Home > Uncategorized > The technological bright blue yonder?

The technological bright blue yonder?

from Peter Radford

One of the greatest shifts subsequent to the rise of machinery and industrialization is the social acceptance of apparently  never-ending technological change.  A change, moreover, that we are told will inevitably lead us all towards an improved, more prosperous, healthier, and happier existence.  That this future cannot be precisely determined or known to us is set aside, we simply accept the drumbeat of change and presume the rest.

Or at least that’s one view.  How else to explain the great contrast between the social reaction to new technologies back at the onset of industrialization and our contemporary reaction?  The one was tempestuous and riddled through with hostility, questions, and counter-attack by the workers affected by the introduction of the first machines.  The second simply elicits a resigned acceptance, confusion, and highly muted criticism by the workers affected by the latest wave of automation.  No one nowadays wants to be labeled a “luddite”.  No one wants to appear opposed to advance.  No one wants to question the efficacy of the decisions made by our latter day innovators and self-styled “disruptors”.

We have become inured to technological change.  Far from being an exciting frontier-extending aspect of life, full of promise and allure, technological change is now a routine, almost humdrum, background noise.  Our lives are unsettled by comparison with our ancestors.  Our traditions have very short shelf-lives.  And our expectation is that how we live today is not how our children, let alone our grandchildren, will live their lives.   Our culture, in other words, has taken on board fully the narrative that technology is always on the march and that we will have to adjust to accommodate it, no matter how awkward that accommodation might be.

Technological determinism is, of course, one of those topics that gets academics highly exercised. It’s a bit like the very idea of the industrial revolution.  Was it a revolution? Was it just an acceleration?  Or was all that change simply a continuum unworthy of note?  Does technology alter society? Or does society create the fertile ground for new technology?

Either way, I think it’s pretty clear that our attitudes towards technology and its seemingly endless changes is a great deal different from that of a generation living through early industrialization.

There was an excellent little book of essays published back in the early 1990s titled “Does Technology Drive History?”.  It included Robert Heilbroner’s provocative 1967 essay “Do Machines Make History?”, but that essay was not the first in the book.  That honor went to a short piece written by the historian M. L. Smith titled “Recourse on Empire” which explores the cultural significance of technological change in the U.S.  That essay begins thus:

“One of the social effects of technological change is that it prompts cultures to wonder where they are heading.  In the United States, generations of leaders and pundits have mistaken technology for the answer, rather than the question.  The artifacts of technological innovation — electric lights, automobiles, airplanes, personal computers — have come to signify progress, as well as ever-receding goals toward which we are said to be progressing.  In countless ads and speeches, twentieth-century Americans have been asked to visualize the future as a succession of unimaginable new machines and products.”

In the subsequent paragraphs Smith uses two iconic illustrations drawn from publications. separated by about ninety years to demonstrate the way in which we have been educated to think about technology and its possibilities.  The first, from 1868, creates an expectation of boundlessness, of adventure, and of an unknown future filled with expectation.  The second is the very different.  Drawn in 1952 it extrapolates from an almost unknown past and draws the eye into the future past a steady parade of images drawn from the era of industrialization.  It doesn’t point out into the unknown so much as out into the prospect of endless invention using icons that would have been well known at the time such as atomic and industrial symbols in association with imagined end products such as space travel and what appear to be sleek modes of transport.  The first was filled with an arrogance of belief and purpose.  The second with an arrogance of accomplishment and endeavor.  Together they trace the triumphalism of our embrace of technology.

As Smith says at the outset, relentless technological advance causes us to wonder were we are headed.  Towards some sort of technological nirvana were the rigors of physical labor are the province of machines and we are left to indulge in short workweeks and luxurious leisure — was Keynes predicted in his famous essay on the topic?  Or towards some dystopian trap where we live in a world of constant surveillance and authoritarian imposed toil mediated by anonymous algorithmic overlords.

Probably neither, but it gives pause to wonder.  Especially since pretty much every major new technology has brought with it unintended consequences that its inventors never imagined would exist.  Few, for example, would have predicted the environmental impact of the internal combustion engine.  It took time to realize what that was.  It will take as long to resolve the consequences.

One of the major questions that hangs in the air when we speak of innovation follows from such consequences: who gets to decide which direction invention takes?  Who gets to decide which technologies get propagated throughout society?  It was the enormous social upheaval brought about by the industrial revolution that forced into being the modern concept of democracy as a way for those who are affected to press back against those who determine what gets invented.  The owners of machines have bridled against the restraint ever since.  The power struggle between capitalism and democracy ebbs back and forward as the owner-disruptors and the consumer-workers balance their competing interests.

Right now the disruptors are winning.  They are imposing a new array of technologies that are upending the workplace and redefining work itself.  They are doing so unimpeded by social or political resistance.  They are exploiting our too ready acceptance of new technologies as being a social benefit.  They are living out the Schumpeterian vision of “creative destruction”.  We are unsure of what they are creating, but what they are destroying is much more immediately known.

