the blackbox of technological determinism

In “Three Faces of Technological Determinism”, part of the Does Technology Drive History collection of essays, Bruce Bimber distinguishes between three interpretations of technological determinism: normative, nomological, and unintended consequences.

He opens: The idea that technological development determines social change has a remarkably tenacious grip on the popular and the academic imagination. In spite of the best efforts of historians and others to show the relationships between technology and society are reciprocal rather than unidirectional, claims for the autonomous influence of technology on societies persist (80).

He explains the reason for this is that the concept is so flexible, meaning it is used to describe more than one phenomenon. Without nuance, or clarification as to what is meant by this concept, Bimber explains that we are unlikely to determine whether or not technological determinism is a useful lens through which to interpret history (81).

Bimber establishes a base technological determinism against which to test his accounts with emphasis on semantic clarity of technological determinism. Citing the work of Cohen, Bimber lays out that to compare these accounts, the concept of technological determinism must be both technological and deterministic. The phenomena must be determined by preceding events or laws, not human will/agency and technology must play a necessary part in the way that preceding events determine the future (86-87).

Bimber then lays out the framework for his three accounts of technological determinism:

normative account (cultural/attitudinal claim): technology is autonomous and deterministic when the norms by which it is advanced are removed from political/ethical discourse and when goals of efficiency/productivity become surrogates for value based debates over method, alternatives, means, and ends.

nomological account (ontological claim): technology rests on laws of nature rather than on social norms; technology exercises causal influence on social practice. there are two implicit claims: technological developments occur according to some naturally given logic which is not socially or culturally determined, and that these developments force social adaptation and change.

unintended consequences account (no underlying logic): willful, ethical social actors are unable to anticipate the effects of technological development. technology is at least partially autonomous beyond human control.

Against the definition of technological determinism he posits, only the nomological account stands up. Because normative accounts attribute causal agency in the history of technology to human social practice rather than to technology, it fails. The unintended consequences account fails because it amounts to indeterminism; unintended consequences do not justify social outcomes to technology. The nomological account  makes the strongest claim about social change as directly influenced by technology (87-89).

Before apply the nomological model to Karl Marx, Bimber recommends replacing technological determinism with the concept technological momentum (from Thomas P. Hughes) or “the increasing capacity of technological systems to influence societies as those systems grow in size”—there is a reciprocal relation (89).

A Latour detour (making progress without marching forward)

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In “an attempt at a ‘compositionist’ manifesto” Latour argues that we should replace the practice of critique with that of composition. Composition here does not mean to write, but rather to compose or build out of heterogeneous actors. In this connection, the question becomes not whether or not something is constructed, but whether it’s well or poorly constructed. The abstract reads (emphasis mine):

In this paper, written in the outmoded style of a “manifesto”, an attempt is made to use the word “composition” as an alternative to critique and “compositionism” as an alternative to modernism. The idea is that once the two organizing principles of nature and society are gone, one of the remaining solutions is to “compose” the common world. Such a position allows an alternative view of the strange connection of modernity with the arrow of time: the Moderns might have been future-centered but there is a huge difference between the future of people fleeing their past in horror and the “shape of things to come”, that, strangely enough, now appears suddenly in the back of humans surprised by their ecological crisis.

Without going too far into Latour’s essay (though I definitely suggest taking a look at it, particularly his discussion of progress and time), I wonder how his articulation of nature and nature could assist in further in opening up the blackbox of technological determinism, to really account for the actors that compose the two terms.

“What the Moderns called “their future” has never been contemplated face to face, since it has always been the future of someone fleeing their past looking backward, not forward. This is why, as I emphasized earlier, their future was always so unrealistic, so utopian, so full of hype.” (Bruno Latour)

How flat of an ontology is Bimber’s nomological claim? In saying that “technological developments occur according to some naturally given logic which is not socially or culturally determined”, how is Bimber accounting for the technological, the natural, the social, the cultural?


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