I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, which is a study of technology’s evolving role in society. In that book, which I wrote about here, Kelly frequently cites Technology Matters by David Nye [Amazon].
Nye’s book is more academic than Kelly’s; the facts and analysis are denser, the perspective is more balanced, and other scholars and seminal literature figure prominently.
What I enjoy most about these 2 books is they investigate something I take for granted. Technology mediates every aspect of my life — from what is obviously “tech”, like the Macbook I’m using to draft this post, to what is no longer considered “tech”, like my ability to draw clean, cold water from any tap in my SF apartment.
We are obsessed with technology when its new, and in a matter of months or years, it becomes ordinary and commonplace, something to be complained about when it stops working, like wi-fi, or Google Maps, or hot showers :)
So, please read these books. If you only choose one, I’d go with Kelly’s book because it is more enjoyable, but I think you build a better fact-base from Nye’s.
Here’s my 1-page summary of Technology Matters, supported by selected quotes and excerpts. As with all my 1-pagers, I write them for personal interest first and public readership second, so I tend to miss or ignore things that don’t interest me.
While we generally believe science (e.g., materials science) leads to technology (e.g., velcro), the reality is often reversed
For most of human history technology came first; theory came along later and tried to make sense of practical results.
Science has played a similar role in the refinement of many technologies, including the windmill, the water wheel, the locomotive, the automobile, and the airplane. The Wright Brothers were well-read and gifted bicycle mechanics, and they tested their designs in a wind tunnel of their own invention, but they were not scientists.
It’s a symbiotic relationship: just as we change technology, it changes us (our bodies, behaviors)
McLuhan argued that the phonetic alphabet intensified the visual function and that literate cultures devalued the other senses-a process that moveable type intensified. Furthermore, McLuhan thought electronic media extended the central nervous system and linked humanity together in a global network.
In everyday life, technologies mediate almost all experience from the moment one awakens until going to sleep at night. Much of what one sees is subtly shaped by the spectra of light thrown by different types of bulbs and fluorescent tubes. The air itself is heated, cooled, or dehumidified according to the needs of the location and the season.
Technology rarely evolves as intended; its applications and impact are unpredictable
When humans possess a tool, they excel at finding new uses for it. The tool often exists before the problem to be solved. Latent in every tool are unforeseen transformations.
In the 1960s a great many sociologists projected that automation would reduce the average American’s work week to less than 25 hours by the century’s end.
In short, the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, and the personal computer, surely four of the most important inventions in the history of communications, were initially understood as curiosities.
Consumers — both individuals and in the aggregate — shape how a technology is incorporated and evolved
…consumers, not scientists, often discover what is “the next big thing.” Most new technologies are market-driven. Viagra was not developed as a sexual stimulant, but the college students who served as guinea pigs discovered what consumers would like about it.
American social values emphasize individualized technologies. Every house has its own heating system, even though this is a wasteful and inefficient choice. If the market to some extent shapes technologies, the market in turn is inflected by cultural values.
Wal-Mart not only expresses the general Western preference for efficiency in production over other values; it also expresses an American preference to pass on savings in efficiency to consumers and stockholders but not to workers.
It required a generation for the public to find that it wanted the phonograph not primarily to dictate letters or preserve voices for posterity but to play music.
However, citizens do not play a strong role in defining technology policy and regulation
Rick Sclove has argued…that when new technologies are being adopted ordinary citizens typically play too small a role, often only after the most important decisions have been made.
The Dutch and the Danes have developed forums of representative ordinary citizens who interview “experts” and then formulate advice on technological policy.
Leaving “the market” in control permits corporations with little hindrance or discussion to disseminate thousands of products that foster lasting changes in everyday life.
“Science and technology policies have a social impact comparable to that of taxation policy in the colonial period. In 1776, political freedom entailed the right to a voice in taxation decisions because these decisions were primary forces in shaping the fabric of personal and social life.
Many of our most critical technologies achieved “product-market fit” because they were fun
The public used both the phonograph and the radio less for work than for fun. Likewise, many children use personal computers less to write papers and pursue education than to play computer games and visit strange websites.