Why should we put up with this?  Surely the illusion of a technological nirvana is too easily refuted given our knowledge of the environmental impact it has?  What is our social and political recourse?   These are our lives being changed.  We have a right to determine how those lives are organized.  Don’t we?

Later in his essay Smith recounts how Wernher von Braun, the renowned rocket scientist, responded to a question put to him while he was before a Congressional committee.  Braun was explaining the allure of the unknown and its impact on “scientific progress”.  He said:

“People are just curious … What follows in the wake of their discoveries is something for the next generation to worry about”

Really?  Have we not learned to be a bit more circumspect than that?

And, if democracy is our foil against unmitigated power held by the owners of the machines, how do we adjust it to hold fast in an age of constant technological turmoil and disruption?  Especially if their technology gives them insight into what, how, or when we think.

  1. A.J. Sutter
    April 22, 2021 at 4:40 pm

    The von Braun quote sounds as if it was scripted by Tom Lehrer, one verse of whose famous song goes:

    Don’t say that he’s hypocritical
    Say rather that he’s apolitical
    “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
    That’s not my department!” says Wernher von Braun

  2. Ken Zimmerman
    April 27, 2021 at 7:41 am

    A fundamental error is embedded here. It incorporates a “remarkably widespread wrong idea” that science is rigidly distinct from and supersedes technology in historical importance. Our 21st century perspective too often prompts us to think of technology as “applied science,” a notion based on the simplistic assumption that scientific theory has always been a precondition of technological advance. Historically the opposite has more often been true: Although technology and science have always been strongly associated endeavors, it is technology that has driven the growth of scientific knowledge. The beginning of science, to paraphrase Goethe, was not the word but the deed-not the proclamations of brilliant theorists but the creative handiwork of ordinary people.

    As technologies develop and become more sophisticated, the scientific knowledge generated at earlier stages is continuously incorporated into subsequent practice, and in that sense, technology can indeed be said to exhibit the character of “applied science.” The relation is one of cumulative mutual reinforcement, with the initial impulses coming from the technology side. Until the last few centuries, the process of gaining knowledge of nature (obviously also of society) has generally been more a product of hands than brains; that is, of empirical trial-and-error procedures rather than theoretical application. “Science,” archaeologist V. Gordon Childe declared, “originated in, and was at first identical with, the practical crafts.” Social Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss dismissed the notion that any of the “great arts of civilization”–pottery, weaving, metallurgy, agriculture, and the domestication of animals—could have come about as a “fortuitous accumulation of a series of chance discoveries.” They provide evidence, he argues, that Neolithic humans were “the heir of a long scientific tradition. Each of these techniques presumes centuries of active and methodical observation, of bold hypotheses tested by means of endlessly repeated experiments …. There is no doubt that all these achievements required a genuinely scientific attitude, sustained and watchful interest, and a desire for knowledge for its own sake. For only a small proportion of observations and experiments (which must be assumed to have been primarily inspired by a desire for knowledge) could have yielded practical and immediately useful results. “The crafts first uncovered aspects of nature upon which philosophies were later to be built,” and they remained the primary wellspring of nature-knowledge through the ages. Science progressed in the early modern era-that is, from about 1450 through 1750-through analysis of the inventions and innovations produced by artisans, many of whom were illiterate. In the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, practical advances came first, and theory followed along behind-usually far behind. This relationship persisted through the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century. Not until well into the 19th century, with the mass production of chemical dyes and the advent of the electrical industry, were the long-anticipated hopes of major technologies based on theoretical science finally realized in any significant way. And even in the 20th century, artisans were still capable of momentous scientific contributions.

    In 1903-the era of relativity and quantum theory it was not theoretical physicists, but two bicycle mechanics named Wright who gave the critical impulse to the science of aerodynamics. It was only with World War II and the Manhattan Project that theory began generally to lead the way in scientific discovery.

    Rigidly separating the histories of science and technology serves to reinforce the fallacious notion that science arose from the realm of pure thought, floating in the clouds above the world of mundane human pursuits. An undistorted picture of the development of modern science requires recognition and acceptance of its entanglement with technology, often to the point of the two not being recognizable as distinct entities.

    • Robert Locke
      April 27, 2021 at 8:42 am

      Sience-induced industries like those deveped out of Liebigs organic chemistry, don’t follow your logic

      • Robert Locke
        April 27, 2021 at 8:47 am

        Germans gave us Technik. Something different.

