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Does Technological Change Shape Historical Change?

Musings on Technological Determinism, Ontological Design, and the Making of History

Chris Neels
Feb 11 · 5 min read

In the opening passage of Do Machines Make History (1967), Robert Heilbroner argues that technology has a direct bearing on the human drama of history—but it does not make all of history. The challenge he identifies is whether something systematic can be said about the matter. In this piece, I briefly evaluate the degree to which technological change shapes historical change. I leave discussion on reasons why technologies change for other debates—instead focusing on the effects of technology, irrespective of their determinants. I suggest that while historical change depends on more than just technology, technology plays an unignorable role. Technology expands the range of actions for history-makers, exerts political influence (whether reflecting or independent of the intent of its makers), and can invite a cascade of further technological change.

FRAMING OF TERMS

Before covering the arguments for and against technological change shaping historical change, I start by laying out a working definition of terms. Technological change encompasses any changes to assemblages of technology within a society. This means looking at not just innovation and invention, but also maintenance, repair, remodelling and reuse (Edgerton 1999, 120). Doing so considers the full range of differentiability to technology that could drive history. For instance, the invention, operation, and “disinvention” of concrete around the Roman Empire are of equal interest. Meanwhile, I limit discussion on historical change to large-scale socioeconomic changes. Considering social and economic factors at this level of granularity focuses our attention on substantial, generalizable conditions of human experience.

HOW TECHNOLOGY SHAPES HISTORY

The first argument for the influence of technology is a common one. If the configuration of technologies in our lives influences our material conditions, then it stands to reason that changes to these technologies alter the conditions in which we live. As technology shapes our biological and physical environments, it can even shape how we live together socially (MacKenzie and Wacjman 1999, 2). For instance, growing economic prosperity in the post-War period would not have been possible without advances in industrialization attributable to electrification and automation. While such technology did not cause socioeconomic changes like rising women’s educational attainment[1] per se, it did establish the requisite economic conditions that afforded changes to social conditions. MacKenzie and Wacjman (1999) used White’s attribution of feudalism to the stirrup to illustrate that technology affords, but does not cause, historical change. The stirrup “caused” feudalism amongst the Franks but not Anglo-Saxon England, suggesting that changing technology is intermeshed with politics, culture, and economics in how it changes history. Thus, technology matters to history because it expands, or constrains, the array of choices available to actors.

Technologies can also possess political qualities, which exert a “gravitational pull” on history as the scale of the technology grows. Winner (1980) showed how technology can be built to dictate the political values of its makers, as seen through the Moses low bridges that restricted buses used by poorer demographics from passing through. Technology need not determine our behaviour; it can also be designed to invite certain behaviours. For instance, the design of the Bakelite rotary telephone intuitively communicated how people should communicate for nearly a century. Its sculpted form spelled out exactly where it should be held, how it should be spoken into, and how users should listen (Sudjic 2009). Similarly, the main screen of the dating app Tinder features yet-to-be assessed potential mates instead of conversations with already-made matches, inviting users to participate in a perpetual search rather than engage in prolonged conversations. When Tinder became widely used, it instituted a slot machine dating culture. Each change to the design of a technology influences how society engages with it and, by extension, the broader world.[2] Makers exert historical influence by controlling the characteristics of artefacts that people interact with.

Winner also showed how technologies can require new social conditions to create and maintain them. Society makes Faustian bargains like receiving affordable goods in exchange for highly specialized roles that mass production technologies require. To the degree that trade-offs required by technology are made, history can shift to new socioeconomic equilibria. As much as technology can be argued to reinforce the status quo because it’s constructed within the social constructs of that time and place, their altered equations of costs and benefits can, consciously or unconsciously, buck existing orders.

Yet, the weight we place on technologies generally may be too generous, for some impact history more than others. Most “technologies” might be deemed insignificant by historians; those that are truly epoch-making are rare. Yet, there is the odd technology that spurs more technology. Whether they follow an “internal logic” is irrelevant. What matters is that technology can not only expand the range of social choices to people, it can also expand the options to develop technology itself. For instance, transistors can be followed by computers, which enable networks, applications, cloud services, and countless other technologies. These self-recursive patterns are not a source of historical change in themselves, but they do magnify the aforementioned technology-induced social changes.

CONCLUSION

Technology has effects on history. While historical change is ultimately driven by people, changes to technology alter the array of choices they can make, their material conditions, and the politics exerted upon them by both man and machine. The medium is not the message, but it is a catalyst for historical change. Recognizing that technology can be a strong co-determinant of future socioeconomic configurations strengthens, rather than weakens, the attitude that social agency should be placed over technology. Better understanding the qualities of socio-technical systems of change today may be the most productive way to shape how history will be written in the future.


[1] Along with its related effects to marriage, fertility, and employment (Tsuya 2001).

[2] As Winner (1980, 127) put it, “the things we call technologies are ways of building order in our world.”

REFERENCES

  • Edgerton, David. 1999. From innovation to use: Ten eclectic theses on the historiography of technology, History and Technology, an International Journal, 16:2, 111–136, DOI: 10.1080/07341519908581961.
  • Heilbroner, Robert. 1967. “Do Machines Make History?” Technology and Culture 8, №3 (July 1967): 335–345. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3101719.
  • MacKenzie, Donald and Judy Wajcman. 1999. “Opening Essay” in The Social Shaping of Technology: Second Edition. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
  • Sudjic, Deyan. 2009. The Language of Things. London, UK: Penguin Publishing.
  • Tsuya, N.O. 2001. “Fertility Transition: East Asia.” International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (2001): 5575–5578. https://doi.org/10.1016/B0-08-043076-7/02136-7.
  • Winner, Langdon. “Do Artefacts Have Politics?” Daedalus 109, №1 (Winter, 1980): 121–136. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20024652.
  • Wyatt, Sally. 2007. “Technological Determinism is Dead; Long Live Technological Determinism.” The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies: Third Edition. Edited by Edward J. Hackett, Olga Amsterdamska, Michael E. Lynch, and Judy Wajcman. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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