In the 1990s commercialization undermined hopes that the Internet would primarily function as a free space of public discussion. Instead, advertisements, solicitations, pornography, and fraud are rife.
Though some apparently reasonable technologies fail to sell, people may nonetheless flock to “unreasonable” devices, such as Japanese electronic pets.
Consumers want choice and personalization
During the first years of the assembly line, Henry Ford refused to manufacture a wide variety of cars. Instead, the Model T was available in only a few variant forms and a limited range of colors. Ford was reputed to have said that customers could get any color they wanted, so long as it was black. […] To Ford’s dismay, the public embraced annual changes, and gradually GM won so much of the market that in 1927 Ford reluctantly abandoned the Model T (after producing more than 15 million) and began to make annual models with greater variety.
Today Levittown is not a monotonous row of “little boxes.” Homeowners have added garages, pillars, dormers, fences, and extensions. They have painted their homes many different colors, and planted quite different shrubs around them, landscaping each plot into individuality. In 2006, a visitor to Levittown has to study the houses carefully to see their common elements. Three generations of homeowners have used a wide range of technologies to obliterate uniformity.
Rather than adjust to a single pattern, each cultural region creates hybrid forms, which Robertson calls “glocalization.” Even McDonald’s finds that it must give in to this process. In Spain it sells red wine to go with its hamburgers, and in India (where cows are sacred) it does not serve beef. More generally, an endless process of creolization is taking place, producing such novel combinations as Cuban-Chinese cuisine, Norwegian country music, and “Trini” home pages.
(after reading this, I immediately went and found a Norwegian country music playlist on Spotify :) here’s the link
Once a technology gains momentum, it becomes hard to modify or replace
Variation in design continues during early stages of development, until one design meets with wide approval. Once a particular design is widely accepted, however, variation in form gives way to innovation in production.
A society may choose to adopt either direct current or alternating current, or to use 110 volts, or 220 volts, or some other voltage, but a generation after these choices have been made it is costly and difficult to undo such a decision.
Similarly, the automobile achieved technological momentum not as an isolated machine, but as part of a system that included road building, driver education programs, gas stations, repair shops, manufacturers of spare parts, and new forms of land use that spread out the population into suburbs that, practically speaking, were accessible only to cars and trucks.
Eventually technology becomes commonplace and ordinary; we forget it is technology or are removed from its workings
As we become accustomed to new things, they are woven into the fabric of daily life. Gradually, every new technology seems to become “natural,” and therefore somehow “inevitable” because it is hard to imagine a world without it. Through most of history flush toilets did not exist, but after 100 years of widespread use they seem normal and natural; the once-familiar outhouse now seems disgusting and unacceptable.
The railroad seemed magnificent in 1840, but appeared to be a grasping monopoly by 1890. Airplanes miraculously conquered gravity in 1910, and pilots were demigods. But these emotions cooled as flight became routine, and passengers focused on the tedium of checking in, on leg room, on airline food, and on lost luggage.
Computers offer a suggestive example of how the surface emerges. The first generation of personal computer owners sometimes built their machines and usually understood how they worked. With each succeeding generation, however, computer owners are less likely to understand the insides of their machines, which have become as opaque as the automobile, the automatic furnace, the birth-control pill, the pacemaker…
Societies can shape a technology’s adoption and evolution, but it is increasingly difficult in our flat world
From ancient times, some have regulated or even resisted technologies. A Byzantine city in the 530s had zoning laws that separated kilns, blacksmiths, and polluting activities from shops and houses.
Japan’s long, successful rejection of guns is revealing. A society or a group that is able to act without outside interference can abolish a powerful technology. In the United States, the Mennonites and the Amish do not permit any device to be used before they have carefully evaluated its potential impact on the community.
Technology has 2nd, 3rd and n-th order effects, both unforeseen problems and benefits, which create the need/opportunity for more technology
Computers are expected to improve office efficiency, but in practice people spend enormous amounts of time adjusting to updated software and they suffer eyestrain, back problems, tendonitis, and cumulative trauma disorder.
