Heilbroner_Technological+Determiism+Revisited

Heilbroner_Technolog - Technological Determinism Revisited Robert Heilbroner fi/tm 5MITH" MAM Dots WCH’JOCOG DIME hits rainy?3’ “Do

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Unformatted text preview: Technological Determinism Revisited Robert Heilbroner fi/tm 5MITH " MAM, Dots WCH’JOCOG/ DIME hits rainy /??3’ “Do Machines Make History?" appeared in 1967 in Technology and Culture. Probably written a year earlier, it has now attained senescence by the standards of life expectancy ol'journal articles. 1 must confess that I had assumed it had long ago descended into the Great Limbo that awaits us all. All the greater pleasure. then. to see the article referred to as classic, although these days one is not. certain if that refers to the standards of Cicero or Coca-Cola: more important. all the better reason to reassess its lindings, now that they and I are both a quarter of a century older. The article is an attempt to examine the idea of technological determinism as a powerful force of history—especially the history of large—scale socioeconomic transformations, of which the most impor- tant are the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the evolution of capitalism through its various stages. A great deal of attention is therefore devoted to the means by which “force” is generated in the llow of events through changes in the material basis of social life. and to the kinds of changes that this force effects. Hence. much of the original article is preoccupied with the problems of describing how technology evolves and with the linkages that connect it to social change. These general themes still strike me as constituting the analytical core of the idea of technological determinism. and I shall accordingly devote a small part of this revisitation to a few emendations of and additions to my earlier conclusions. These changes are not of great significance—not because a rereading of my piece convinces me that there is nothing further of interest to be said on the topic, but simply because I cannot think of it. Perhaps for that reason, the aspect that today attracts me to the subject is one that 25 years ago had not yet caught my attention. It focuses on the question of what we take ()8 It. L. I-leil/n'mwr "history" to be, and why we are drawn to a technological mode of interpreting its palimpsest.l That is only metaphor. The substantive probletn is why we might be receptive to such a way of construing history. Here I must risk a generalization. [t is that the attribute of “modern” historit')graphy that most sharply distinguishes it frotn “premodern” (I use the terms to refer to styles, not. to periods) is its treatmetu of the background panorama against which the foreground inquiry takes place. In pre- tnodcrn history, that panorama is dominated by inscrutable forces. In the foreground pharaohs and emperors come and go, city-states rise and fall, good kings follow bad and vice versa, but all the while. behind these adventures and misadventures we espy forces that obey a different causality—the whims of the gods. the dramas ofcosmology and salvationism. or simply the intervention of chance. luck. and the like. “The only thing," writes Collingwood, “that a shrewd and critical Greek like Herodotus would say about the divine power that ordains the course of history is that . . . it rejoices in upsetting and disturbing things.” In sharp contrast. the basic premise of modern historiography is that background forces arise from the saute kinds of processes, and can be approached and apprehended at the same levels of under- standing and explanation, as the objects of immediate scrutiny. This unification of foreground and background is perhaps most strikingly evident in the rise of an “economic” interpretation of history. From its initial eighteenth-ccnttn'y formulations (I think of Adam Fergu- son's Essay on Civil Society) to Marxian materialism, Braudelian strat- ification. or neoclassical choice theory. the halltnark of tnodcrn historical work is an effort to establish liliations between the subject that has been singled otIt for treatment and the background against which the subject is displayed. Wars and political events, the staple I. My dictionary (Webster's New Twentieth Century, 1971) tells tne that a palimp- scst is a "parchment or tablet that has been written upon or inscribed two or three times. the previous text or texts having been imperfectly erased and remaining, therefore, still visible." That is not a bad description of the writing of history. Technological determinism then becomes a prescription for grind- ing ottr lenses, enabling us to make out characters on the parchment that, have not. previously been seen or understood and thereby to write new texts or to read old ones in new ways. 2. R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford University Press, l956), p. 22. 