> technology : direction : determined

technological determinism summed up:

"...technology as a driving force of history: a technical innovation suddenly appears and causes important things to happen."
- Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, editors, Does Technology Drive History?, page x

as examples Smith and Marx cite attributing the reformation to the arrival of the printing press, and blaming the civil war on the cotton gin. these are major historical events, and if we think technology stood behind them, then we are surrendering some control we might have once had ourselves, or formerly gave to god.

put that way, it's a mental framework: how do we phrase the world around us, and what does that reflect about our sense of machines?

we talk about human "programming," social "codes," the body is a "machine," everything is "data" - not only have we made technology the agents of change, but we use machine metaphors to identify our very humanity and culture. is that because we have become part of the machine? because we have been (coded) to think in machine terms?

this is the fundamental question of technological determinism - who's shaping who? author Thomas Hughes argues that it is not black and white, but rather a sliding scale according to age and embeddedness of the technology:

"A technological system can be both a cause and an effect; it can shape or be shaped by society. As they grow larger and more complex, systems tend to be more shaping of society and less shaped by it."
- Thomas P. Hughes, "Technological Momentum," Does Technology Drive History?, page 112

he proceeds to argue that we have more control over younger systems. less entrenched technologies are more prone to social construction. once a technological system has human values assigned to it, and the physical underpinings of those values are in place, it becomes increasingly hard to affect change in that system (though not impossible, he mentions, if the system is broken down into component parts or if a range of challengers urge change).

if we consider electric poles, highways, telephone lines, plumbing, interstate trucking, satellite communications all part of the same technological system, then we might say we are dealing with a rather entrenched system. leading a grand charge against it would require a rather broad resistance, more than simply the unabomber and the amish, with a liberal dose of ralph nader.

either that or the system of technology infrastructure is so fragile and subject to failure that it will topple without much deliberate effort. (the day my thesis final draft was due, news came out that a PanAmSat Galaxy IV satellite had lost its orbit, debilitating communications and information for the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Weather Service, Reuters, United Press International, National Public Radio, PageNet (an estimated 90% of paging services - "Wayward Satellite Wreaks Havoc," Reuters/Wired News). doctors could not be paged by patients, payments and withdrawls with ATM and credit cards were stalled, airports and airlines didn't know windspeed or weather predictions. the early news is breathless, describing an unprecedented calamity, a vital communications breakdown. so far little physical damage has been reported however, and older technologies are working backup. so are we screwed here or just inconvenienced?)

fortunately this question of technological determinism can never be fully answered so we are free to weight it as a state of mind. Smith and Marx note how those narratives focus on the consequences, rather than the origins of those machines. similarly we can see ourselves as trapped on machine treadmills when we continue to apply technology fixes to technology problems instead of looking at root causes - we become dependent on new machines to solve the mess left by the old.

hunched over machines
marion zimmer bradley quote

but if we leave behind this boring talk of human responsibility and consider that in our laziness and daring to dream of the ultimate machine we may have nearly created a self-propigating race of robot servants that will soon supercede us. as Mark Dery notes:

"...the mathematician and SF author Vernor Vinge maintains that cybernetic evolution will give rise to a 'greater than human intelligence' between 2005 and 2030, at which point ultra-intelligent machine life will assume control of its own destiny, producing ever smarter progeny at an ever faster pace. The inevitable result, he argues, will be the ascent of a superevolved, technologically enhanced posthumanity."
- Mark Dery, Escape Velocity, page 9

believing Vinge, and seeing our machines of today as the predecessors of the replicants of tomorrow requires a certain science fiction consciousness: imbuing the machine, technology system with a certain consciousness, that it moves forth almost as a supernatural force.

if we make that conceptual leap, we can already say that machines are determining their own direction, and dragging us along with them:

  • the telephone invented by Bell to help the deaf and broadcast symphonies is now a place where "gaddy women chat" ("Useless Chatter," International Herald Tribune, March 30, 1923)
  • the internet invented by the defense industry and academics for scientists to share data is now driving telecommunications networks into development overdrive.

applying Hughes scale here, we might be working still to define technologies and their boundaries, but increasingly our machines demand other machines. considered negatively, we often build as a reaction to fallout from previous inventions:

increasingly our machines demand other machines. considered negatively, we often build as a reaction to fallout from previous inventions:
fallout from abundance:

too much of the rich food and a life of physical ease means we need new anti-obesity technologies: olestra, diet pills.

fallout from pollution/changing nature of foodstuffs:

having the infrastructure in place to make so much wonderful stuff isn't exactly compatible with organic humanity. our products are malnourishing or even poisoning us. so we compensate with other products: vitamins, fortification.

that we manage these problems with technology implies our being locked into a technological society determined: machines demand machines, and we no longer have much say in determining direction, only forecasting coming apocalypses and exciting new software revisions.

giger cyberflesh technology determinism is more sinister when considered in the realms of health. if we use machines to improve our bodies, and those machines demand other technologies, then we are locked in a relationship with the machine that we can not avoid or leave to sustain our lives. we are then true cyborgs - organics and mechanics intertwined such that neither can survive without the other.

tetsuo iron man

"What I was thought when I was making Tetsuo [Tetsuo: Iron Man, a short black and white film from Japan, 1992] was that you can experience euphoria even if you're being raped by the machine. At the same time, there is always this urge to destroy technology, the industrial world. That conflict was going on inside me when i was making Tetsuo- the feeling that i enjoy being raped by the machine but at the same time i want to destrong the things that are invading me, the human being."
- Shinya Tsukamoto, Undated Press Release, cited by Mark Dery, Escape Velocity, page 274

it is this pleasure resulting from the relationship, merging and separation, of human and non-human technological that is explored in utopian scenarios.

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