For example, as the electrical grid spread across the United States, small manufacturers rushed in with a stunning array of new products-electrified cigar lighters, model trains, Christmas tree lights, musical toilet-paper dispensers, and shaving cream warmers, as well as toasters, irons, refrigerators, and washing machines. As electric devices proliferated, the large manufacturers Westinghouse and General Electric, like the computer hardware makers of today, soon found it impossible to compete in every area.
Where once the telephone bill reflected a simple transaction between a customer and the phone company, now the technology of the telephone is the basis for a wide range of commercial relations that includes toll-free calls to businesses, e-mail, faxes, and SMS messages. Telephones enable people not only to speak to one another, but also to send photographs, texts, news, and videos. As with the electrical system, the telephone provided the infrastructure, or even the main platform, for many unanticipated businesses.
Wolfgang Schivelbusch presciently observed that “the more efficient the technology, the more catastrophic its destruction when it collapses. There is an exact ratio between the level of the technology with which nature is controlled, and the degree of severity of its accidents.”
Privacy was not possible for many before the second half of the nineteenth century. Before then, most houses were small, with shared public rooms and shared sleeping rooms. The idea that children could and should have individual bedrooms is at most a few hundred years old.
While technology is generally adopted and admired, there is an undercurrent of resistance and discomfort
And in Frankenstein (1818), a novel still resonant today, Mary Shelley evoked the possibility that scientists might create monsters that would escape their control.
In conceiving the first modern utopia, Thomas More rejected high consumption. His Utopia increased leisure by drastically reducing human wants and adopting a modest style of life.
Henry David Thoreau argued that, rather than constantly expand one’s desires, it was better to simplify material life to make time for reading, reflection, and close study of nature.
By Thoreauvian logic, a good many conveniences not only prove unnecessary; they create debt and force us to work long hours so that we can pay for them.
Technology can create social costs that take generations to resolve, but they are usually offset by social benefits and opportunities, too
Industrialization did not create a permanent underclass; rather, it shifted factory laborers to white-collar work. But this shift took place over many decades, and for generations of workers the factory system meant alienation.
As factories became more productive, manufacturers could choose how to spend the surplus. They could raise wages for workers, lower prices for consumers, take greater profits for themselves, make further improvements in the machinery, or allocate resources to all of these options. They often focused on low prices, not only to win market share but also to drive remaining artisans out of work, completing the process of industrialization.
In the era of “silent” films, professional musicians had regular employment in the movie theaters. No more. Most telephone operators have disappeared, replaced by automatic switchboards. Many bank tellers have disappeared, replaced by automated teller machines.
Today, all three of the traditional sectors of the economy-agriculture, manufacturing, and service-are experiencing technological displacement, forcing millions onto the unemployment rolls. The prospects indeed seemed dim, yet when Rifkin’s book appeared in the 1990s, the American economy was creating an average of a million new jobs per year. The rapid computerization of the economy was not producing the dire effects Rifkin predicted.
Technologies do not in and of themselves cause gender inequality. Rather, they can be socially constructed to restrict or improve women’s access to some jobs.
In practice, it is “impossible to dispense with a core of skilled workers. Whether they are engaged in repairing the existing equipment or in installing the next generation of technology, they must be capable of understanding each task as part of a larger complex of tasks…”
During the 1980s, Shoshana Zuboff studied fully computerized workplaces in operation and saw that, despite management’s explicit intention to use computers to de-skill workers and to increase its control of operatives, something quite different was taking place in some companies.”, Computers demystified management, and skilled workers could use them to undermine hierarchy, secrecy, and centralization. A fully computerized plant became more transparent.
And something which Silicon Valley can relate to:
And there is a third group, made up of what Richard Reich calls “symbolic analysts”-people “who solve, identify, and broker new problems.” In the borderless world economy, they are in great demand. Their work is not routine but varied and interesting, which explains why many of them are “workaholics.” They put in longer hours not due to economic necessity and not (only) because of an insatiable desire for more consumer goods. These are usually well-educated professionals who love their jobs, and even when away from the office never really leave it behind.