'I‘echnulol‘riml “ttlt‘t‘ntttttt‘flt Reunited 69 subjects of premodern history, are now of interest largely insofar as they embody and concretize background forces such as class struggle and rational maximizing. Indeed, it is characteristic of modern his- tory that the “subject” becomes these very background forces them— selves, and that individual figures or events are studied not so much for their intrinsic interest as to illustrate or instantiate the larger processes that interest the historian. It is here, of course, that technological detertninism enters the picture. Indeed, because modern historiography takes for granted that technology. like all background elements. must perforce pene- trate the narratives of history—writing, the question changes from “Do machines make history?" to “How do machines make history?”—a change that opens the way for definitions, boundaries. and argument rather than for polemics or declarations of faith. Technology and Material Life Let us then look at some ofthe ways in which machines make history on the grand scale that interests us here. One such way comes imme- diately to mind: Machines make history by changing the material conditions of human existence. It is largely machines (here I use the term to denote both individual mechanisms and a general level of technological development) that define what it means to live in a certain epoch—at least, as an economic historian might deline life. Elsewhere in this volume, Rosalind Williams points out that such an economics-oriented viewpoint not only begs serious questions but also establishes powerful agendas. I shall deal with that. problem before I ant done. but it is useful to begin by cot'isidering the intitnate and pervasive engagement of machinery with everyday life. A paradoxical aspect of this interconnection is that the engagement is, at the same time. the most immediately apparent example of how tnachines make history and the least satisfactory example of what we might mean by technological determinism. I shall spend only a few Words on the first part of this assertion. If we wish to study a society unfamiliar to us. the best place to start is by grasping its material life. To understand the historical significance of [Eileen Power‘s peasant llodo, of Mantoux's Arkwright, or of Marx’s Moneybags we tnust first become acquainted with the material circumstances of their lives. In the same way, an understanding of the events of contemporary history takes for granted a knowledge of the technological setting 70 It. L. Hcilbronn‘ that shapes modern-day existence as the mountains and the sea shaped life in the premodern Mediterranean. Yet such study does not answer the question of how machines make history. A recognition that. the tecl‘lnological structure is inextricably entwined in the activities of any society does not shed light on the connection between changes in that structure and changes in the socioeconomic order.’ Of course we would expect that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was profoundly connected with the rise of a new level of technological capability. But precisely what does uprofoundly" mean? That is the question to which technological determinism promises to yield an elucidation, which is perhaps the closest thing to an answer that the question permits. Lacking such an , elucidation, we cannot give any kind of analytic account of the manner in which changes in machines alter daily life. Hence, we may be tempted to depict the u'Ieaning of technological determinism as the ascription to machines of “powers” they do not have. This leads to impressive-sounding but ultimately unsupportable statements. such as Veblen's assertion that “the machine throws out anthropomorphic habits of thought" and Marx's expectation that the introduction of the railway into India would “dissolve” the caste system.4 The challenge, then. is to demonstrate that technology exerts its effects in generalizable ways. If technological determinism is to become a useful overlay for history's palimpsest, it must reveal a connection between “machinery” and "history" that displays lawlike properties—a force held. if we will, emanating from the technological background to impose order on human behavior in a manner anal- 3. The recognition does, however, raise the important question of whether technology is itself a background or a foreground element. The answer depends on what we are seeking to investigate. If our interest lies in the sources of technological change itself, as in .loel Mokyr's book The Lever of Richer (Oxford University Press. 1990), technology becomes the foreground element on whose development impinge forces emanating from the socio- economic background. If the dynamics of social formations themselves lie at the focal point of inquiry, the placements are reversed, and we seek causal factors in the technological background. It is the latter perspective that is normally associated with technological determinism. 4. 'l‘horstein Veblen, The Themy of Business Enterprito (Scribners, 1932), p. 310. Marx front Michael Atlas, lilachinox as the Momma of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies ofWI-stem[)ominmm' (Cornell University Press, “389), p. 240. 