S2E6 - Tech: Resistance is Futile (or is it?)


Does technology control history? Or does history control tech? Adam & Chris take sides.

When major technologies hit the world stage, do they upend human history?

There are a couple camps out there in scholarship. But one of the big questions is—how big of an influence is technology on human society?

Tech Controls History (Chris)

The technologies that Chris mentions (partly stolen from Neil Postman Technopoly)

Technology Revolutionizes Leads To
Wheel Transportation
Printing Press Literature
Protestant Reformation (Luther)
Magnet Navigation Christopher Columbus
Colonialism / Subjugation
Global Trade
Smartphone Communication
Knowledge Access
It is well to observe the force and effect and consequences of discoveries. These are to be seen nowhere more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to the ancients... namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet.

For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these changes. -
— Francis Bacon, quoted by Neil Postman in Technopoly

History (Society) Controls Tech

Where Do You Stand?

Here’s the quick and dirty chart:


On one side, you have hard technological determinists, that say that big technologies like the wheel or the printing press or the smartphone have landed on the scene and changed everything. And really everybody was swept up into the wave. Not a lot you could do about it. These have been media ecologists like Neil Postman or Marshall McLuhan among others.

On the other side, you have those that say societies do make decisions about and control what technologies that they use and they don’t. They have examples. This is Social Construction of Technology.

In the middle there are softer positions on each side: “soft determinists” agree that tech has a huge role, but also want to cite other big factors like economics and government and religion. Or or a more nuanced version of “history controls tech” is Social Shaping of Technology. Social scientists like Heidi Campbell think this way with religious communities.

Other Links

The Riddle of Amish Culture, Donald Kraybill

Meaning in Technology, Arnold Pacey

Personal Connections in a Digital Age, Nancy Baym

“You Mean My Whole Fallacy is Wrong” on Technological Determinism, John Durham Peters

Photo by Vladimir Kudinov on Unsplash