Determinism

It is one of the main topics in cultural understanding of technology. In this perspective, technology is represented as the key driver or governing force of the main social changes and values. One of the first formulations of this view of social development came from the German philosopher Karl Marx (who considered transitions to the feudal system or to the capitalist system as determined by particular technologies such as the hand-mill or the steam-mill). His conception was embedded in his philosophical premises, in those that assume that all major transformations in the social superstructure and in the cultural practices depend on the material conditions. Technological determinism assumes that all patterns of social existence are conditioned by technical factors. Nevertheless other versions of this theory reject this vision of explaining social change and development and stress a distinction between two approaches: technology as a necessary and sufficient condition, and technology as a necessary but not sufficient condition (soft determinism). Technology then supplies opportunities or occasions to a social transition but it would be a matter of discussion that material factors were the unique cause of the transformations alluded to. In the following lines we reproduce a fragment of Karl Kautsky’s paper “Nature and Society” (December, 1929), where the autor, a revisionist of Marxist orthodox interpretations, expresses the inadequacy of a strict technological deterministic position.

Technology by itself, however, does not suffice to explain the entire working of society. One must not understand what I just said to mean that the same mode of production and the same form of society always and under all circumstances correspond necessarily to a certain technology […] I specially emphasize the difference between technology and the economy and that different economic formations can be linked to the same technology […] A large-scale enterprise can assume different economic forms that are independent of its technology: it can be the enterprise of an individual capitalist or of a corporation or of the state or of a workers’ cooperative. How a particular technical apparatus is applied at any one time depends not only on its technical characteristics but also on the nature of the society in which it appears […]

A knowledge of a particular technology is not sufficient for our understanding of a particular form of society. But it is always technical innovations that provide the impetus for a movement of the society. What is new in society is in the last analysis always traceable to a new technology that produces new economic conditions and social relations. In society and its economy there is no moving force through which it could by itself continue to develop without the impetus of technical innovations […]

[“Natur und Gesellschaft”, Die Gesellschaft, (Berlin), vol. 6/2, No.12 (December 1929), pp.481-505, publ.: International Journal of Comparative Sociology XXX, 1-2 (1989)]

The acceptance of a strict technological determinism implies that technology is out of human control; that progress is inevitable; that every culture follows the same developmental path, and that technology is neutral. Melvin Kranzberg discusses the latter assumption in the statement presented as his first law of technology: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral”, which condenses the idea that technology has numerous social, moral, ecological consequences that go beyond its most immediate scope and applications. Present times provide us examples of alternative versions of technological determinism. Just to mention one case, this mentality is assumed in the projects intended to improve third world socio-economic status through the deployment of technologies that facilitates free access to information (internet).

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Acculturation

The concept refers to the process of assimilation by one culture of the material practices of another group, or to how a culture has to reshape in order to accommodate technological practices together with its own values (order, causal sequence, functionality, efficiency, uniformity, utility, motion, energy, speed…). A quotation from a representative example of a scholarly work will shed light on the use of this perspective to understand the meaning of technology in particular social contexts. The text is focused on the USA culture from the second quarter of the XVIIIth through the XIXth Century. In the preface, the author John F. Kasson offers a general account of what it is assumed to explain the place of technology in a cultural framework (Civilizing the Machine. Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900 (Nueva York, Hill and Wang, 1999, orig. 1976)):

The problem upon which this study concentrates –addressed on various levels from the Revolution throughout the nineteenth century- is the meaning of technology for a republican civilization. The precise terms of America’s republican ideology were never firmly fixed. Quite the contrary, in its very fluidity, republicanism formed the subject for intense debate from the moment of the Revolution onward, ranging between conservative warnings of an excess of democracy and egalitarian complaints of its inadequate fulfillment. The rapid development of machine technology and the process of industrialization as a whole altered the context of this discussion and fundamentally tested the country’s republican commitment on a number of levels. As Americans reflected upon the proper place of technology in a republic, they were compelled to articulate the kind of civilization they desired for the nation. They had to re-examine their conceptions of the entire social order and determine how best to maintain social cohesion and purity. Concern for social consequences of industrialization sparked renewed consideration of the degree of social opportunity and the meaning of egalitarian principles in a technological society. Technology raised equally vital questions for the imaginative and cultural life of the nation. New machinery and modes of communication enormously expanded the range of human perceptions, but they also threatened to dull the individual conscience and creative spirit. As technology dramatically reshaped the physical environment, it also transformed American’s very notions of beauty and raised critical issues of the proper art form for a republic. By the closing decades of the nineteenth century, these and related concern swelled to a climax as the future of republicanism in a technological age appeared hedged at once by millennial hopes and bitter doubts.