'l'cchnological Dctcnninism Revisited 71 ogous to that by which a magnet orders the behavior of particles sprinkled on a sheet of paper held above it or that by which gravi— tation orders the paths of celestial objects. Is there such a force field? It is not difficult to lind candidates for its order~bestowing task. Whitehead credited “routine.” without which “civilization vanishes." Many have located the source of behav- ioral regularity in “human nature." variously described: Hume said that human motivation was a kind of repeating decimal in history.5 For our purposes, what is lacking in these principles is an ability to translate the stimuli emitted by a changing technology into behavioral responses of a predictable kind with regard to transformations of a socioeconomic order. Routine will not serve that purpose; it tells us only that technological change will be resisted, not the form that resistance will take. Human nature fails for the same reason. even when it is reduced to its constitutive drives—aggression, self-preser- vation, or whatever—because we have no way of generalizing about the effects of technological change on these drives or about the effects of changes in the drives on the social framework. What is needed, in other words. is a mechanism of a near-alchenr ical kind. A huge variety of stimuli, arising from alterations in the material background, must be translated into a few well-defined behavioral vectors. There must be a systematic reduction of com— plexity of cause into simplicity of effect, enabling us to explain how the development of new machineries of production can alter the social relationships constitutive of feudalism into those of capitalism, or those of one kind of capitalism into those of another kind. Such a mechanism seems impossible to imagine. What is perhaps even more imagination-defying is that it exists. Economics as Force Field The mechanism is, of course. economics, in the sense of a force field in which a principle of "maximizing" imposes order on behavior in a fashion cotnparable to the magnet and the gravitational pull of the sun. I shall consign to a note the meaning of the vexed term I have put into quotes. For our purposes, it will be suflicient to describe it in Adam Smith's straightft’n‘ward formulation: "bettering our condi~ 5. Alfred North Whitehead. Adventures of Idem (Macmillan, 1933), p. 113; llume, An Enquiry Concerning Min/tan Understamling, section V, part I. 72 R. L. I‘let‘lbruner tion [by] an augmentation of fortune."6 This rottglt-and»rcady description. for which “acquisitive mindset." is perhaps a more precise equivalent. is enough to reduce the varied stimuli of changes in the material enviromnent to well—specified behavioral results. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, economics accomplishes this remarkable feat by ignoring all effects of the changed environment except those that affect our maximizing possibilities. In this way, changes itt technology, like changes in the weather or in our social situations, are depicted as loosenings or tightenings of constraints on our behavior, and these altered constraints are then perceived as changing our actions in sufficiently regularized ways to enable us to speak of “laws” at work in the marketplace or in the enterprise. It is not necessary to discuss whether or not this regularized behav- ioral response can be considered a part of human nature.7 It is enough that the acquisition of fortune becomes a widely noted “rule” of behavior in societies that leave behind the coordinating mecha- nisms of tradition and connnand for those of the market. Thus far in history these societies are. in fact, all members of the general social formation we call capitalism. It follows that economic determinism, and its technological correlate. have relevance only in the capitalist social order. in which, as Marx emphasized. the multifarious world of use values is transmitted into a one~dimensional world of exchange values. In this social order, changes in the technological background are registered in changes in the price system. indicating the directions in which economic activity can most advantageously move and the forms it. can tnost profitably assume. Tlnts the force field of maximizing allows us to elucidate how machines make history by showing the 6. Adam Smith, The Wealth ofNatiuns (Modern Library, 1936), pp. 324—325. Maximizing described in terms of utility does not yield an action—directive capable of sewing as an operational force field, insofar as utility maximization is tatttologous with respect to behavior. Only a Smithian maximization of “fortune” provides the required specificity of response. Fortunately, this appears to be a reasonable description of econotnic life. most departures from the rule being self-correcting. 