Technology Essay

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Title: The development of technology is determinative; its expansion occurs beyond the ability of human freedom to curtail it

Contents

Introduction. 2

Overview of Technological Determinism.. 2

Reasons Why Development of Technology is Determinative. 3

Technological Determinism in Historical Context 4

Technological Evolution as Social Progress. 7

Conclusion. 8

References. 9

Introduction

Two sides of the debate on how technology develops have emerged: technological determinism and social determinism. Proponents of technological determinism argue that technology is the core determinant of cultural values, history, and social structure of that society. In this perspective, technology is essentially viewed as the ultimate force governing society. It is assumed that technological innovative unfolds along an inevitable path that in the long run acts as a determinant of social advancement. On the other hand, proponents of social determinism argue that technological development is merely a product of social advancement. This means that technological development is influenced by the society in which it is developed. The thesis of this paper is that technology is determinative, and that its expansion occurs beyond the ability by humankind to curtail it.

Overview of Technological Determinism

            The term “technological determinism” was developed to refer to the view that technology is determinative. Discourse on technological determinism promotes the view that technological changes influence society to a greater extent than all other phenomena. In fact, technology is viewed as the central force around which the post-modern world revolved. It determines the way people define problems and how they seek solutions to these problems. Moreover, technology is at the heart of all aspects of life including politics, class differences, wealth distribution, and international conflict.

            Technological determinism may be traced back to the 18th century when leaders expressed enthusiasm about the power of technology to bring about social change. Thus, it is one of the ideas that emerged during the Enlightenment Era. To begin with, these leaders attributed agency to technology by viewing it as a central historical force. Even those who were critical of technological determinism agreed that technology was a powerful agent of social transformation.

Reasons Why Development of Technology is Determinative

            The first argument that has been raised to explain the determinative power of technology is the simultaneity of technological inventions. Historical evidence shows that there are many examples where two or more simultaneous inventions or discoveries were made by researchers in independent contexts. For example, four observers, including Galileo, separately discovered sunspots during the same year (Ceruzzi, 2005). Similarly, the typewriter was invented separately by investors in America and England. In another example, different scholars discovered the processes carbon stereochemistry, aluminium electrolysis, and liquefaction of oxygen. All these discoveries were made simultaneously within a period of about one month. These examples of simultaneous inventions may be explained based on the idea that technology develops in the context of an existing frontier of knowledge as opposed to a predominantly trial-and-error approach. Although the idea of simultaneity is somewhat impressionistic, the related notion of technological “clustering” suggests that technological evolution unfolds along a determinate rather than random path.  The technological developments of tomorrow will unfold on the foundation of the frontier of knowledge that exists today.

            Perhaps the best example of the determinative power of technology through simultaneity of technological example is that of the development of nuclear technology during the World War II. The different states that were trying to come up with this technology were aware that it would give them a competitive edge over their adversaries. For this reason, all nuclear-related technological developments were closely guarded and shroud in mystery. Nuclear scientists worked independently to develop a technology that would enable them harness atomic energy for the benefit of their respective countries. This need for secrecy created a situation where scientists from different parts of the world worked in isolation but in parallel to come up with the formula for calculating the critical mass that was required to build an atomic bomb. In the end, the invention was simultaneously made in four countries: Germany, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union. This example strongly suggests the invention of the atomic bomb was strongly inevitable.

            The second argument that supports the determinative nature of technology is the idea that technology does not occur in leaps. Rather, it develops in an incremental fashion. Reference to hindsight shows that it is extremely difficult to observe leaps in the emergence of new technologies. Each invention seems to have arisen out of the possibilities generated by the existing body of knowledge.

            The third argument is that technological innovations are somewhat predictable. They tend to fall into place within a more-or-less natural life cycle. Historians can make fairly accurate predictions on the next phase of the life-cycle based on the present and past technological innovations. Researchers normally begin the invention process by claiming that they can do something. They then move on to justify their claims by conducting research that ultimately leads to the new inventions. To ensure that the claims are realistic, they refer closely to the existing body of knowledge and the clues it provides in terms of probability of an invention.

Technological Determinism in Historical Context

            At this point, it is important to look at real-life historical situations in which technology emerged as the all-powerful force that transformed the destiny of the human society. The emergence of the assembly line during the early 20th century provides is a good example of such a phenomenon. The assembly brought about a paradigm shift in the way society operated. Virtually all industrial settings were changed by the application of Frederick Taylor’s discovery of the concept of scientific management (Harris, 2006). As workplace practices, so did entire towns, cities, and entire metropolitan areas. These changes were necessary to enable workers to adapt to new work practices. For example, it was necessary for urban planning policies to be reoriented to facilitate efficient movement of people to factories and back to their homes. This reorientation of urban planning may be said to be the precursor to the modern mass transit systems that are being installed in all mega cities.

