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Reflection on L.Marx’s “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept”

0.Introduction

Welcome to my Medium page. As this is my first post, an introduction is in due! My goal with this profile is to share ideas on important papers regarding Science, Technology and Society Studies.

I choose to begin with the classical paper of L.Marx “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept” and to reflect on the paper (sum it up with my observations) and then pose some questions instead of conclusions.

Leo Marx carefully described how the term, technology, has evolved for two centuries. He classified the concept of technology into two categories; Ideological and substantive. As chooses to begin his work with the following explicit quotation of Heidegger

“… the essence of technology is by no
means anything technological.”

You can read the article at various sites, I have found it open here: http://www.f.waseda.jp/sidoli/Marx_2010_Concept_Of_Technology.pdf

Hope you find my reflection on it interesting and feel free to share your ideas!

I.Reflection

From an early age, we have been taught to think of technology as an equivalent or synonym of progress and understand the development of humankind as a linear, unavoidable advance. L. Marx’s paper examines how such a historical concept is compatible with his time’s existing social order, and how it insinuates itself in all sorts of historical narratives.

The author, playfully argues, that if technology drives human history, how come it has emerged as a word only in very recent times? Thus L. Marx begins to dismantle the fundamental anachronism of the term and the concept of technology. About the term’s emergence and the social meanings it has carried through times, he argues that technology, as we understand it today, is a (post WW1) innovation by itself.

There was a “semantic void”, according to Marx, meaning a period when there was a need to classify all the inventions of industrialization but such a concept was not yet available. Older concepts were used such as mechanical arts, machinery, invention, improvement and at a certain point, they did not manage to convey the necessary meaning.

The technology managed to emerge and within it “the hazardous character of the concept”, as the author states, that translates to the idea that technology is an autonomous actor capable of determining the course of our societies (technological determinism), thus one can either by a technocrat or a Luddite.

Continuing, L. Marx discusses two sets of reasons for the emergence of technology, concerning the existing term of mechanic art:

  • ideological, changes in the hegemonic ideas

As evident by the exemplar speech of Senator Webster in the 1840s for the railroad, innovations in mechanical art were beginning to be equated with progress and were considered as self- justifying social goals by the “new entrepreneurial elite”. According to L.Marx other radical thinkers saw these innovations as a means to reach social and political ends and criticized this belief of innovation equalling progress, with passionately expressed reasonings like:

There is an illusion about . . . [modern improvements]; there is not always a positive advancement… They are but improved means to an unimproved end (Thoreau).

The author cannot help but notice the rise of an adversary culture to the mainstream progress narrative, that reminded him of corresponding thoughts appearing more than one century later (in the 1960’s counterculture movement).

  • substantive, changes in the organizational and material conditions.

at the same time, we have the appearance of complex techno-social systems, with the stellar instance of the railroads. To be able to create a railroad, one would not only need to have a steam locomotive but also create a system involving: a) ancillary equipment b) organizational structures c) specialized knowledge d) specially trained workforce with unique railroading skills and e) various facilitating institutional change.

For new organizational models and forms of operations to emerge and support such large, efficient, and standardized systems, there was a need to divide the physical and mechanical components of such systems and insert layers of intransparency regarding their design and use.

Additionally, the author points out the appearance of a systemic connection of scientific knowledge and the mechanical art with the creation of mechanical schools and more formal technical education, that contributed to the emergence of the concept of technology. Despite some usage in the rest of the 19th century (first defined by J. Bigelow), Technology was slightly used even by thinkers (like K.Marx) that attempted to describe the changes industrialization brought to the people.

The concept became popular with the so-called Second Industrial Revolution, with perceived groundbreaking inventions (electricity, automobile, telephone, etc) that reinstated “Webstrian” ideas of progress. Technology was considered a transformative power and this concept captured the imagination of writers. Technocratic beliefs (the claim of replacing the politics and ideology with technology and experts) started to emerge soon afterward.

The concept of mechanical arts was replaced, considered associated with practical work, physical labor, and mundane existence. The concept of technology filled the semantic void by offering a mystified and positivist form of power over nature, by being abstract and thus presenting a higher intellectual and social plan, per the technosocial systems of the time.

With these settings, what we call technology today is technosocial systems with various actors and purposes. L. Marxs rhetorically asks: How many mechanical components, we can find in what we call technology today? He claims that over time, these components become increasingly less, for example in a computer chip.

From L. Marx clearly states the existence of a black box inside technology, these technosocial systems taking various forms and operating through a state of intransparency. Through automotive technology, he shows that it cannot be understood as unrelated to the rest of society and culture.

The author concludes with notes regarding the hazardous concept:

  • It is so dominant in the present, that is projected backward in time
  • It is so complex that it becomes vague and amorphous when generalized.

To describe it L.Marx borrows the term reification idea that is — to simply put- to treat something immaterial as a material thing. He argues that still cannot define technology as an entity and he argues about the mystification, passivity, and fatalism technology helps to engender.

The author concludes with the call to take acting control of our societies by making decisive calls based on moral and political standards and not relying on technology savorism.

II. Questions/Comments.

- Technology is considered singular despite being a complex system, only because it is being reduced to masked components. The system cannot be noticed if the structural intransparency of the components is not dealt with. We have to deconstruct it.

— We can understand technology not as an actor but as an analytic category, combining hardware plus sociocultural practice and power.

- The whole paper can be considered as a demystification attempt on technology and subsequently an attack on technological determinism and technocrats as vague and empty.

- The question of who is a meaningful technological agent seems to be a question of power.

We read an analysis about the development of the concept in the USA- it would be more than interesting to see its history with colonial/imperial rules and under-developed countries when technology is introduced as an outside concept.

- The development of the concept of Technology can be considered also as the idea of the unquestionable dominance of man over nature.

The concept of Environment seems to be it’s other side of the coin, bearing a positive connotation but also being everything and nothing.

- The history of Technology cannot be separated from the history of societies. When discussing the history of technology, then, as a separate domain of history, what are we really searching for?

Could we for example be for specific technosocial systems that become, at certain periods, the main decisive force for social change?

Thank you for your time!

Technology Manager and Researcher, Member of sociality.coop, MA Business Administration and Management, AUEB, MSc Science, Technology and Society, UoA