11.0252 technology personified

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Sat, 30 Aug 1997 08:47:27 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 252.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Sat, 30 Aug 1997 08:40:09 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: "technology"

Leo Marx, Emeritus Kenan Professor of American Cultural History at MIT,
reviews two books on technology in the current TLS (4926, for 29/8/97),
Kirkpatrick Sale, <cite>Rebels against the future: The Luddites and their
war on the Indistrial Revolution</cite>, and Robert McC. Adams, <cite>Paths
of fire: An anthropologist's inquiry into Western technology</cite>. Marx is
not happy with the former and somewhat dissatisfied with the latter, but his
own views, which consume most of the article, are at least worth our

Marx makes two rather important points in "In the driving-seat? The nagging
ambiguity in historians' attitudes to the rise of 'technology'", or so it
seems to me. The first you can guess from his title. "'Driven by technology'
is one of the more revealing stock phrases in the fin-de-siecle lexicon of
public affairs", he begins. "Just about every major trend these days -- the
restructuring of the global economy, rising productivity, the population
growth, the information revolution, the world-wide dissemination of American
media culture, climate change, the accelerating rate of species extinction
-- is said to be 'driven by technology'. The causal efficacy of
technological innovation is an all-purpose explanation of the direction, and
the rate, of social change. Technology, on this view, is assumed to be a
discrete entity, a virtually autonomous agent and the primary driving force
of contemporary history."

Out of this mental state of affairs Marx draws his two points: "It is a
hazardous concept not only because, like all reified abstractions, it
tacitly refers to a complex set of human relationships as if it were a
determinate object, but also because 'technology', by virtue of its close
identification with artefacts (tools, devices, machines), is particularly
susceptible to reification. The word becomes problematic, it should be said,
primarily when used as the subject of an active verb, as in today's stock
media plaint, 'Where is technology taking us?' In this usage, human history
is assumed to be a sequence of transformations, each keyed to a major
technological innovation, by means of which Homo sapiens has acquired a
unique power over nature.... [T]he tacit projection of the concept of
technology back into prehistory -- as if tracing a direct line from
automobiles to stone tools -- is deceptive. During all but the last very few
seconds, as it were, of the ten millennia of recorded history... that
concept did not exist.... It is odd... that so many scholars who were, or
should have been, sensitive to the distorting effects of anachronism (I
include myself), have for so long casually projected the concept of
'technology' back into a past, and into cultures, in which neither the word
nor the phenomenon to which it refers was known."

The problem Marx raises is not only the blinkered view so prevalent today (I
also include myself, for it is very difficult not to speak the current
tongue), it is also a source for a fascinating and very important insight
into changes in our mental life. "From a cultural historian's viewpoint, the
emergence of a pivotal word -- whether newly coined or an old word invested
with significantly different meaning -- is invariably a marker of
far-reaching changes in society and culture."

Let me stop here (although there is much more I am tempted to quote) with a
literary critic's observation on Marx's venture into the syntax of the
problem he identifies, which occurs in language "when ['technology' is] used
as the subject of an active verb". When so used an abstraction is
personified, made not just into an "autonomous agent" but to some degree
into a person, or to put the matter psychologically, into an image of
ourselves, which often means into a self-image of what we fear. The human
tendency to anthropomorphise the natural world would appear to be
irresistible, which with an alert mind we can perhaps avoid the evil
consequences of. As Northrop Frye used to observe, we have this habit of
treating a human invention (such as the book or the wheel) as if it were an
autonomous device (thus the Book of Life or the Wheel of Fortune) and so
enslaving ourselves to it. Our current psychomachia is, it would seem, with
the personified abstraction "technology" or the physical computer, which is
very often what is meant by that abstraction.

As Humanists this is our topic?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
e-mail: Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk

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