7. For support of this proposition see Jack liirsclileilet‘, "The Expanding Domain of Economics," American Economic Review (December l985): 53, or Cary Becker, The Economic Approach to Human Behavior (University of Chicago Press, I976). Fora critique sec chapters 1 and 7 of tny own Behind the Veil of Ecmwmics (Norton, [988). Tedmulvgicul Determininn Revisited 73 mediating mechanism by which changes in technology are brought to bear on the organization of the social order. This leads in turn to the possibility of applying an analytic understanding to such large- scale social changes as the composition of the labor force and the hierarchical organization of work, not to mention the dynamics char- acteristic of economic activity as a whole. Determinism as Heuristic This immediater raises many questions and some specters. To begin, the triadic connection of technological determinism. economic deter- tntnism and capitalism does not mean that technology has no effects on noncapitalist society. The stirrup exerted a “catalytic” impact on the socioeconomic organization of Carolingian society, as did the spread of iron weapons from 1200 to 800 it.(:. and the advent of printing in the fifteenth century. The difference is that precapitalist technological impingements do not affect their societies with the "logic" that comes only with capitalism's translation of use values into exchange values. The impact of precapitalist technical change there- fore appears more contingent. less open to systematic elucidation, than when an economic force field guides its applications and con- sequences. We can say many more things about the “path” oftechnical change in the United States in the nineteenth century than about its course in ancient China or the Roman empire.8 Perhaps there are other logics that would enable us to describe the interaction of tech» meal change and social consequence with the degree of predictability and precision that is the very identifying characteristic of econotnics but we do not know them. , Next, I hasten to add that in elevating economic determinism to the rank of a tutelary deity within capitalism. I am not asserting that economics is thereby entitled to assume the rank of the queen of the socral sciences. I believe that what. we call economic behavior is best understood as the sublimated expression of much deeper-rooted elements of "political" and “social” behavior—dominance attd obe- dience—which can, in turn. be traced to the human experience of 8. Compare Ross Thompson, The Path. (0 ll’lechanizcrl Shoe Production in the Umlml .S/alns (Universny of North Carolina, 1989), and chapters 2 and 9 of Mokyr, The Lover of Riches. 74 R. L. Ht'ilbroner protracted childhood dependency.9 Nonetheless, what is important is that “economic” behavior—that is, behavior motivated by the pursuit of exchange value—is set analytically apart from and above behavior motivated by other considerations, because it manifests a degree of orderliness absent. from “political” or “sociological” activities. It may be that politics and sociology contain their own laws—l think of Alphonse Karr's “l’lus ca change. plus c'est la meme chose" and Lord Acton's pronouncements about the corrupting tendencies of power. Unlike economic behavior, however, these generalizations do not give us the translation mechanism of economics, enabling us—to take the present instance—to speak systematically about how machines will bring pressures to bear on socioeconomic formations. Finally, technological determinism does not imply that. human behavior must be deprived of its core of consciousness and respon- sibility. lt avoids this trap insofar as it offers a heuristic of investiga- tion. not a logic of decision-making. As such a heuristic, it presents a premise from which we can initially approach the interpretation of socioeconomic events, not an infamous “last instance" by which we are forced ultimately to resolve it. The premise is that living behavior is not random or chaotic. but marked by undeniable, although impre- cise regularities: “undeniable” because predictable behavior is the basis on which all social life is raised; “imprecise” not only because there are obvious variances in behavior from one social entity to the next, but also because there exists a margin of behavioral indeter- minacy within any given individual. 'l‘cchnological determinism then goes on to posit. that the acquisitive mindset. is a regular and depend- able motive for behavior, at least in market-coordinated societies. Combining this persistent general drive and the margins of freedom characteristic of its concrete expression, we arrive at the formulation of a “soft determinism". which. however paradoxical to the philoso- pher, should present no great. difficulties to the historian. Degrees of Deter-minis": It is time to place these rather abstract considerations into more concrete perspective. Alfred Chandler's recent. survey of American, British, and German capitalism during the period 1919—1948 pro 9. Robert Heilbroner. The Nature and Logic of Capitalitm (Norton, [985), pp. 46—52. 