You Can’t Stop New Ideology

Technological progress cannot be stopped, can it? The Luddites are a famous example of a failed attempt trying to do so: 19th-century textile workers and weavers who feared that the invention of spinning frames and power looms would leave them without work and who therefore protested against the new technology. They even went so far to destroy the machines. But they couldn’t stop technology. The episode of the Luddites’ failure fits perfectly to today’s popular idea of a technological imperative – a PR-tool employed by tech-companies to fight regulation.

The idea – or, let’s say, ideology – of a technological imperative holds that that technological progress is something which comes inevitably and will, in the end, be to the benefit of all of us. The leading technology of our age is computing and digital communication. Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt, for instance, repeatedly claimed that all the world’s problems – including war and poverty – can be fixed if only online-connectivity will be allowed to permeate all aspects of our everyday life. The message is clear: Don’t stop technology! Don’t stop Google.

The larger narrative behind all this is that technological change basically is the same as progress – technological change being a cultural equivalent to what’s happening in nature in terms of evolution. It might be difficult to really foresee what further impacts computing and digital communication will have in the future. But still, the underlying assumptions and the larger narrative concerning technological change can be tested on the ground of historical evidence. Let’s give it a try!

The truth about Gutenberg

Take, for instance, the printing press, invented by Gutenberg in the 15th century. Is this major chapter in the history of technology not a good example of how a single invention changed the whole world – and did so for the better? Actually, this way of putting it is not as close a match to historical reality as often assumed. For one thing: the so-called revolution in terms of knowledge, which followed upon the introduction of the printing press, would not have been possible without many other cultural techniques which were employed at the same time. These techniques include procedures to store and to make accessible large amounts of documents with the help of catalogues and signatures. Also, the rise of large bureaucracies relying on written communication was a precondition to make the revolution in terms of ‘knowledge’ happen. A further point worth mentioning is that Gutenberg never intended to invent a technology for mass-communication: The way he understood and used his invention was to produce better-looking documents!

Camel more efficient than wheel

Indeed, the moveable type invented by Gutenberg was not even more efficient than the old-style technique of manually carving out letters on a wooden printing-block. In this respect, the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press was not different to the introduction of modern rail-transport in the 19th century. Otherwise as commonly assumed, trains were not really more efficient than older means of transport. What triggered their rise was rather that the establishment of a railway system was accompanied with the development of stock-companies and banks. A similar story can be told even about the wheel. Frequently used in Roman times, vehicles running on wheels were practically abandoned during the first centuries of our times in Persia, the Near East and North Africa. The reason for this was not a cultural backlash. Vehicles on wheels need suitable roads. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the networks of long-distance roads which had been built and entertained for military (not economic!) reasons fell into ruins. Other means of transport such as the camel became more efficient under these conditions.

Technology is no stand-alone

These and many more surprising anecdotes can be found in a fascinating new book by Swiss science writer and historian Marcel Haenggi: Fortschrittsgeschichten – Stories of Progress (German only). The take-home lesson from the excursions into the history of technology is this: New technologies do not do by anything merely by themselves. They require the right context in order have significant impact. Technological change (or progress) doesn’t have a life by itself. Also, new technologies don’t always help us to cope with our surroundings in a more sustainable way, nor do they necessarily lead to economic growth. An interesting detail in this context: The well-established theory that growth is caused by technological innovation has actually never been verified in empirical terms. A much simpler alternative explanation is that exploitation of soil, raw materials and energy is the main trigger for growth. (See Philip Mirowski, Science-Mart, 2011, p. 71 for more on this.)

Governance: Possible and fair

Eric Schmidt is dead wrong: Mere technology is not the solution to everything. And, yes: we can stop “progress” – and should, sometimes. The Luddites were not fighting for a lost cause, after all. Forbidding or limiting technology is not anti-liberal. Every society bans or limits certain technologies (e.g., imposing conditions on the use of weapons or medicine). Banning or limiting is fair, if democratically decided upon. On the other hand, both the history and the present are rich of examples where technological inventions were not self-starters, but rather dependent on tax payers’ money from the beginning to the end. Famous examples are atomic power for the production of energy or the development of supersonic passenger jet airliners for commercial use (the Concorde). Both examples might not be regarded as immensely successful, in the long run. But they add to the evidence that the technological imperative really is not a valid theory, but rather an ideology. There is no such imperative. It’s still upon us humans to decide – and not to an obscure quasi-natural force called “technological progress”.