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Beam Me Up, Jack Me In

What are the important differences between technological determinism and (technological) instrumentalism? Does either of these theories provide a convincing account of the role of technology in the modern world?
Picture completely unrelated, yet strangely enthralling. Provided courtesy of A Tribe Called Möw

Image utterly unrelated, yet strangely enthralling. Courtesy of A Tribe Called Möw.

Intention

The intention of this essay is to offer a contemplative description of each theory, whereafter an analytical comparison can be made in assessment of the advantages and disadvantages each contributes to the understanding of technology in the modern world. At last I shall posit my own personal suggestion as to how a synthesis of the advantages offered by both could be made.

 

What is technological instrumentalism?

Optimists hold that technology and its products are value neutral; technologies are passive tools which can be used for good or evil. If technology is sometimes used improperly and causes harm, the fault lies with its human operators and developers, not with the technology. As the proverb goes, ‘It is a poor carpenter who blames his tools’ (Tiles and Oberdiek, 1995, p.12).

Technological instrumentalism is the view that technological artefacts – and even technology itself – are value-neutral. That is they hold no intrinsic political function inherent in their mere existence. As such technology takes on the role of being an extension of human will, which enables human beings to choose using it for better and for worse. Thereby it becomes compellingly tempting to view technology in terms of enhancing human potency.

The perspective is that of utility and empowerment perhaps even with an underlying dream of mankind ultimately conquering the brutality of nature by mastering its secrets. An example might be the invention of a tool like the scythe, providing the empowerment for faster and more efficient harvest for the betterment of the whole community. However, the view also bears with it a heavy burden; namely that of responsibility. The utility of the scythe, for instance, lies solely in the intentionality of the wielder, who at leisure might use it as a tool for producing food for the greater good or as a weapon for great harm.

However, such sinister prospects are commonly brushed aside by the fact that, in general, most people believe in the goodness of human nature. Therefore, even though it is not a necessity, technological instrumentalism is most often coupled with the stance of optimism – as evidenced by Tiles & Oberdiek in the previously mentioned quote.

Seen in this light technological progress will be something to strive for with the prospect of perhaps some day creating the perfect future. A technological utopia where all of man’s mundane basic needs are met as a matter of triviality, thus freeing him to pursue the finer virtues of life. A classical example in popular culture would be the vision of future society as seen in the TV-series Star Trek (Rodenberry, 1966 – )

What is technological determinism?

What we have seen is that the development of ever more powerful technologies does entail great risks that this technology may be put to destructive use. […] It is for this reason that pessimistic critics of technology talk about technological systems and technical practices (techniques) rather than about devices. They see these systems as embodying values beyond those which are evident in selection of the ends intended to be achieved by technological means. The instrumental criterion ‘efficiency’ masks the presence of those values. If efficiency is a measure of the ratio of costs to benefits, how costs and benefits are counted becomes crucial; costs to whom, benefits to whom and of what type? (Loc. Cit., p. 21)

It is difficult to characterise the determinist view without simultaneously contrasting it with that of the instrumentalist. It can be argued that instrumentalism naturally precedes determinism in that thinking of technology as determined to an outcome beyond human control emerges from the ever-increasing complexity and systemisation of technological products and the abstruseness of their infrastructure. After all, a hunter-gatherer, who just created a flint-axe is not likely to think that it controls him.

The determinist view is not necessarily that any singular artefact holds any intrinsic political value – although a strong case could be made for the personal computer or the cellular phone – but that with technological artefacts and the framework of interaction between them becoming steadily the backdrop of our daily lives, human beings themselves have become part of technology. Cogs in the machinery as it were.

Pessimists […] tend to treat technological systems as part of the reality within which people live and work; indeed technological systems constitute this environment by functioning to create and sustain it (Loc. cit.).

The classical examples are that of office and factory workers having no choice but to work in accordance with the standards set by their respective machines and the technological environment (Ibid, p. 22). However, to return to the example of the scythe one might easily imagine a scenario wherein it was decided to pour resources into the improvement and production of scythes for increased efficiency and benefit. Yet, a crucial question raised by determinism would be whose benefit we are speaking of – efficiency to what ends? Advancement in the quality and quantity of scythes is not likely to be of any significant benefit to a carpenter. Therefore, even what initially seemed like such an obviously instrumentalist unit could – if seen in a broader context – easily become a deterministic, politically value-laden privilege of one group over another.

