Essay by Eric B. Schnurer: “…In short, it is often difficult to see where new technologies actually will lead. The same technological development can, in different settings, have different effects: The use of horses in warfare, which led seemingly inexorably in China and Europe to more centralized and autocratic states, had the effect on the other side of the world of enabling Hernán Cortés, with an army of roughly five hundred Spaniards, to defeat the massed infantries of the highly centralized, autocratic Aztec regime. Cortés’s example demonstrates that a particular technology generally employed by a concentrated power to centralize and dominate can also be used by a small insurgent force to disperse and disrupt (although in Cortés’s case this was on behalf of the eventual imposition of an even more despotic rule).
Regardless of the lack of inherent ideological content in any given technology, however, our technological realities consistently give metaphorical shape to our ideological constructs. In ancient Egypt, the regularity of the Nile’s flood cycle, which formed the society’s economic basis, gave rise to a belief in recurrent cycles of life and death; in contrast, the comparatively harsh and static agricultural patterns of the more-or-less contemporaneous Mesopotamian world produced a society that conceived of gods who simply tormented humans and then relegated them after death to sit forever in a place of dust and silence; meanwhile, the pastoral societies of the Fertile Crescent have handed down to us the vision of God as shepherd of his flock. (The Bible also gives us, in the story of Cain and Abel, a parable of the deadly conflict that technologically driven economic changes wreak: Abel was a traditional pastoralist—he tended sheep—while Cain, who planted seeds in the ground, represented the disruptive “New Economy” of settled agriculture. Tellingly, after killing off the pastoralist, the sedentarian Cain exits to found the first city.88xGenesis 4:17.)
As humans developed more advanced technologies, these in turn reshaped our conceptions of the world around us, including the proper social order. Those who possessed superior technological knowledge were invested with supernatural authority: The key to early Rome’s defense was the ability quickly to assemble and disassemble the bridges across the Tiber, so much so that the pontifex maximus—literally the “greatest bridge-builder”—became the high priest, from whose Latin title we derive the term pontiff. The most sophisticated—and arguably most crucial—technology in any town in medieval Europe was its public clock. The clock, in turn, became a metaphor for the mechanical working of the universe—God, in fact, was often conceived of as a clockmaker (a metaphor still frequently invoked to argue against evolution and for the necessity of an intelligent creator)—and for the proper form of social organization: All should know their place and move through time and space as predictably as the figurines making their regular appearances and performing their routinized interactions on the more elaborate and entertaining of these town-square timepieces.
In our own time, the leading technologies continue to provide the organizing concepts for our economic, political, and theological constructs. The factory became such a ubiquitous reflection of economic and social realities that, from the early nineteenth century onward, virtually every social and cultural institution—welfare (the poorhouse, or, as it was often called, the “workhouse”), public safety (the penitentiary), health care (the hospital), mental health (the insane asylum), “workforce” or public housing, even (as teachers often suggest to me) the education system—was consciously remodeled around it. Even when government finally tried to get ahead of the challenges posed by the Industrial Revolution by building the twentieth-century welfare state, it wound up constructing essentially a new capital of the Industrial Age in Washington, DC, with countless New Deal ministries along the Mall—resembling, as much as anything, the rows of factory buildings one can see in the steel and mill towns of the same era.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the atom and the computer came to dominate most intellectual constructs. First, the uncertainty of quantum mechanics upended mechanistic conceptions of social and economic relations, helping to foster conceptions of relativism in everything from moral philosophy to literary criticism. More recently, many scientists have come to the conclusion that the universe amounts to a massive information processor, and popular culture to the conviction that we all simply live inside a giant video game.
In sum, while technological developments are not deterministic—their outcomes being shaped, rather, by the uses we conceive to employ them—our conceptions are largely molded by these dominant technologies and the transformations they effect.99xI should note that while this argument is not deterministic, like those of most current thinkers about political and economic development such as Francis Fukuyama, Jared Diamond, and Yuval Noah Harari, neither is it materialistic, like that of Karl Marx. Marx thoroughly rejected human ideas and thinking as movers of history, which he saw as simply shaped and dictated by the technology. I am suggesting instead a dialectic between the ideal and the material. To repeat the metaphor, technological change constitutes the plate tectonics on which human contingencies are then built. To understand, then, the deeper movements of thought, economic arrangements, and political developments, both historical and contemporary, one must understand the nature of the technologies underlying and driving their unfolding…(More)“.