Processes of adaptation, integration and assimilation of cultures, and how they affect individuals and practices, are classic topics examined in the fields of psychology, anthropology, and sociology. These studies provided us with valuable models, like the one purposed by the psychologist John W. Berry (reproduced below as a version of the graphs included in his paper “Acculturation: living successfully in two cultures”, International journal of Intercultural Relations, 29, 2005, 697-712), which might be of great utility for the understanding of the meaning conferred to technology by a minority or a dominant group. Also related to this concept are the terms westernization and cultural assimilation.Berry's acculturation model

Transmission of knowledge

Transmission of knowledge refers to any method, explicit or implicit, used to transmit knowledge related to technology. According to this, we can differentiate between formal and informal transmission of knowledge. In the first group, the most common process is education. In the second one, the possibilities are wide open, and include exhibitions, museums, news and references in newspapers and magazines, images, art and symbolic representations, etc.

A very important aspect in both of them is tacit knowledge, which can only be acquired through experience, when using technological objects. According to Herschbach, “A large part of tacit knowledge cannot be transmitted through written or oral form. It is personal knowledge, it is subjective knowledge, and it is immediate and specific knowledge. Tacit knowledge is primarily learned by working side by side with the experienced technician or craftsman”.

Finally, when taking into account the process of transferring technologies it’s also important to pay attention to the fact that we also transfer cultural values, and that “there is no such a thing as an all-purpose context-free tool”. As stated by Díaz-Canepa,

“Currently, there are two main approaches in the field. Some researchers favor a normative strategy that emphasizes technical training and the transfer of “simple” technologies, whereas others favor a constructive strategy that evaluates the resources and local dynamics of the receiving country. Those endorsing the first approach talk in terms of the adaptation of technology, emphasizing the necessary adjustment of technologies to the user’s characteristics […]. Those favoring the second approach speak of the appropriation of technology, and point to the active character that users assume while incorporating technology” […] “Successful appropriation, then, occurs when imported elements can be integrated to some degree with a preexisting work situation and/or to the users’ previous schemata. The appropriation process can accordingly be understood as one modality in which people “attempt to integrate the new tool’s utilization within the set of schemata previously constructed”. […] “Whereas adaptation is a process driven by the provider of the new technology, appropriation is based on the ends, mental representations, competencies, and contexts that exist in the receiver’s work situation. The locus of control in adaptation is internal and socialized. Adaptation emphasizes the role of memorization in the transfer of knowledge; appropriation calls for the reelaboration of situated learning”.

For further reading see: Dennis R. Herschbach (“Technology as Knowledge: Implications for Instruction”, Journal of Technology Education, vol. 7, n.º 1, Fall 1995, pp. 31-42) and Carlos Díaz-Canepa (“Transferring Technologies to Developing Countries: A Cognitive and Cultural Approach”, in Robert J. Sternberg and David D. Preiss, Intelligence and Technology: The impact of tools on the Nature and Development of Human Abilities, Mahwah (New Jersey), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005).

Diagrammatic definitions of ‘technology’ and ‘technology practice’, by A. Pacey

Esquema Pacey con pie

The triple distinction: As a human action, technology is the result of the interactions between three factors: machinery-mechanical systems (techniques in general, not necessary material, it could be a sequence of logical sentences or commands; making sure that it works), skills (tacit and explicit knowledge and competences of individuals) and cultural meanings. The gradual combination of these dimensions creates a particular meaning of technology, which in turn derives from its consideration as a social practice integrated in a community. History of technology is confined many times to the first factor, and it is regarded in this sense as a collection of technical (practical and useful) solutions willingly offered to a receptive and expectant public.