I began posting the following quote for future rumination, but it seems that future was immanent:
Technological determinism has a strong version which is obviously false: it’s the idea that technological activities directly cause all other human activities without being influenced by them, and that technology is the sole engine of History. The influence of science over technological evolution these last centuries proves this strong version wrong. But this does not mean that technology is not a powerful force in history in its own right (weaker version of technological determinism). Even this weak version is systematically downplayed, the authors say, in development studies and economic history, in favor of institutional or econmic factors. Technological history anterior to the arrival of European colonizers is typically judged irrelevant.
Comin et al.’s study strongly suggest that it is not: if you take the territory enclosed behind the borders of today’s nation-states, then try to assess what their technological level was back in 1000 BC, 1 A.D. and 1500 A.D., using a digest of development measures resembling indices of “cultural complexity”, or standardised entries in the Human Relations Area Files, you find that the situation in year One is a significant predictor of per capita income and population size in today’s nation states. For some differences in wealth, this is even true of 1000 B.C. technological levels; and of course the tendency strengthens as you reach 1500 A.D. [From a summary and discussion of Diego Comin, William Easterly, and Erick Gong’s “Was the Wealth of Nations Determined in 1000 B.C.?” at AlphaPsy.
Technological determinism is one of the charges leveled against orality-literacy studies. Sometimes it’s a fair charge, but quite often it’s not. The problem is that critics, especially in the humanities, fail to make distinctions between what Oliver of AlphaPsy labels strong thesis and weak thesis accounts of technology. Far too often, if you foreground the role of technology, you’re assumed to be espousing the strong thesis. One reason for this assumption, I think, is that we tend to unconsciously “naturalize” familiar technology, what Ong refers to as interiorization. We all too often assume that if a thing is natural to us, it can’t be a technology because technology is, by definition, unnatural.
So, today, in the humanities, we debate the issue of teaching “with technology” as if one could ever teach without technology. My own personal critique of Ong resides in his assumption that speech is the non-technologized form of the word. The word is always already technologized because language is itself is a technology.1
Good accounts of the role of technology recognizes that technology is but one factor in an ecological system, and that cultures and civilizations are themselves microsystems within a larger macrosystem. But we must also decide what we mean by technology. For many, especially in the humanities, technology is the other, is that which is not us. For someone like me, however, technology is defined by what we do: a stick, used as a lever or as a club or as a walking stick is a technology. For me, the line between technology and the other competing forces in human culture such as institutions themselves are technologies. No system of government is natural: they are technologies of administration and control regardless of whether we created them intentionally or whether they emerged out of local, seemingly natural, conditions. Rituals and stories are also technologies, and it would behoove us to remember this fact.
For me, the question is not to what extent technologies have contributed to and continue to contribute to the human condition. For me, the question is to what extent is the human condition not technological. Basic instincts like the gathering of food, maybe? But how far in that process do we go before we start actively trying to remember what plants taste good and what plants taste bad and what plants can make us sick and what plants can kill us, and, therefore, develop technologies of remembering (mnemonic practices) to help us keep track of what we should and shouldn’t eat? And at what point did we stop thinking of caves as caves and start thinking of them as shelter? Does the very act of using a cave as a shelter constitute technological development? I would argue yes. While some technologies are made and some technologies are found, while some technologies exist as material objects and some technologies exist only in the mind, they are all technologies nonetheless. To quote Walter Ong again, “There is nothing more natural to humans than technology.”
I realize that my definition of technology is sufficiently broad to mean that many animal would be technology users. And what of it? What, really, is the difference between a human’s mudbrick house and the Crested Hornero’s two-chambered mud nest? Why is it that when humans dig tunnels and chambers into the earth we call it engineering and when a ground hog does it we call it nature? Why is it that when we weave a net it is tool but when a spider weaves a web it is nature? Why is it that when we use radiant heat we call it technology but when a snake starts each day on the same sun-warmed outcropping of rock we call it instinct? Because we’re human and they’re not?
Technology is no more the antithesis of nature than it is the antithesis of the humanities. Maybe the fallacy isn’t the belief in technological determinism but the belief that we can separate technology from deterministic forces?2
- This does not mean, however, that Ong believed face-to-face oral speech is unmediated. His own thought is too deeply rooted in existentialist and personalist philosophy, too deeply rooted in Buber’s Ich-Du relationship, to have any such illusions. There is the “I” and there is the “you,” or, as Ong liked to put it: “Total verbal explicitness is impossible.” [↩]
- We should also recognize that one can ask this question and not have a positivist view of technology or believe in a positivistic model of progress. [↩]