'l‘eclmnlogiml Delenninism Revisited 75 vides a useful case in point.” Chandler’s immediate interest is directed to explaining how the structures of capitalism were shaped by managerial styles that he describes as Competitive (American), Personal (British), and Cooperative (German). These styles, in turn, are shown to reflect underlying sociopolitical elements—what we might. be tempted to call the respective “national characters" of the three nations. Chandler’s important contribution is to point out how these differing responses to a common problem of industrial dynam- ics affected the developmental paths (and today, the development prospects) of the three nations. This is an enlightening means of exploring the relation of tech- nological and economic determinism, and the degrees of hardness and softness of these order—bestowing principles, although I hasten to add that these are my characterizations and not Chandler's. Chand- ler shows how the introduction of high-speed. continuous-run, cap~ ital-intensive machines led to a number of quite different, even mutually contradictory, institutional changes. Here is where techno- logical determinism supplies many elucidations. The first is that. the physical characteristics of the machinery of mass production can be discerned as the material cause of the phenomenon that Chandler is examining. These characteristics are not. however. the efficient cause. That lies in the translation of the engineering consequences of mass production into the economic stimuli of large changes in cost per unit; of production—a translation that makes visible the force field of maximization to which activity is exposed in the market sphere of capitalism. This is the "deterministic" aspect of the elucidation, and if that were all there were to it, we would expect that managements in all industrial capitalisn'is would respond in similar fashion. Now the equally important soft considerations enter, for the dramatic econ» omies of scale and scope can be interpreted as opening new possibil- ities for—or new dangers from—corporate expansion. As Chandler shows. this makes way for a range of institutional responses, each a maximizing answer to the perceived economic situation. In this way. softness combines with hardness to throw analytic light on the dif» ferent ways in which machines can influence the socioeconomic 10. Alfred 1). Chandler, J13, Scale and Scope: The Dynmuicx of Inductive] Capi- talism (Harvard University Press, 1990). 76 It. 1.. I'leillirmier framework. even though all are obeying a common economic imperative. . . . ~ Needless to say, this view of technological determinism is far removed from any kind of mechanical linkage. For instance, even where the specific characteristics of technology give rise to well- delined matrices of inter—industry connections, these linkages .may not guide the course of economic growth if certain “soft” political and social preconditions are absent. Marx seems to have overlooked this possibility in speaking about the consequences of railroadizauon for India: . . when you have once introduced machinery into the locomotion of a country. which possesses iron and coal. you are unable to Withhold it fiom its fabrication. You cannot maintain a net of railways over an immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion and out of ‘WillLll there must grow the application of machinery to. those branches of industry not immediately connected with railways. The railway system Will become, in lndia, truly the forerunner of modern industry.” Here Marx is talking about. the railroad as an apparatus whose back~ ward and forward linkages would eventually force a leap from one level of technological capability to another. Yet historical experience. not least that of India. has shown us that the logic of industrial linkage loses its peremptory force in determining the developmental path of a nation entangled in a preexisting global division of industry. The failure of centrally planned economies to duplicate the performance of capitalist. economies is perhaps even more illustrative of such solt considerations. The history of Soviet industrialization has shown that technology is the servant and not the master ol its assocuited system of sociopolitical directives, and that the use of more or. less identical kinds of lathes, presses, or assembly-line configurations in centralized planning systems and in capitalist market systems Will not |gesult in anything like identical growth paths or performance levels. . Indeed, if there is any substantial recantation that 25 years. of observation has enjoined on me, it is to withdraw my earlier inCIuSioii of "low socialism" along with high capitalism as a setting in which it would be possible to explain, even to foresee, the broad sOCioeco— l 1. From Adas, Machines (13 the Measure of Men, p. 240. 