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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...
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