30 years ago, the thought of being able to carry a phone in our pockets sounds like a concept more befitting a Science-Fiction film than what society can achieve. Why would anyone buy a mobile phone for the whopping price of 4000 dollars? And yet, 30 years later, the concept of not having a cellphone would seem like an impossible thing to do.
The age of technology has blessed mankind with a range of products and objects that has vastly improved the quality of life, so much that we often disregard the many negative impacts of its usage. It would seem like the utopian dream that places technology at its center would become a reality. Unfortunately, the rise and rapid growth of technology seems to be a victim of its own success, drawing many to question the possible implications that accompany a techno-centric future.
“Techno-Skeptics” believe that the continuous advancement of technology would be detrimental to the future of humankind, as they would “control” humans by the erosion of thinking, as technology would continue to replace more and more tasks normally done by humans. The rapid growth of technology, especially during the 21st century, has sparked more and more concerns about the role of technology in our daily lives.
This “War on Machines”, was explained thoroughly by David E. Nye in his book, “Technology Matters: Questions to Live with”, which we will discuss in this article.
Technological Determinism vs Humans
The definition of technology itself is a long and confusing journey muddled with many different meanings and thus does not have a precise nor proper definition, technology has mostly been used to describe or be related to the many tools and means made by humans to perform certain tasks. While many objects which don’t even use electricity at all such as a hammer or a wrench can be described as a byproduct of technology today it is mostly used to refer high-technology such as computers.
The notion of technological advancements changing the fabric of a society’s cultural values is what historians refer to as technological determinism; that the advancement and change brought by technology creates a set of powerful forces acting to regulate our social activity and its meaning. According to this view of determinism, we organize ourselves to meet the needs of technology, thus the outcome of this organization is beyond our control or we do not have the freedom to make a choice regarding the outcome.
Every day, we are surrounded by technology. Take the humble smartphone, an extraordinary feat of engineering and design, an object that is so integrated with our lives; one we almost can’t live without. Looking back at the reaction of Microsoft during the reveal of the iPhone, it seems ridiculous to reject even the idea of such a device.
While the idea of technological determinism seems natural and inevitable, history would beg to differ. As discussed in David Nye’s book, the story of technological resistance has happened numerous times in many different societies, one of them being the Japanese. The Japanese, particularly during the Sengoku and Edo period, were a very peculiar chapter in the journey of the firearm, as they had not only adopted guns from Portuguese traders, learned how to make them, and grew fond of them for their effectiveness and efficiency, as Takeda Shingen stated “Hereafter, the guns will be the most important arms. Therefore, decrease the number of spears per unit, and have your most capable men carry guns.”
By 1592, the Japanese would appear to be the world’s top fan for the firearm, quite possibly overtaking every single European country for firearm production, and even utilizing them in the Japanese invasion of Korea. In less than a hundred years later, the firearm had seemingly been lost altogether, hardly used with very little traces of the former love for the firearm. Japan had entered the Edo period, and with it came the isolationist policy of Sakoku. The age of Japanese conquest was over, and thus the need for effective weapons for war were over, as well as the love they had developed for it.
The firearm may have been effective, efficient, and far better than the swords and bows the Japanese have used — and yet they deliberately abandoned it. The cause was of course, caused by the absence of needs; there was no war, no conquest, and thus no need for such weapons. There was however, another cause of particular interest: The culture of Samurai.
The Samurai, viewed proficiency with arms to be a form of self-respect. Mastering arms was an important distinguishing mark, due to the long and arduous training to achieve, directly impacting a man’s chance of success and survival in battle. Mastering the sword, the spear and the bow to be a desirable trait for the samurai, contrasted with the firearm, taking far less time to master and having less cultural value as a result. It didn’t help that most users of firearms were farmers, which increased the distaste of guns for the ruling samurai class.
The deliberate rejection of firearms in Japan is a point of particular interest, as it shows that though the desirable traits of a technology could easily conquer a society, it shows the ability of society to resist and even abandon technology itself. However, the Japanese was able to do so due to isolationist and self-sufficiency policies; how would a country in today’s interconnected world do the same?
Momentum Empowers Technology
When prompted with abandoning technologies, we often raise the same question: How would we live without Amazon, without Google, without our iPhones and our cars? There seems to be a point of no-return in technology, when things are just too far gone to be reversed, that society cannot function if said technology were to change let alone be left.
Historian Thomas P. Hughes, developed a theory on how technology could take hold of society, a theory he named Technological Momentum. In Hughe’s theory, when a technology is young, deliberate control over its use and scope is possible and enacted by society. However, as technology matures, and becomes increasingly enmeshed in the society where it was created, its own deterministic force takes hold, achieving technological momentum in the process, and thus becomes hard to control and even harder to reverse.
Technological Momentum is mostly seen in the United States, where development of cities in the West Coast, were tailored for the automobile compared to cities in the East Coast, which were mostly developed before the conception of the automobile. Car-centric or Automotive cities like London and Los Angeles were made to encourage the purchase, ownership and usage of the automobile with freeways and large roads, abandoning rails in favor of roads.
London would then face troubles in redeveloping cities to cater cyclists and public transportation in an effort to reduce congestion, caused indirectly by technological momentum itself, as society itself grew accustomed to automobiles with the British car industry flourishing as it sold more affordable cars.
While Minister of Transport at the time, Leslie Hore-Belisha opened up segregated bicycle lanes in London, it was ironically unappealing for cyclists despite being the majority of London’s road users, as they feared that cycling altogether would be banned from London’s main roads, thus creating a pseudo-class system on road users. These unused cycling lanes would end up being converted into parking spaces, or be integrated with the main road. The rejection of cycle lanes made sense at the time, as cycling was more prevalent in London, segregated lanes weren’t a necessity, but as more and more cars filled the roads however, it soon became clear that London was no longer a city for cyclists.
It wasn’t until the 21st century that London began to evaluate on its car-centric city, and how hazardous cycling has become. As more and more people became cyclists, London began to rethink its increasingly congested road networks, local authorities soon realized how difficult it was to rework London to accommodate cyclist, due to how much of the roads have been dedicated towards automobiles. Although the culture has shifted towards a focus on cycling, technological momentum has made it more difficult to undo the changes. It is however, not impossible, as a combination of bicycle lanes, bicycle-centric policies and a general shift to a cycling centric society has greatly increased the number of daily bicycle journeys in London has increased by 170% since the 1990s, from 270.000 daily journeys in 1993 to 730.000 in 2016.
Sociocultural Values Bends Technology
In understanding the stories of the Japanese and the city of London, we have established two things: First, while technological can be a greatly desired force in society, is not uncontrollable nor is it inevitable. Second, although technological integration in society may make future change difficult, it is not impossible.
Technology may seem deterministic at first, but it’s important to note that any new technology can only succeed in a society that accepts it, for as Kenneth Lepartito stated: “All machines have ramifications for other machines, for the plans of contending actors, and for politics and culture… Technology is not a stable artifact, but a system in evolution, one whose features and functions are up for grabs. Only when a technology is widely adopted is when it gives way to momentum.”
The Japanese’s love for the gun grew due to the sociocultural landscape of the time that was built on war, and fell out of favor when war no longer necessitated them. London’s cyclists, rejected cycling lanes at first but demanded them nearly a century later as sociocultural values on cycling shifted. It’s why the usage of technologies around the world is distinctly diverse as different societies that exist, with some societies even persevering with little or no technology at all.
While many would look at how much time humans spend time on their phones and think that humanity is controlled and perhaps enslaved by it. When it comes to technology, it is always important to know that humans have had, and always will have, a choice.