"Does Technology Drive History?"

A theme that appears over and over in discussions about technology is whether or not technology is the cause of major social, cultural, political, and economic changes in modern society. Of course, we can find many, many examples of technologies associated with enormous social changes. The automobile, for example, is often spoke of as "causing" a whole array of social changes, from the creation of suburbia, to the development of the fast food industry, to the paving of farm land, to the imported oil vulnerabilities of the 1970s. The popular media is filled with similar examples of new technologies that are going to change everything, from computers to nanotechnologies to new medical devices. And we are often told that we must find ways to accommodate ourselves to these new devices and to the changes they will cause, that we must strive to ride the wave of social flux produced by emerging technologies, or face the dire prospect of being "left behind."

This language and these arguments, whether in the general media or in scholarly analyses, are examples of various kinds of technological determinism, the notion that technology is the most powerful force behind the modern world, that technology "drives" history (Smith, Marx, 1994). Those who support this idea often claim more: technology may well be pushing us in directions we do not want to go, that technology has somehow gotten "out of control."

Technological determinism comes in different forms. For some, such as the late French scholar Jacques Ellul (1965, 1980, 1990), technology is the most powerful force in modern life, moving according to its own logic, and well beyond the control of humans. Others, such as political theorist Langdon Winner (1977, 1986), assert that technology is very influential in making modern life what it is, but that humans still have a wider range of choices about which technologies to develop. Unfortunately, humans do not pay enough attention to the kinds of technologies that are developed and deployed; instead, we seem to be "sleepwalking" into a future we have not considered carefully. But whether as "hard" or "soft" determinists, these commentators focus directly upon technology as a central, even dominant, shaper of society and culture.

Other scholars reject determinism altogether. Instead of technology driving social change, they argue that social forces shape technologies. Often critical of modern, industrial capitalism, scholars such as David Noble (1977, 1984), Thomas Misa (1988, 1994) and John McDermott (1993, 1991) assert that the kinds of technologies we have reflect the different degrees of social, political, and economic power possessed by the sponsors and the opponents of particular technologies. Most often, they say, the group with the greatest wealth and political clout -- usually wealthy industrialists and capitalists -- is able to foist its preferred technologies on the rest of society. And most often, these groups select and sponsor those technologies which work to keep them wealthy and powerful, and to keep others dependent and vulerable. For these thinkers, talk of "technological determinism" is just a smokescreen, camouflaging the real use of coercive power that determines the kinds of technologies we have.

A third group tries to capture the truth found in both these positions. Historian Thomas Hughes (1987, 1994), for instance, suggests looking at technological systems, i.e., complex networks of artifacts, organizations, and people, rather than at individual technologies or at technology-as-a-whole. Technological systems evolve over time, growing more complex and interconnected. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individuals are required to maintain and operate technological systems, such as electrical power grids, nationwide telephone systems, television networks, etc. While the people involved in technological systems do have the power to make choices -- as the anti-determinists claim -- they must make those choices in settings that can impose significant limits on the range of choices available, as the determinists claim. In other words, the control of technology becomes more difficult, and maybe ultimately impossible, as we move from smaller and simpler structures and artifacts toward much larger, complex, and interdependent systems. It is much more difficult to change our minds about technologies after they have developed such organizational shells as multinational corporations or public utilities, and after so much investment has occurred (Collingridge, 1980, Morone, Woodhouse, 1986).

Further Reading:

Collingridge, David. The Social Control of Technology. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Bluff. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990.

------. The Technological Society. New York: Knopf, 1965.

------. The Technological System. New York: Continuum Publishing Corp., 1980.

Hughes, Thomas P. "The Evolution of Large Technological Systems." In The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Dirextions in the Sociology and History of Technology, Eds Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1987.

------. "Technological Momentum." In Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, Eds Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, 101-14. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1994.

McDermott, John. Corporate Society: Class, Property, and Contemporary Capitalism. Interventions: Theory and Contemporary Politics. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991.

------. "Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals." In Technology and the Future, edited by Albert H. Teich. 6th ed., 89-107. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Misa, Thomas J. "How Machines Make History, and How Historians (and Others) Help Them to Do So." Science, Technology, & Human Values 13 (Summer & Autumn 1988):308-31.

------. "Retreiving Sociotechnical Change from Technological Determinism." In Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, Eds Merritt Roe Smith and leo Marx, 115-42. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1994.

Morone, Joseph G., and Edward J. Woodhouse. Averting Catastrophe: Strategies for Regulating Risky Technologies. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1986.

Noble, David F. America by Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1977.

------. Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Smith, Merritt Roe, and Leo Marx. Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1994.

Winner, Langdon. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1977.

------. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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