Kranzberg’s Six Laws of Technology, a Metaphor, and a Story

Dr. Melvin Kranzberg was a professor of the history of technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the founding editor of Technology and Culture. In 1985, he delivered the presidential address at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in which he explained what had already come to be known as Kranzberg’s Laws — “a series of truisms,” according to Kranzberg, “deriving from a longtime immersion in the study of the development of technology and its interactions with sociocultural change.”

I’ll list and summarize Kranzberg’s laws below, but first consider this argument by metaphor. Kranzberg begins his address by explaining the terms of the debate over technological determinism. He notes that it had become an “intellectual cliche” to speak of technology’s autonomy and to suppose that “the machines have become the masters of man.” This view, which he associated with Jacques Ellul and Langdon Winner, yielded the philosophical doctrine of technological determinism, “namely, that technology is the prime factor in shaping our life-styles, values, institutions, and other elements of our society.”

He then noted that not all scholars subscribed to “this version of technological omnipotence.” Lynn White, Jr., for example, suggested that the technology “merely opens a door, it does not compel one to enter.” This is a compelling metaphor. It captures the view I’ve taken to calling “technological voluntarism,” technological determinism’s opposite. Technology merely presents an opportunity, the choice of what to do with it remains ours. Yet, while working with an element of truth, this view seems ultimately incomplete. And by pursuing the open door metaphor itself, Kranzberg suggests the inadequacy of a view that focuses too narrowly on the initial choice to use or not to use a technology:

Nevertheless, several questions do arise. True, one is not compelled to enter White’s open door, but an open door is an invitation. Besides, who decides which doors to open-and, once one has entered the door, are not one’s future directions guided by the contours of the corridor or chamber into which one has stepped? Equally important, once one has crossed the threshold, can one turn back?

Those are astute and necessary questions, and all the more evocative for the way they play off of White’s metaphor. These questions, and the answers they imply, lead Kranzberg to the formulation of his First Law: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” By which he means that,

“technology’s interaction with the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves, and the same technology can have quite different results when introduced into different contexts or under different circumstances.”

Here are the remaining laws with brief explanatory notes:

Second Law: Invention is the mother of necessity. “Every technical innovation seems to require additional technical advances in order to make it fully effective.”

Third Law:  Technology comes in packages, big and small. “The fact is that today’s complex mechanisms usually involve several processes and components.”

Fourth Law: Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions. “… many complicated sociocultural factors, especially human elements, are involved, even in what might seem to be ‘purely technical’ decisions.” “Technologically ‘sweet’ solutions do not always triumph over political and social forces.”

Fifth Law: All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant. “Although historians might write loftily of the importance of historical understanding by civilized people and citizens, many of today’s students simply do not see the relevance of history to the present or to their future. I suggest that this is because most history, as it is currently taught, ignores the technological element.”

Sixth Law:  Technology is a very human activity-and so is the history of technology. “Behind every machine, I see a face–indeed, many faces: the engineer, the worker, the businessman or businesswoman, and, sometimes, the general and admiral. Furthermore, the function of the technology is its use by human beings–and sometimes, alas, its abuse and misuse.”

There is a good deal of insight packed into Kranzberg’s Laws and much to think about. I’ll leave you with one last tidbit. A story recounted by Kranzberg to good effect:

A lady came up to the great violinist Fritz Kreisler after a concert and gushed, “Maestro, your violin makes such beautiful music.” Kreisler held his violin up to his ear and said, “I don’t hear any music coming out of it.” You see, the instrument, the hardware, the violin itself, was of no use without the human element. But then again, without the instrument, Kreisler would not have been able to make music.

You can subscribe to my newsletter on technology and society here:  The Convivial Society.