not until the close of Marx’s essay, however, that we learn wherein the hazard lies.

In his view, the generality of the term “technology” which made it particularly serviceable in characterizing the emerging components of what Thomas P. Hughes has aptly called the human-built world, also rendered the term “peculiarly susceptible to reification.” The problem with reified phenomenon, Marx warns citing George Lukacs, is that it acquires “a ‘phantom-objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” This false aura of autonomy leads in turn to “hackneyed vignettes of technologically activated social change—pithy accounts of ‘the direction technology is taking us’ or ‘changing our lives.'” According to Marx, such accounts are not only misleading, they are also irresponsible. By investing “technology” with causal power, they distract us from “the human (especially socioeconomic and political) relations responsible for precipitating this social upheaval.” It is these relations, after all, that “largely determine who uses [technologies] and for what purposes.” And, it is the human use of technology that makes all the difference, because, as Marx puts it, “Technology, as such, makes nothing happen.”

It is finally a moral and political concern that Marx seeks to register. Speaking of “technology,” he writes:

“We have made it an all-purpose agent of change. As compared with other means of reaching our social goals, the technological has come to seem the most feasible, practical, and economically viable. It relieves the citizenry of onerous decision-making obligations and intensifies their gathering sense of political impotence. The popular belief in technology as a—if not the—primary force shaping the future is matched by our increasing reliance on instrumental standards of judgment, and a corresponding neglect of moral and political standards, in making judgments about the direction of society. To expose the hazards embodied in this pivotal concept is a vital responsibility of historians of technology.”

Altogether, Marx presents the reader with a compelling critique of technological determinism wrapped within an essay that is mostly engaged in the task of semantic archeology. One would be hard pressed to find a more strongly worded defense of human agency in relation to technology, and this is why it is useful to begin with Marx. In the debate between technological determinism and technological voluntarism, Marx compellingly and articulately represents the latter.

To find an equally provocative and rhetorically charged defense of the autonomy of technology we’ll turn to the writing of the late Jacques Ellul. In The Technological System, Ellul insisted on the autonomy of technology which he took to mean that

“… technology ultimately depends only on itself, it maps its own route, it is a prime and not a secondary factor, it must be regarded as an “organism” tending toward closure and self-determination: technology is an end in itself.”

When Marx laments “our increasing reliance on instrumental standards of judgment, and a corresponding neglect of moral and political standards, in making judgments about the direction of society,” we can safely imagine Ellul retorting that this is precisely the work of technology bending society to its own logic.

Ellul, like Marx, was also concerned with the moral and political consequences of his position, and it was at this point that he most vigorously pressed the case for the autonomy of technology. No doubt the state makes decisions about technology, but who, Ellul invites us to ask, are the ones making these decisions? Technicians in the thrall of the technological system. Moreover, Ellul believes that the technological system “does not endure any moral judgement.” Rather, “a moral proposition will not be deemed valid for our time if it cannot enter the technological system and be consistent with it.” Furthermore, according to Ellul, the technological system disrupts traditional morality only then to establish its own governing principles as a new ethic.

Ellul and Marx express two opposing views regarding the relationship between technology and human agency. Their positions stand in conveniently for the opposite poles of a spectrum of opinion. Despite his concerns with the rise of rhetoric which tends to attribute agency to “technology,” popular opinion may very well be on Marx’s side. An NRA style, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” approach seems to hold sway. A “technology made me do it” defense of action would likely garner little sympathy. There is, after all, something powerfully intuitive about the claim that ultimately it is individuals who make choices regarding the use of technology, and that such choices are not coerced. Yet, the rhetoric that attaches agency to technology cannot be wholly dismissed either. That it is so readily employed suggests that at some level it too attains a certain plausibility. It is not unusual to feel as if, against Thoreau’s advice, we are becoming tools of our tools.

And so it was in an effort to explore mediating possibilities that I wrote my earlier post, certainly not as a definitive resolution, but as one way of thinking about technology that seeks to escape the poles of the spectrum.