On “The Role of Technology in Human Affairs”
By Kristopher A. Nelson
in November 2011
400 words / 2 min. In The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Yochai Benkler discusses his vision of the role of technology in historical change. He rejects an overly deterministic vision of technology (which he connects with Lewis Mumford and Marshall McLuhan), but also rejects a view of technology as immaterial to a society’s direction.
Note: this post is from 2011. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.
In The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Yochai Benkler discusses his vision of the role of technology in social change. He rejects an overly deterministic vision of technology (which he connects with Lewis Mumford and Marshall McLuhan), but also rejects a view of technology as immaterial to a society’s direction:
A view of technologies as “tools that happen, more or less, to be there, and are employed in any given society in a pattern that depends only on what that society and culture makes of them is too constrained. A society that has no wheel and no writing has certain limits on what it can do.” (17)
Instead, he adopts a “simple” idea that is “distinct from a naive determinism”:
Different technologies make different kinds of human action and interaction easier or harder to perform. All other things being equal, things that are easier to do are more likely to be done, and things that are harder to do are less likely to be done. All other things are never equal. That is why technological determinism in the strict sense–if you have technology “t,” you should expect social structure or relation “s” to emerge–is false. (17)
To illustrate the point, he describes the different impacts that new ocean-going technologies had on Spain or Portugal (their land ambitions were curtailed by strong neighbors) and China (which focused inland). He also notes how the printing press impacted Protestant countries (where individual reading of the Bible was encouraged) differently than Catholic countries (where “where religion discouraged individual, unmediated interaction with texts, like France and Spain”).
He summarizes his position by saying the following:
Neither deterministic nor wholly malleable, technology sets some parameters of individual and social action. It can make some actions, relationships, organizations, and institutions easier to pursue, and others harder. (17)
In regards to modern networking technologies (like the Internet), he warns:
The same technologies of networked computers can be adopted in very different patterns. There is no guarantee that networked information technology will lead to the improvements in innovation, freedom, and justice that I suggest are possible. (18)