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This was a homework assignment for VA309: Philosophy and Politics of Technology at Rose-Hulman

What's Pushing Technology?

Are we in control of our technological development, or is it controlling us? Chapter 2 of Autonomous Technology by Langdon Winner discusses several views of what pushes technology forward.

The first view Winner describes is that of technological evolution. This hypothesis assumes -- nay, begs the question -- that humanity is not able and willing to stop technology, and argues that in this case, the technologies are evolving, growing more complex, and filling new niches. Human beings merely pass technics down to the next generation, while the technology itself grows and grows and grows exponentially. This is often shown by the simultaneous independent invention of several technics by separate groups, such as the invention of differential and integral calculus by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. If one doesn't make a breakthrough, his contemporaries will inevitably figure it out. This phenomenon is, unfortunately, _not_ recognized by United States patent laws. Yet.

Some say the development of technology is deterministic. Any technology brings about a division of labor, which focuses inventors' minds on one aspect of a technology, which lets them create a new technic, which brings about a new division of labor, ad infinitum. We are born into this division, and we are all but powerless to escape it. This creation of division can influence the culture in such a way that it creates new human needs; for instance, until soap was mass-produced, there was not as much perceived "need" for cleanliness as there is today. Once we're locked into the system, do we really have a choice?

Some would argue that we do have a small amount of choice in some matters. However, decisions have both intended and unintended consequences. New technologies shape the lifestyle in unforeseen ways, such as changing the supply of a natural resource. These consequences can be bad, but they can also be good; some decisions are made with respect to their "unintentions" as much as their intentions. The element of chaos drowns out any control we may appear to have over the development of technology, producing a technological drift toward complexity.

Finally, technologies depend on other technologies' restructuring of their environments. Once a method of satisfying a basic need (food, water, clothing, shelter, or sex) is chosen for us, all the technologies it depends on must be developed, and likewise all the technologies that depend on it, and so on recursively down the line. (Remind you of RPMs?) For example, mass production of (say) clothing requires a steady supply of huge quantities of energy, which requires an infrastructure to deliver goods, raw materials, and energy. The imperative of the chain reaction leads to a forward push in technology.

The theories of technological drift and the dependency imperative seem to take into account the most factors without discounting free will at the outset. They describe well what is happening to the state of the art. I see no major fallacies in the reasoning.

      Copyright © 2000 Damian Yerrick.
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