Technological Determination

Technological determinism‘ is among those theoretical traits (‘naturalistic fallacy’ is another) which tend immediately to provoke an attitude of complacent intellectual superiority, rather than cognitive engagement. Merely to identify it is typically judged sufficient for a dismissal. If TD as such poses a question, it is easily missed.

One under-examined question might be: Why is technological determinism so plausible in modern societies, and ever more so as they modernize? Is the balance of social determination within society itself an unstable historical variable, with unmistakable positive trend?

Two recent popular stories of relevance stray quite naively into the pre-set cross-hairs of the critique. In The Atlantic, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee announce the Dawn of the Second Machine Age, while Google-God of the TDs Ray Kurzweil conveys his prediction (through the UK’s Daily Mail) that “Robots will be smarter than the most intelligent humans within the next 15 years.” The sophisticated will scoff — without consequence.

Some quick reasons not to scoff:

(1) Advanced technology roughly follows Moore’s Law, and predicts a commensurate impact upon growth. In the absence of such growth, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid noticing a compensation mechanism, which rebalances through systematic retardation what is perturbed through development. TD is indeed partial, because it has no account of what is holding it back. Once this is recognized, however, it depicts its other more realistically (as orchestrated suppression) than the suppressor can account for itself.

(2) The combination of socio-political failure with techno-economic achievement — emerging with impressive definition from the global net growth equation — is only secondarily a matter of conceptual clarity. Primarily it is a splitting, or breaking away, in which technological determinism represents the dynamic instance, and sophisticated socio-cultural critique represents — in reality — the counter-dynamic, or retardant entity. The attempt to ‘put technology in its place’ that is from one side a matter of theoretically self-evident comprehensive reason is, from the other, the increasingly comical attempt by a parasite to justify its relation to its host. (This is another opportunity to recommend Andrea Castillo’s overview.)

(3) Whatever technology can do, it is doing, at an accelerating pace. As it advances, ideas about the ‘limits of the technological’ are automatically obsolesced. Condescending to a steam engine is one thing, attempting the same with an artificial super-intelligence quite another. Critical smugness has an outer horizon.

“We want [computers] to read everything on the web and every page of every book, then be able to engage in intelligent dialogue with the user to be able to answer their questions,” explains Kurzweil. So what do you think about this technological determinism nonsense? we will soon be able to ask, superciliously.

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