I’ve never really been happy with my January 19, 2007 post on orality-literacy studies and technological determinism, and a couple of things I’ve read recently have made me want to return to the topic. I still think the distinction between strong and weak theories of technological determinism is important and helps us understand why charges of technological determinism in orality-literacy studies all too often miss the mark. (That is, critics often fail to recognize a distinction between the models of weak and strong technological determinism, therefore assuming that accounts of technological development operate under the strong model. On the other hand, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the questions I asked about what is and is not technology and the distinctions we make between humans and animals, even when I wrote them, but that’s not what I want to address here. Rather, I want to consider orality-literacy studies and technological singularities.

I first started thinking I wanted to blog about this issue again while at MLA. As I usually do when traveling, I brought along some science fiction to read. Of late, I’ve been focusing on short story collections as they’re easier to dip in and out of (finish a story and you can set aside the collection and return to it months or even years later), and I’d picked up Charles Stross’ Toast, in large part because it has the short story “A Colder War,” which extrapolates Lovecraft’s Mythos into the Cold War.1 It wasn’t “A Colder War” or any of the stories, however, that got me to thinking about this post. Instead, it was the collection’s introduction, titled “After the Future Imploded.”

In it, Stross writes:

The sheer speed with which change swept over the twentieth century, bearing us all towards some unseen crescendo, was a tonic for the imagination. Science fiction wouldn’t have flourished in an earlier era—it took a time of change, when children growing up with horse-drawn carriages would fly around the world on jet engines, to make plausible the dreams of continuous progress that this genre is based on.

But the pace of change isn’t slackening. If anything, it’s accelerating, the coming century is going to destroy futures even faster than the last one created them. (9)

One of Stross’ points in this introduction, which I can’t quote since my book is about 1,000 miles away at the moment, is that cultures reach points in their development (singularities) at which there is no return without tearing the whole system down. (The interiorization of literacy, I’d argue, is one of those singularities, and so too the interiorization of numeracy.) We can move on from that point in history, but we can’t return to the pre-singularity state without apocalyptic consequences because the singularity radically reshapes the whole of the culture. A singularity means more than that, however.

Specific technological developments not only open us up to possible futures (and singularities), they also close down (implode, to use Stross’ term) other possible futures. Technologies, whether found or invented or physical or mental, come with specific affordances and constraints, and those affordances and constraints channel future development. You can fight them, resist them, hack them, and even abandon them, but those affordances and constraints mean that their (personal and cultural) interiorization does set you on specific paths, it sets limits on the possible futures you can have. And the interiorization of certain technologies—not all technologies mind you—are so complete in their reorganization of a culture that they invoke a singularity, a point of no return, a point where we can not conceive of a world without that technology without much difficulty.2

And that’s where technological determinism comes in. Because a technology’s affordances and constraints afford us certain possibilities and constrain other possibilities, they set us on certain paths, certain futures. Proponents of strong technological determinism look at the past and declare that Technology A meant that Future Y had to happen, that the future (our present) was inevitable. Proponents of weak technological determinism, however, recognize that we always have possibilities, but those possibilities are channeled/shaped/structured by other possibilities, that there is no one determined future but a set of possible futures made both possible and limited by the technologies we adopt. (Recognizing at the same time, of course, that these technologies are but one part of a much larger matrix of human culture and civilization.)

When someone like McLuhan or Ong describes what happened in the past to get us where we are now, they can appear to be engaging in a strong deterministic model because they don’t focus on the branches we could have followed but one the path we did follow.3 When we read someone who explains that X lead to Y, we need to recognize that this does not necessarily mean that they are arguing that X had to lead to Y (strong determinism), but that Y was one of the possible futures resulting from X and just happens to be part of the future we followed. Likewise, when providing accounts of technological development, we need to remember to not fall into the strong model fallacy, even when there really was only one possible future.

  1. “A Colder War” is not part of Stross’ Bob Howard-Laundry books, I should note because that’s what I thought it was going to be. I’d like to know for sure, but my guess is that “A Colder War” provided the genesis for the Bob Howard books in the same way Pratchett’s Strata provided a genesis for the Discworld series. Atrocity Archive, the first Bob Howard novel, got me hooked on Stross, and his novel Accelerando, which I read during Computers and Writing last year, sealed the deal. Accelerando‘s vision of a post-singularity future involving uploaded consciousnesses (including a group of California spiny lobsters); nanotech assemblers reconstructing and deconstructing, among other things, said uploaded consciousnesses; computronium; matrioshka brains; and routers from a long-past galactic empire circling brown dwarfs–all concepts I was familiar with–was so powerful and novel that I literally had weird dreams every night I read some of the book, I finally decided to finish it off in a marathon read. []
  2. Of course we can imagine a world without a specific technology, but only to a limited extent. To put it another way, how would the world be different without you? To simplify this thought experiment, let us consider one question: how would the future be different if Catherine Kassner had been placed in your Second Grade class rather than Mrs. Landcaster’s class because you didn’t exist? What social networks might have formed and not formed that year because of your absence from the school and Kassner’s presence in the one class rather than the other class? Might Tonya Jones and Kim Woo not have died on the night of Feb. 24, 1991 because they were at a wedding that night rather than driving home from that Iron Maiden/Anthrax/Public Enemy concert? You see, from the get go it’s not just the possibilities shut down by your absence that we have to take into account but the possibilities opened up by your absence as well, along with the possibilities those differences both open up and shut down, as well as the possibilities those possibilities open up and shut down, and so on. And therein resides the problem, how do you go about understanding all the possible effects, all the ripples and interconnections, one person or one event or one technology has in the vast ecology/network we call human culture? How do you take it all into account so that you can say that you actually understand what it means to not have that person, event, or technology? []
  3. Terry Pratchett, in his Discworld series, refers to the “trousers of time,” which is an apt metaphor. When we look into the future, we look into the trousers of time from the waist end, thereby seeing multiple pants legs, but when we look into the past, we are looking into trousers of time from pants leg, giving us the illusion that there was only one possible path. []