            When Frederick Taylor’s scientific management became universally accepted, many social scientists started the search for solutions to the social changes that followed and the new challenges that emerged. For example, Max Weber introduced the idea of bureaucracy to enable organizations to address the new challenges that came with the industrial revolution of the early 20th century.  Taylor’s invention greatly promoted the idea of sustaining and reproducing capitalism. For this idea to be actualized, there was a need for corresponding changes in the way workplaces were managed, hence the emergency of the bureaucratic theory.

            The provisions of bureaucratic theory are a direct response to the reoriented structure of the industrial world. The objective was to optimize efficiency in the way institutions operated, hence the need to focus on rules, specialization, rationality, hierarchical order, and departmentalism. These provisions were conceptualized in a manner that would facilitate problem-solving in industrial settings where Taylor’s principles of scientific management had been put into practice. According to technological determinism, this is an indication that the expansion of assembly line technology occurred beyond the ability by humans to curtail it; the best that they could was to adapt to the new social environment it created.

Another example of technological determinism is the emergence of computer technology. No technological leaps occurred when computers were being invented. In fact, the process of inventing computers lasted many centuries. It was an incremental process that led to the invention of punch cards and calculating machines during the early 19th century, the Cathode-Ray Oscilloscope in the late 19th century, the tabulating machine in 1911, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer in 1943, and the first business computer in 1951 (Chung, 2000). The incremental process of technological development continued until the first desktop computer was manufactured, followed by the laptop computer and most recently, the palmtop computer.

            Today, all aspects of human life are being impacted on by computers. Billions of people across the world are dependent on computer-based communications, including mobile networks, internet technology, and social media. Moreover, existing technologies aimed at harnessing these communicational capabilities continue to change at a fast pace. More than ever before, people are becoming dependent on the internet to buy products, interact, send messages, study, and share information. Two decades ago, few people thought that they would need touch-screen smartphones not just for making calls and receiving messages but also accessing the Internet. This is a clear demonstration of the determinative power of technology that expands beyond the ability of humans to curtail it.

Technological Evolution as Social Progress

            The determinative aspect of technology arises primarily because of its association with social progress. By their very nature, human beings aspire to achieve social progress, and technological evolution is one of the ways through which this progress is demonstrated. This relentless pursuit of technological development as a measure of progress and civilization has triggered a never-ending quest to make improvements on existing machines. Each generation feels obliged to introduce machines that are more sophisticated than those of the previous generation. In this regard, the idea of the inevitability of technological change is religiously promoted.

            As long as people continue to measure progress in terms of techno-evolution, technology will continue being the all-important force that defies all social structures to change the way people live. Moreover, historical eras will continue being defined on the basis of these technological developments. Today, the term “information age” is being used to refer to the present era that is characterized by an unprecedented increase in the use of computers, internet technology, and mobile communications. Other terms used to describe different eras include “atomic age”, “automation age”, “space age”, and “machinery age”. Technological determinists normally promote the use of these terms but social determinists tend to avoid using them.

            The idea of technological evolution also underscores the incremental nature of the changes that occur in society as a result of technological inventions. It is obvious that new technologies never act as full replacements to old ones. There is always a long duration of interplay between new and old technologies, which involves covert shifts in the functions assigned by society. For example, people did not stop listening to radios when the television was invented. Similarly, the “information technology revolution” did not replace the “writing revolution”. Rather, many people continue to exploit the “paperless” capabilities provided by the computer whenever necessary while at the same time writing messages on paper on a need basis.

            Today, many technological determinists view the information technology revolution simply as an advanced stage of the communications revolution. It also viewed as a continuation of the “electronics revolution”, which started with the invention of the telegraph and the telephone. This idea of close relationships among diverse technological eras and revolutions provides a clear justification for the idea of technological determinism. However, technology continues to be widely conceived based on a fixed evolutionary track despite the close association with centuries-old inventions.

Conclusion

            This paper has discussed the idea of technological determinism by highlighting three areas: overview of this theoretical approach, reasons why technological development is determinative, and examples based on historical context. The first piece of evidence supporting the determinative aspect of technology is the simultaneity of technological inventions. Secondly, it is evident that technology does not occur in leaps. Thirdly, technological innovations are somewhat predictable. The examples of the development of the assembly line and the computer demonstrate that the development of technology is determinative, and that its expansion occurs beyond the ability of human freedom to curtail it. This theoretical approach is also validated by the complex sets of relationships among eras and revolutions in regards to technological development

References

Ceruzzi, P. (2005). Moore’s Law and Technological Determinism: Reflections on the History of Technology. Technology and Culture, 46(3), 584-593.

Chung, S. (2000). ERP adoption: A technological evolution approach. International Journal of Agile Management Systems, 2(1), 24 – 32.

Harris, M. (2006). F. W. Taylor and the legacies of systemization. Information, Communication & Society, 9(1), 109-120.

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