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Technological Determinism

A visit to a world's fair after the mid-nineteenth century proved that the "machinery question" had been practically answered by the tremendous increase in the number and kinds of new machines. With the interconnection of machines into networks (of transportation, energy, communication, and so on), the term technology started to obtain a new meaning. In doubt by then about machinery inexorably dictating a better society, Marx liked the new term enough to correct his earlier editions of Das Kapital by carefully distinguishing between the "technical" and the "technological," according to whether the same process was experienced as an objective, product-making process or a subjective, value-forming one, respectively. Unlike the technical, the technological was subjective in that the revelation of the surplus value produced depended on political prerequisites. Technology, like surplus value, was a concept that pointed to an unspecified agency. Technology has since been recognized by its effects, whereas the issue of agency has remained conveniently abstract. In surveying the subsequent history of the use of the concept, Leo Marx, a distinguished historian of technology, finds that its abstractness has sustained the hegemony of the ideology of "technological determinism," the assumption that technology is autonomous from society.

Technological determinism matches well with the canonical presentation of the archetypal engine of Watt as being self-regulated because of the inclusion of a mechanism known as the "governor" (the foundational circuit of "cybernetics"). It was this ideological canon that was displayed at world's fairs, not, for instance, a diorama of the lethal steam boiler explosions that killed thousands. Historians have found that the dominance of technological determinism explains the many waves of technological utopianism and technological enthusiasm of the recent centuries. It explains why the late-nineteenth-century crash of the utopian hope that the telegraph would bring world peace was not taken into account in the enthusiasm that surrounded the initial emergence of the telephone, the radio, the television, and, more recently, the Internet. It also explains why the dramatic revelation of the destructive power of the atomic energy in Hiroshima was quickly followed by the hope that a nuclear reactor to run everybody's automobile was just around the corner. It finally explains why Leo Marx finds that technology has emerged as a "hazardous concept."


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Aristotle Tympas

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Swim bladder (air bladder) to ThalliumTechnology - Technocracy, Technological Determinism, Bibliography