Friday, November 13, 2009

Technology is Neutral

An eccentric way to illustrate the truth of this assertion is to point out that science is not what makes “science fiction” interesting. It’s always the story, stupid, and it matters not what the wrapper is, be it sword and sorcery, politics, a medieval setting, a cowboy tale, or the siege of Troy and its great Wooden Horse. The story is always about people.

Years ago, in one of my then endless pursuits of technological change, I chanced across a most revealing academic work, Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change. It is an absolutely fascinating work. It deals with the stirrup, horsepower, crop rotation, protein generation—and how these innovations influenced the physical environment and therefore society.

Reading that book I realized another important truth about technology. Unlike social structures, which cycle—ever recurring, ever decaying, but not really advancing in any meaningful sense—technology is cumulative and progressive. Once invented and proved useful, it will persist. The Incas had not invented the arch. But we now see that form of architecture (notice the etymological link in that word) everywhere in the world. And it won’t go away. Forms of social organization, a kind of technology for controlling people, tend to cycle. Physical technologies—in contrast with human organizational forms—benefit from the persistently uniform behavior of matter. Democracy controls that much more volatile element, free human entities; therefore it recurs in endless forms when conditions favor it and then deforms, decays, becomes unrecognizable, eventually unworkable, and gives way to other recurring forms of rule that then fit the times better again.

I stress the neutrality of technology but, having written this much (writing reveals what is deeper in the mind) I realize now that all I’m saying is that matter is neutral. Technology, after all, is just a tooling for managing matter. What maintains technological knowledge is the unchanging relationship we have with matter, and exactly the same relationship regardless of the ideological structures that guide our thought. Therefore it is in no one’s interest to neglect those things that happen to be universally useful.

I got into this subject today thinking of modern modes of communication: mail, telephone, e-mail, Internet (in general), blogs, and social networks. The underlying technology (of late) is the manipulation of electromagnetic currents and states, their transmission, storage, and manipulation using computers. And the underlying human motives that have lifted this technology into the useful category are two-fold: one is that communications connect the separated; the other is that people seek and value attention. The two are closely linked, of course. All of these manifestations have negative and positive aspects. Mail also means junk mail, telephone also means the automated nuisance call, e-mail also means spam, blogs can and often do communicate hate, and social networks, while they connect, can also distract.

It’s one of our modern fetishes to assign values to neutral mechanisms that, in themselves, carry no values at all. Or, perhaps, to make the point more explicit, these mechanisms are tools—and tools are one half of a whole. The tool user is the other half. Technology also has an inherent value. It is the knowledge of the toolmaker that it embodies, a superior knowledge of how the material world behaves. I hate technology only when it stops working properly. The indifferent, thoughtless, or exploitive uses of technology—why, that’s the story, the fiction part of “science fiction.” And there we must look at ancient concepts like original sin and not speak ill of that steady, never-changing innocent, other we call Matter, and its handmaiden, Technology.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, a classic topic. I appreciate the reminder of the title of Lynn White's book on the history of technology and how that history has impacted society. You've mentioned it many times and I look forward to reading it one day.