12. See Nikolai Slinielev and Vladimir l’opov, The Turning Point: Revitalizing the Soviet Economy (Doubleday, I989). chImiilogiwl Delennim'sm Roi/Luau! 77 nomic consequences flowing from changes in the machinery of pro- duction. I had assumed that low socialism meant a society that still eiiibraced—and was still embraced by—capitalist-like motivations. In the absence of that premise, the application of technological—and, of course, of econontic—determinism to the developmental tenden- cies of any form of socialism seems extreii‘iely uncertaii‘i. The Bed of Procrustes After so much has been taken away. what remains of technological determinism as a perspective from which we can consider how machines make history. always bearing in mind the socioeconomic meaning we attach to the last word in the question? ' Technological determinism gives us a framework of explication that ties together the background forces ofour civilization, in which tech- nology looms as an immense presence. with the foreground problem of the continuously evolving social order in which we live. The tie between the two is far from definitive, complete. or unambiguous. but it is the only such connection that we can make. As such. it has deep appeals to the modern temper, which recoils from introducing unknowability into the course of events. The deterministic view does not foreclose on a margin of indeterminacy (in some cases a very large margin). but its active search for regularities in. and lawlike aspects to, historical change remains the most powerful unifying capability we have. Whatever compression we may thereby suffer in our conceptions of ourselves as actors in history seems to me far less than would be felt if the very idea of a historic orderliness were shown to be utterly without basis. History as contingency is a prospect. that is more than the human spirit can bear. ~ Even in the most dramatic instances of technological determinism, as when we can trace the socioeconomic effects of the factory. the technique of mass production, or the i‘nodern-day computer, we can never eliminate the soft causal elements that are always present with, and within, those of the economic force field itself. Among these soft elements we must place many volitional elements, including most of what we call political decisions, social attitudes, cultural fads and fashions, and those aspects of maximizing itself in which the agent’s final determination hinges on time horizons, risk aversion, and sim- ilar judgments about which no behavioral generalizations can be 78 It. L. Hcilln'oncr made. Hence the clarifying power of determinism. even at its great- est. must always allow for some degree of uncertainty. This is perhaps only tantamount to saying that our conceptions of "history" cannot embrace either a fully determined or a wholly undetermined narra- tive ol‘ events—a state of affairs that no doubt reveals more about our psychological limitations than about the actualities of historical sequence. whatever they may be. - Rosalind Williams protests that a deterministic heuristic, however sol‘t. involves us in a cramping view ol‘ history’s palimpsest, throwing aside much of its endlessly rich interpretational receptivity in favor of the thin stuff of behavioral “laws” and socioeconomic “forma- tions."‘3 I am very sympathetic to her denunciation of economism as a Procrustean approach to historical understanding. and no friend of the pretensions of economics to be a “universal science."” Disap- proval is one thing. however: disavowal another. We live in a social order in which an economic calculus takes precedence over. and enters into the definitions of, many aspects of life. ln the land of l’rocrnstes. the standards of the innkeeper are those that apply. As long as economics constitutes the most powerful and pervasive moti» vational force, and the only one to which behavioral regularities can be ascribed, a perspective of soft determinism seems to me the one most likely to enable us to grasp the processes of history in which we are entangled. Acknowledgement I would like to thank Ross 'l‘hompson for his extremely valuable criticism. 13. These are my terms of derogation, but I think they catch her drift. 14. See my “Analysis and Vision in the History of Modern Economic Thought," Journal of Economic Litcrotnn' (September l990): l l 11-1113, and "l'ltzonomics as Ideology." in Economics os Discourse, ed. W. Salnttels (Kluwer- Nijhol‘l‘, 1990). R Three Faces of Technological Determinism Bruce Bimber In this essay B ruce Bimbcr takes a different tack than Heilbraner. Specifically. he distinguishes three interpretations of technological determinism—the Nor- mative. Nomologicol, and Unintended Consequences accounts—and develops a sot of criteria. with which to tost the rigor and tho logitinmcy of those interpretations. Among other things, ltimhcr’s strict approach “does not admit such distinctiom as 'hard' and 'soft' detenninzsm.” He argues that only nom- olog'ical accounts are “truly technologically deterministic. ” He tests his model by applying it to the work of Karl Marx and shows that Man: was not a technological determinist. "For Marx, " he concludes. "technology was no more than one kind of important and efficient fuel for history’s human engine." ...
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Heilbroner_Technolog - Technological Determinism Revisited Robert Heilbroner fi/tm 5MITH" MAM Dots WCH’JOCOG DIME hits rainy?3’ “Do

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