      • Robert Locke
        April 27, 2021 at 9:09 am

        The late Ian Glover observed that “in Anglophone countries, two cultures, the arts and
        sciences, are recognized” (Glover, 2013). But a pejorative distinction is made in both cultures
        between “fundamental” research and applied science, that is, for example, physics is studied
        in the prestige universities as a “fundamental” science, engineering treated as an applied
        science for the less brilliant and gifted. Nomothetic neoclassical economics in the two-culture
        environment assumes the mantle in the elite universities and business schools of
        “fundamental” research.
        Glover went on to note that [in Germany] rather than two cultures there are three: arts
        (Kunst), science (Wissenschaft), and Technik, which he defines as “the many engineering
        and other making and doing subjects, representing practical knowhow (Können),” but also
        including by the late 19th century scientific knowledge (Wissen). Glover’s point is that we
        cannot find Technik in Anglosaxonia, because it is not part of their approach to knowledge.
        Mine is that the culture of Technik provided a broader milieu in which engineers and business
        economists in late 19th and 20th century Germany could integrate the work world than that
        provided by reformed U.S. business school education. Nothing illustrates this better than the
        way German engineers and business economists reached out to each other after the turn of
        the century.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        April 27, 2021 at 9:24 am

        Robert,you must admit that Liebigs’ life experiences and admission into the academic way of life and his professorship do not follow a normal theotician’s path. I believe Liebigs is actually an illustration of the view I express of the working out of science and the scientific lifestyle.

      • Robert Locke
        April 27, 2021 at 10:31 am

        German academic way of life was different. They conceived of knowlege as a becomming driven by work in seminars. See my The End of the practical Man, 1984.

      • Robert Locke
        April 27, 2021 at 10:46 am

        See Peter Borscheid, NNaturwissenschaft, Staat und Industrie in Baden, 1848=1914. Borscheid’s study show oranc chemistry more scientifically than industrially induced.

      • April 27, 2021 at 4:06 pm

        ““in Anglophone countries … engineering [is] treated as an applied science for the less brilliant and gifted”. Yes, but worse than that. The likes of Faraday, Heaviside and Shannon are discounted as engineers despite advancing fundamental science in order to be able to make practical progress.

      • Robert Locke
        April 28, 2021 at 7:33 am

        Wissenschaft is the German language term for any study that involves systematic research. The term is sometimes roughly translated as science, although Wissenschaft is much broader and includes every systematic academic study of any area, for example, humanities like art or religion.[1] Wissenschaft incorporates scientific and non-scientific inquiry, learning, knowledge, scholarship and implies that knowledge is a dynamic process discoverable for oneself, rather than something that is handed down. It did not necessarily imply empirical research.

        Wissenschaft was the official ideology of German universities during the 19th century, and it led to the development of the modern research university.[2] It emphasized the unity of teaching and individual research or discovery by the student, the Einheit von Lehre und Forschung. It suggests that education is a process of growing and becoming.

        Technik is the 3rd science, which deveoped in chemistry in German universities, in trchnische Hochulen and Handelshochule, the innovative new 19th-20th century educ. sectors.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        April 29, 2021 at 10:25 am

        Robert, research is about answering questions, no matter how framed or topic. Some even just speculation. This is not an ‘objective ‘ endeavor but involves all aspects of human ‘being.’ Humans are in every sense ‘involved with research. And have been creating research since Sapiens evolved. Humans have thus been doing science their entire history on earth. At least some Germans seem ‘in touch’ with this history.

      • Robert Locke
        April 29, 2021 at 10:59 am

        Ken, how people do research varries by national culture. That is what I unstood doing comprative histories of 19th cebtury education. I;m not making this up. If one says there are 3 knowledge cultures iin Germany, if one says Wissenschaft is notscience as Americans unstand it, or that Technik in Germany operates on a broader spectrum there than in anglo-saxonia, it is not only difference of importance but something I have spent 50 years figuring out.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        May 1, 2021 at 11:51 am

        Robert, you’re the expert on German culture. I accept your insights. In the USA knowledge is more likely to reflect ethnicity, region, and in limited aspects class. And of course one’s job or profession also has a large bearing on both knowledge structure and content in the USA.

  3. Ken Zimmerman
    April 28, 2021 at 1:03 am

    Andrew Pickering, physicist, sociologist, cheese expert sums up how I see science in the introduction to his book ‘Mangle of Practice.’ “Here, however, it might be fruitful to follow a different path, starting with observation that I found The Mangle a difficult book to write. My difficulty with the book, and my interest in it, lay in the unfamiliarity of the analysis of scientific practice that I was developing, an unfamiliarity that condensed around two key ideas: that the analysis should be a posthumanist one, as I called it, and that it needed to come to grips with temporal emergence.

    The first idea stemmed from my conviction that any convincing analysis of scientific practice had to be decentered, relative to both human actors (scientists and engineers) and nonhuman ones (material instruments and machines). We need, I argued, to think of scientific practice as an open-ended, reciprocally structured interplay of human and nonhuman agency, a dance of agency, in the process that I called mangling. The second concept—temporal emergence—signaled my conviction that mangling has a truly evolutionary character, rather than a causal one. Just as it is impossible to predict what sparrows will become in the future, so it is impossible to predict or explain fully what the contours of human or nonhuman agency will turn out to be in scientific practice.”

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