Posted by: Kenn Hermann | March 28, 2006

Technologies Transform Their Social and Cultural Environments

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“It’s Just a Tool” #2

After my initial critical analysis of the phrase it’s only a tool in post #1 of this series, I will challenge the assumption that technology is neutral, benign, or ‘innocent’ in this and subsequent posts in the series. These will not be presented in any particular order of most to least important. Rather think of them as a Venn diagram with multiple overlapping boundaries.

1. Technologies transform their social and cultural ‘environments.’
Natural ecologists are acutely aware that ‘you can’t change just one thing’ in nature’s economy. You cannot simply ‘add’ a new species to a new environment and expect everything else to remain the same. Rather, a new species introduced into a sensitive ecological niche may end up proliferating out of control (like zebra mussels in Lake Erie) and unleash a cascading series of unanticipated and unintended consequences. The same thing happens with our technologies. E.g. the elaborate technologies of dikes and levees built all along the Mississippi designed to reduce flooding, dramatically altered the natural eco-system and magnified the damage of the major floods in 1927, 1993, and the aftermath of Katrina in 2005. It was not so much that the dikes were poorly constructed, though several were, it was the very presence of the dikes and levees themselves that created the damage.

We can see historical examples of this phenomena by observing the profound ways that these ‘simple’ technologies transformed their host and all subsequent cultures:

  • gun powder
  • stirrup
  • clock
  • astrolabe
  • cement
  • printing press
  • Erie Canal
  • rifling
  • steam engine
  • light bulb
  • refrigeration/air conditioning
  • assembly line
  • matches in African culture
  • railroads in China
  • automobile
  • transistors
  • atomic bomb
  • computers
  • numerous other examples

The same phenomena happens repeatedly when new technologies are introduced into our businesses and families. Most businesses, in my experience, give little thought to the manifold ways in which new technologies will transform their business. They have been more enamored by the promises of the sales people than sobered by the fundamental ways those technologies will shape their businesses and make unexpected demands on them. They think, for example, that they can ‘add’ computers without ‘counting the cost’ of networking, maintenance, training, employee health and well-being, communication, support, upgrades, staff realignment and down-sizing, managerial restructuring, employee resistance, customer dissatisfaction, etc., etc. The well-documented ‘productivity paradox’ is one vivid reminder of the naive belief that ‘adding’ computers will magically increase productivity and profits.

Most families, in the same way, seldom recognize the dramatic changes that ‘innocent’ consumer goods have encouraged in their family structure. At the beginning of every semester I have students in my “Cultural Dynamics of Technology” class write essays on the ripple effects they (or their parents and grandparents) have noticed in their families when the television, microwave, vcr, cell phone, or computer were invited into their homes. (Barry Levinson’s 1990 film “Avalon” is an excellent and sensitive treatment of how television shaped the family structures of three generations in Baltimore.) For most this is the first time they have reflected on these often subtle changes. How many have televisions and computers in their bedrooms? Why spend time preparing dinner for a family-on-the go when ‘fast food’ is available for each family member when they choose? How long can a family stay ‘together’ when entertaining themselves each in their own space?

The point here is not to argue whether these are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ changes. The point is rather to acknowledge the inescapable ecological transformations that technologies introduce into society. They clearly are not neutral or benign; they make demands on us and encourage us to use them in particular ways.

The danger we constantly face is ignoring or slighting the reality that our technologies exist in a complex web of social, cultural, and ecological relationships. This is a central claim of the Christian doctrine of creation. We are constantly tempted to think of our technologies as independent, separate, isolated, or abstracted from the cultural, social, and ecological web of inter-dependent relationships in which they exist. If we, as the Lord’s image-bearers, are to retain mastery and control over our technologies, we will have to work continually at acknowledging the creational web of relationships in which they exist and subjecting them to the cultural and ecological norms and laws that we cherish.

Hopefully, these brief examples will enable you to anticipate and recognize the numerous other political, social, economic, and religious transformations that various technologies have introduced into our society. (Just perhaps it might also help us understand why non-Western societies see Western society as a ‘threat.’)

This discussion continues in post #3 of the “It’s Just a Tool” category.

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