The struggle for technology: instrumentalism versus culture

An ancient struggle has shaped the meanings of technology, a struggle over the social status of material culture and its creators. (I call these creators technicians for want of a better term.)  Hephaestus with the CyclopesConversation between Philosophers (School of Plato)Since the time of the ancient Greeks, technicians have fit uneasily into social hierarchies, especially aristocratic hierarchies based on birth. In contrast, experts in manipulating language, that is intellectuals, distance themselves from people who create and sustain material culture.  By separating themselves from technicians, intellectuals seek to ally with elites whose authority is based on birth, wealth, violence, or other non-technical qualities. This conflict between intellectuals and technicians does not, however, reflect a difference between mind and hand; all workers use both faculties.

This age-old conflict about social status remains at the heart of present-day struggles over the meanings of technology.  On one side, defenders of technicians view technologies as creative expressions of human culture.  In this view, technology is imbued with human values and strivings in all their contradictory complexity.  I term this position the “cultural” approach to technology.  On the other side are those who see technological action as a narrow form of rationality that seeks only the best means for a given end.  For such people,  technology is something purely technical, essentially uncreative and devoid of values, subordinate to ends given by others.  I call this second position the “instrumental” conception of technology.

As concrete material practices, technologies are always both cultural and instrumental.  A similar duality is present in every work of fine art.  Artistic expression requires both aesthetic sensibility and technique, that is, cultural creativity along with the instrumental means to express this creativity.Jasper Johns, Savarin, 1977 This remains true whether or not the artist does the actual work, for example when a modern artist like Jasper Johns collaborates with skilled print makers. Although one can make a conceptual distinction between aesthetic creativity and technique, fine art can never be reduced to either.  Nevertheless, the contemporary art world values aesthetic creativity over technical skill.

Unlike the world of fine art, the discourse of technology favors the instrumental over the cultural.  An entire tradition of philosophical critique is based on a reduction of technology to instrumental rationality.  But technological enthusiasts also embrace the instrumental definition of technology.  From their perspective, our modern technological civilization represents the embodiment of reason in the world, with new technologies as the vanguard of progress.  Technological utopians like Kevin Kelly epitomize this instrumental perspective.  In contrast, the cultural understanding of technology recognizes the creativity expressed in everything from steam engines to iPhones.700 hp mill engine, c. 1903, Finchley View Mill, Lancashire  But the cultural approach is definitely in the minority.  This view is most common among people like me, historians of technology and other scholars who connect technological choices to specific aspects of culture and society.

More than intellectual clarity is at stake here.  The tension between the instrumental and cultural understanding of technology has concrete implications for the role of technology in late modernity.  Most significantly, the instrumental concept of technology effaces the role of human agency.  It focuses on innovation rather than use, treating technology like an objective force, stripped of creativity and craft, subordinate to scientific knowledge, mere means to ends.  Instrumentalism engenders fear of technology out of control, like Karl Čapek’s robots.  Even when the instrumental concept grants a role to human agency, it attributes agency to a narrow technical elite or the rare inventive genius.

The cultural concept of technology is much different.  It is human-centered, stressing use rather than innovation.  It views technology as a creative, value-laden human practice, a practice that relies irreducibly on craft skills as well as formal knowledge.  In the cultural view, all humans are the rightful heirs to technology, not just technical elites.

Unfortunately, critics of the instrumental view often miss the mark by conflating instrumentalism with determinism.  Historians of technology have led the way in questioning technological determinism, which is indeed one aspect of instrumentalism.  But historians of technology have not properly grasped their own intellectual history.  They fail to understand that, at the roots of technological determinism, there lies an instrumental understanding of technology.  Given this misunderstanding, it’s not surprising that the critique of technology determinism has proven ineffectual.

In future posts, I’ll explore how this struggle between cultural and instrumental conceptions shaped the meanings of technology.

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