April 20, 2010

Technological inertia

Joel Mokyr, “Technological inertia in economic history”

Technological progress needs a “conducive social environment.”
But there is also social resistance to progress.

Adam Smith – the economy is not created by human beings but is a self-organising system.  Self-organising systems resist change.

Theoretical framework for Mokyr:
Public choice;
Political economy
Evolutionary theory
Systems analysis

April 19, 2010

Shock of the old

Technology seems to be synonymous with invention and innovation i.e. new things.  Focus is on the future, not on the now or the past.

History of technology-in-use is a global history.
History of innovation centres only on a few places [Western Europe, US - i.e. rich, white, male]

Objects in a use-based history come and go over the years, messing up our notions of "progress".  E.g. use of the horse by Nazis in WW2; return of the guillotine in 1940s, the bicycle that never disappeared or was replaced.   

"innovation" does not equal "progress" or "success".  Innovative nations of C20 are not necessarily the fastest growing.

David Edgerton.  The shock of the old.  Technology and global history since 1900.  London: Profile Books, 2006.


Four functions of the Roman forum:
  1. meeting place
  2. market
  3. expression (locus for political discourse)
  4. legitimising (place for symbols-monuments)
Analogy with public networks/telecoms as virtual public spaces

Melody, "Living in the information society: public network as public space."
 [in Time-Space]


Division of labour
People become aware of their dependence on one another.  The well-being of each one depends on the well-being of all.

Social time - social relativity of time

organic solidarity (heterogeneous)  vs.  mechanical solidarity (homogeneous)

Too much division of labour - members are preoccupied, loss of identity with community, collective group of isolated individuals, bound only by contract

Edgerton - ten eclectic theses

Innovation and technology have been conflated.  Distinction should be made and emphasis placed on use, not innovation.
  1. Study of technology-society relationship focuses on innovation (i.e. emergence of new technologies).  It does not focus on study of everyday technologies (i.e. old, outmoded, obsolete technologies) which are in use.
  2. Histories of technology-in-use (old) and histories of innovation (new) differ re. Geography – Chronology – Sociology
  3. Conflation of innovation-technology is obvious in national histories.  BUT – nation-state is not a microcosm for the whole world.
  4. It is difficult to engage general history with history of technology when most studies of technology focus on innovation only.  However, studying general historical problems has produced histories of technology-in-use.
  5. “Technological Determinism” says that technologies in use determine a society.  Sometimes this is perverted into “technical innovation determines social change.”
  6. “Technological Determinism” is a theory of society, not a theory of technology.
  7. The importance of a technology can’t be determined only by its pervasiveness.  We must always look at alternatives.
  8. Invention and innovation rarely lead to use, rather, vice versa.
  9. Don’t confuse changes in knowledge with knowledge-in-use.  Doing lots of research doesn’t mean a country has technical capabilities.  Knowing and creating are two separate entities – a growth in one does not necessarily entail a growth in the latter.
  10. “Innovation-centred and knowledge-centred accounts of technology are central to twentieth century culture.”  Governments’ policies on science and technology focus on innovation, not all science and technology.  Data re. innovation (e.g. statistics on R&D) are great but not so data on diffusion and use.  Here technique-in-use is not ‘technology’ but common phones, cars, aeroplanes, electricity, etc.

Winner - artefacts

"Do artifacts have politics?"

  • On Mumford, Engels, Plato, Marx
  • Moses' low Californian bridges
  • automatic machinery more despotic than any capitalist: machinery waits for no man
[filed: comm. theory]

Bias of communication

Harold Innis (non-Marxist)

Each form of communication involves a bias in its handling of time and space
Oral communication is time-based (i.e. in pre-literate societies?)
Communications affect rise and decline of cultural traits
Heavy, durable medium disseminates knowledge better over time than over space

Comte - organic conception of society

society as a collective organism

  • has structure
  • has specialised parts that function together
  • the whole is more than the sum of the parts
  • goes through evolutionary change

constructionism - constructivism

development of phenomena relative to social context

an individual's making meaning of knowledge within a social context

Telephone Development Association

Established 1924 (1922?)

promotes use of telephone by advocating extensive advertising

Wilhelm Wundt

early 1880s

Attempts to determine how long "now" is
Kern, Culture of time and space, 82

Thick description

Description of human behaviour that includes behaviour and context, thus meaningful to an outsider

SCOT Social Construction Of Technology


  • Social constructivists
  • technology does not determine human actions: human action shapes technology
  • critic of SCOT: Langdon Winner (in "Upon opening the black box ...")
Social construct = concept or practice that is a creation/artefact of a particular group

Social Shaping of Technology

Mackenzie - Wajcman
Williams - Edge

  • constructivist approach
  • relationship between technology and society: mutual shaping
  • opposite to technological determinism
  • SCOT is a spin-off from SST

Adam Smith - self-organising

The economy is a self-organising system: it is not created by human design but by uncoordinated human action.

Self-organising systems

Examples - language, economics, technology, manners

  • self-replicating way of organising information
  • created by uncoordinated human action
  • de-centralised
  • resistant to change
Mokyr, Technological inertia in economic history, 326

Mass society

Not the same as massive society i.e. large numbers

Relationship of individuals to the social order:
  1. members are psychologically isolated from others
  2. interaction is characterised by impersonality
  3. members are free from binding informal social obligations
DeFleur, 159

April 18, 2010

Inductive/Deductive reasoning

Bottom-up approach
From specifics to broad generalisations

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