Leo Marx: Does Technology Mean Progress?

Source: Leo Marx, "Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?". From Technology Review (January 1987), pp. 33-41, 71. As reprinted in Technology and the Future, 6th ed., ed. Albert H. Teich. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 3-14. The following is a summary of Marx's article.

Many people today assume automatically that technology is progress. Still, there is some criticism of this view in America, partially because of 20th century wars and arms races. Marx visited China in 1984, and it seemed as though the Chinese were incredibly optimistic about western technology, and had little sense any problems that technology might create. Where did this idea of technology as progress come from, and where do the roots of distrust of technology come from?

Early Americans like Ben Franklin saw technology as a means to achieving social and political liberation for the masses; it was part of the revolt from authoritarianism. If some technology, especially the factory system, would jeopardize these social and political goals, then that thing isn't worth its price in quality of life and should be rejected.

As America became more industrialized, the new industrialists who had both money and power came to see the technology which they helped produce as an end in itself, or as a means to more purely economic ends. The used phrases like "manifest destiny" and "the conquest of nature" to help justify the increasing forces of technology, even at the cost of the environment or Native Americans, all in the name of "civilization." Technological advancement is seen as advancement, period, regardless of what social and political changes it might bring. There was a great deal of optimism that if we continue to make scientific innovations, the rest--quality of life, and social and political ideals--will take care of itself automatically. The "technocratic" ideal, which sees everything as parts of the machine, began to take control, and humanitarian goals like justice, freedom, and self-fulfillment became secondary. Technology was accepted unquestioningly, and efficiency and scientific progress were the main goals. This is the stage that the Chinese seem to be at, says Marx.

However, there was some backlash from the technocratic view. Emerson, Thoreau, and others questioned whether we were remaking America for the better, and whether we were beginning to almost worship technology. They questioned whether new inventions were "improved means to unimproved ends" (p. 12), and whether we're becoming "the tools of our tools" (p. 12).

However, it was hard to take this too seriously when rapid improvements were being made in the material conditions of life. Today, as we're becoming aware of some of the unintended effects of technology, many people are starting to wonder if technology is always a good thing. Is technology better used as a tool for social and political progress, or is it instead an end in itself? Moreover, can technology cure all of our social and political problems (for example, SDI)? The early notion of progress which saw technology as a mere means to more important ends provided natural limits, and a way of assessing particular pieces of technology. If, however, we view technology as an end in itself, we're not led to ever question its value or place any limits on it. Marx thinks we need to consider what we want our technologies to accomplish. Does technology mean progress? Progress toward what, Marx asks. What are our goals? When we answer that question, we can see that technology does not automatically mean progress toward those goals

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Updated 5-22-97