The perspective is the consequences of implementing a specific technology into the context of which environmental systems already exist. Therefore – again without it having to always be the case – technological determinism is commonly coupled with pessimism. Not because human beings are necessarily incompetent or prone to use technology for harm, but because they themselves are part of the big technological machinery, which mercilessly grinds its own capricious course into the unforeseeable future.

Seen in this light technological progress will be something to be critical, wary, and extremely cautious of at the risk of inadvertently making a wrong turn into a dead-end alley with no means of turning back from a future in technological bondage. A technological dystopia, where mankind has become enslaved in a spider-web of his own devices. A classical example in popular culture would be the vision of future society as seen in the film The Matrix (Wachowski, 1999).

Important Differences

Since the superficial differences of the two theories should be fairly self-evident by their descriptive features alone, I shall rather focus on an analytical comparison of what I propose would be the advantages and disadvantages in understanding the nature of technology through the lenses of each perspective.

Instrumentalism, unlike determinism, places the responsibility of technological advancements and its consequences squarely in the lap of humanity. However, it does so at the possible risk of ignoring the profound far-reaching and unforeseeable implications technological changes might impart upon our social norms. The advantage is personal accountability and responsibility, the incentive to initiate improvement, and an aversion towards stagnation.

Determinism, unlike instrumentalism, raises awareness to potential dangers and unintentionally malign complications that uncritical acceptance of new technologies could cause. However, it does so at the cost of individual autonomy and at the risk of stunting an experimental approach to the introduction of new technologies, which might have yielded unpredicted benign results. The advantage is critical thinking, a greater understanding of the holistic whole, and an aversion towards naivety.

Since both approaches have both advantages and disadvantages, instead of opting for a single one, I propose a synthesis.

Conclusion

Why must the choice be between optimistic instrumentalism or pessimistic determinism? Why could it not be symbiotic realism? We should not adopt changes uncritically but neither should we halt change entirely and indefinitely. We should not think of technology as a mere tool but neither should we think of it as a leash. Holism and reductionism are different perspectives of looking at the same subject and neither approach provides a complete understanding in itself.

It is my contention that we ought to think of the relationship between mankind and technology as a symbiosis and make use of instrumentalism and determinism in accordance with their realistic applicability in any given circumstance.

I think Isaac Asimov sums this kind of relationship between continued progress and reflected decision-making thereof beautifully in the following passage:

It is change, continuing change inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the word as it will be – and naturally this means that there must be an accurate perception of the world as it will be. This, in turn, means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our Everyman, must take on a science fictional way of thinking, whether he likes it or not or even whether he knows it or not. Only so can the deadly problems of today be solved (1999).

It is my contention that a sensible understanding of technology in the modern world requires that we think of human beings controlling technology and technology controlling humans in turn as being equally true.

There’s a misconception that a movement in any direction is progression (Germaine Williams, 1995).

Acknowledgements

My girlfriend, Ása Johannesen, deserves thanks for providing helpful comments.

Bibliography

Course handout:

LECTURE 3: Conflicting visions of technology

Books:

Tiles, Mary and Oberdiek, Hans, ‘Conflicting visions of technology,’ in Living in a Technological Culture. Human Tools and Human Values (Routledge, 1995, pp. 12-31) COURSEPACK

Asimov, Isaac, ‘My Own View,’ in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Holdstock, ed., (London: Octopus Books, 1978, p. 5)

Films:

Wachowski, Larry and Wachowski, Andy, The Matrix (Hollywood: Warner Bros., 1999)

TV-series:

Rodenberry, Gene, Star Trek (USA: 1966 – )

Musical albums:

Williams, Germaine, ‘Poet Laureate II,’ track no. 11 on Rip The Jacker, (New York: Babygrand Records, 1995)

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3 Responses to “Beam Me Up, Jack Me In”

  1. A-minus says:

    I believe a device is just that, a thing, but nothing remains “value neutral” in the hands of a human. It’s created for a purpose, used for a purpose, perhaps abused for another, and most importantly in my mind, marketed to others as some sort of solution to a problem (whether or not the person. Which creates this web of associations with every single item (>get – scythe)

    I guess my point is, I actually worry more about the degree of effort companies now put into controlling the image of their technologies, and the effect this has on people’s choices and use of tech, than I do about the technology itself.

  2. A-minus says:

    oops… above, meant to write (whether or not the person knows he/she has this problem yet).

  3. Thank you for your comment and extremely kind review, A-minus. Yes, you are right. Technology in the context of marketing is also very much relevant. I hadn’t thought of that. Obviously companies will encourage a particular way of thinking about their product, which might stifle our critical thinking.

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