How Important is the Role of Technology in Social Change

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Excerpted from Rob Lucas:

"In addition to McLuhan, Mumford’s Technics and Civilization was an influence here. For Mumford as for McLuhan, technological developments marked out transformations of humanity itself, enhancing our faculties but altering them in the process. In this argument, what Carr termed ‘intellectual technologies’ in particular—map, clock, typewriter—both augmented our mental abilities and transformed them. Each carried an ‘intellectual ethic’, a hidden norm of mental functioning, that might be obscure to users—and even inventors—yet which shaped them nonetheless. As these technologies entered general use, passing down the generations, their intellectual ethics became ingrained in the structures of human experience, acquired as standard by each individual. The history of technology could thus be read as a history of transformations in the human mind. It was the clock, in Mumford’s thinking, which, by enabling an abstract conception of time, set in play the mathematization of reality and the beginnings of scientific modernity. Similarly, the map enabled an abstraction from the experience of space. For Carr, given what we now know about neuroplasticity, each of these technological transformations must have had implications at a neurological level—though this claim could not be falsified by digging up the brains of our ancestors.

But what might explain the timing of the uptake of technologies? Why, for example, did the water-wheel—already considered a potential source of power in the Roman Empire—only seriously catch on in Europe in the later feudal period? [33] The invention of a technology, that is to say, is not enough to explain its generalization, nor that of any resulting ‘intellectual ethic’. In more technicist, and especially McLuhan-influenced, readings the development of ‘technologies’ such as writing and the Gutenberg press often serves as the explanatory ground for a vast array of phenomena, from the creation of the modern nation-state to the development of an interiorized, reflective subjectivity. But what explains the perfection of the Gutenberg press itself around 1450, and why did its use catch on so rapidly? Many in Europe other than Johann Gutenberg were simultaneously straining at that time to develop a technical solution to the problem of the mechanical reproduction of text. From the end of the 12th century the commercially organized mass-production of manuscripts had advanced apace, fuelled by the development of a reading public around the new universities, and turning out works of literature and romance as well as treatises in law, politics and science, and editions of classical authors such as Aristotle. The Gutenberg press was, of course, invented to solve a specific problem: that of the economical reproduction of text. And this could only be a problem insofar as books were already in demand among a substantial social layer that wanted to read them and was able to pay for them—a demand which was evidently not met by the production of manuscripts. [34]

The Gutenberg press, as Carr is well aware, did not precede or produce the literate subject, but merely facilitated its generalization by making the production of books more economical. Along the way it undoubtedly—through some of its own formal characteristics—exerted an influence on the text it carried, through the standardization of typographical practices and styles, or the page lengths technically viable for printing and binding, for example. It would follow that the reading experience was thereby shaped in significant ways. But there is a tendency in the critique of technology to over-emphasize such factors at the expense of farther-reaching socio-historical explanations. If the history of technology may be read as a history of transformations in the human mind, we need also to remember that there will be many other determinants simultaneously shaping that mind: city life, war, procreation, to name but three. More generally, one would need to look at the extent to which the exchange relation mediates social reproduction; the structure and role of the family; the existence of larger-scale social and cultural formations such as classes, genders, castes or religions; the degree of linguistic uniformity; the formalization of acceptable behaviours as laws or ethical norms; patterns of work and education. Such things must, of course, have had some bearing on the historical generation of the literate individual associated in this tradition with the Gutenberg press. A similar array of factors would need to be taken into account in considering any analogous transformations that may be underway in the age of the Net.

Though his technological perspective has sometimes overreached itself—The Big Switch practically suggested that grid-based electricity could explain the whole shape of 20th-century American capitalism—Carr has not been naive to such matters. [35] Aware that arguments of this kind conventionally call forth accusations of technological determinism, he attempted in The Shallows to head these off with a distinction of levels. At the level of immediate experience—and even sometimes at a social level—humans could clearly choose which tools to use, and how to deploy them; but from a broader historical perspective, technological development must be viewed as having its own logic, for the human race did not volunteer en masse to adopt a technology like the clock, the map, the gun or the Internet, or choose in pristine, abstract freedom how to use it. This did not mean that technologies develop autonomously—the roles of social, economic and other factors also needed to be considered—but it was clear that a new technology, once it began to take hold, exerted a certain kind of compulsion. Whilst this is no doubt true, what is obscured in these qualifications is any sense of the proportional weight of these various factors. Can it be shown that the influence of technology on the structures of cognition is so great as to justify technological periodizations of the modalities of human thought per se? Might not other factors reverse or cancel whatever influence technology might be thought to have, or complicate it to the extent that we would be better served looking for another waymark? Does it make sense, for example, to see the invention of text in itself as marking the end of the era of orality, when epic poets persisted in many parts of the world for several thousand years after and alongside its invention?" (