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Computers and society from the 1980s to today (Part Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted July 30, 2012

Computers and Society: Future Perspectives and Current Dilemmas of Technological Advance

(The essay below originally written in March/April 1986 – author's note.)

The purpose of this essay is to explore the role of the technology of the computer in modern society, as perhaps the most significant technology developed in the history of mankind. Since we are living in the throes of what seems to be "the Computer Revolution", this exploration is not solely a scholarly exercise, but also involves the raising of important social issues and questions often obscured from most persons' perceptions. Because of the broad nature of the topic, the approach to it is, of necessity, interdisciplinary, incorporating elements of political science, sociology, philosophy of science, cybernetics, and other relevant disciplines.

The focus of the essay, as the author sees it, is the relationship between technology, especially computer technology, and society. Man is by nature a social animal. Computer technology can only exist and be studied in the broader context of society, specifically the modern technological societies that emerged from, or interacted with, societies collectively known as "Western". [1]

One might ask what primarily defines the social / economic / political structures (the social environment or system) of a given society. What makes Canadian society so different from Soviet society, for example. It could be argued that the differences in the beliefs, value-systems, and opinions of the governing / ruling / dominant individuals and/or groups in the two respective societies determine the essential differences between the two societies. If the Prime Minister of Canada were a pro-Soviet Marxist, for example, he might do his best to shape the rest of Canadian society in the direction of his beliefs. Thus, the beliefs, value-systems, opinions, and assumptions of the dominant groups/individuals in a society aggregate together into the ruling ideology of that society, which in turn determines the social system or social environment of that society. To have power would mean to have the ability to influence the social environment in a meaningful way consistent with one's own value-systems. However, the exercise of power is conditioned by the extent to which one's value-system is in accord with the ruling ideology. Thus, the focus of change in a society is the change of its ruling ideology, usually carried out by the displacement of the current ruling group by other groups and/or persons. [2]  (In adopting this model, it is not necessary to establish a definitive explanation for this successive replacement of one ideology over another, nor to choose one ideological paradigm over another, nor to explicitly deny the possibility of a "classless society" at some point in the future.) [3]

The topic "technology and society", as is clear from the above analysis, must necessarily be focussed on the relationship between technology and various dominant, nondominant, or possible future ideologies / social systems. Central to the essay is the question whether technology (which one should attempt to clearly define) is in fact an autonomous social factor/force  with its own ends and priorities (indeed, perhaps the major social factor/force in contemporary society) , or whether it exists merely  as a means to ends which are set by (other) ideologies. What is the relationship of technology to these socio-political ideologies? Is there, in fact, an ideology of technology, the politics of technological change/progress? Or is the technological approach to life easily fitted into one, or perhaps even most, ideological systems? Through the exploration of these issues one may attempt to arrive at some understanding of the nature of the so-called "information society" we are said to be living in, of which computer technology may be the most important element.

To begin our exploration of the topic, we might initially ask: "What is technology?" At its most extended sense, the term "technology" can be very broad indeed. It can be related to the anthropological sense of artifact and/or tool – any physical or mental construct (e.g., flint, language) created to aid in man's control of his environment. [4]  A somewhat narrower definition would be any physical object created by man (or natural object used by man) to effect control of his physical and/or social environment. (Control of the physical environment usually implies some control of the social environment.) [5]  A further requirement might be that the process of constructing the item of technology should be relatively complex, e.g., Post-Neolithic. One could argue that the distinction between a technological object and artistic object is set entirely in the mind of man. [6]  One must also remember that "technology"  can refer both to the "skill" necessary to produce and use technological objects, as well as those objects themselves, thus describing both a process and its result.

A more restricted, yet very often used definition, is contained within the terms "modern technology" and "modern technological development". (The second of these phrases is often rendered as "modern technological change", as opposed to "progress" or "advance", as a slight ambiguity becomes associated with technological processes of change.) Technology, in this sense, refers to those technologies peculiar to "modern technological" societies. These technologies (and, quite possibly, the various ideologies specific to those societies) arose as a result of the Industrial Revolution and subsequent technological revolutions and innovations. The Industrial Revolution might be seen as arising from the triumph of the earlier Scientific Revolution, linked with the Enlightenment and seventeenth-century Deism. [7]

One might well ask if the computer and associated technologies, especially in communications, do not in fact represent a "quantum leap" from modern, industrial technology, to a "post-modern", "post-industrial" level of technology. If one holds to a form of technological and economic determinism, one could argue that computer technology would have a nearly incalculable and incomprehensible impact on society. It might be argued that the transformation would be so total there is no point trying to predict it. Entirely new, seemingly bizarre, thought-systems and ideologies would arise. [8]  Various concepts, like "the information society" or "the global village" have been advanced by theorists painstakingly groping with these issues. [9] ESR

Notes (rendered continuously):

  1. Society is the basic unit by which human existence can be defined. This is the premise of all sociology.
  2. Note that the term ideology has certain negative connotations, for example, for Marxist thinkers. I am using it here in the sense of a "value-system". A "ruling ideology" is therefore the dominant value-system of a society. Note that democracy is formally a system where different "ideologies" compete, or which aspires to be "non-ideological". Practically speaking, it is impossible to be non-ideological or "value-free": the act of denying all values, except those that arise from individual whim, is itself a statement of value.
  3. One might argue that democracy is a way of mediating this process of shifting ideologies. However, as democracy is, or has become "liberal democracy" – in fact equated with a certain form of liberalism – these arguments hold little water. It is always important to distinguish the "real" as opposed to the "formal" in politics.
  4. This approach is based on anthropology, where those notions are constantly examined and re-examined.
  5. By physical environment, I mean the physical world around us, by social environment, the social system we live in.
  6. I do not want to get into the whole question of art vs. technology. The state where the creation of a technological artifact was also a process of artistic creation is seen as an ideal. However, this sort of "craft" seems possible only in a pre-Modern society. A critical concept one can consider is that of the "Machine" as opposed to an "organic" creation of man. The imagery of the Machine is very potent and terrifying – the vision of Man reduced to a mechanistic process. Related to this is the notion of extreme alienation that the Machine engenders. It is (or seems to be) the ultimate Other, something remote from Man, yet also created by him. It seems that nothing can ever be the same after the coming of the Industrial Revolution.
  7. This is often seen as the basic historical pattern of the so-called Modern Era. The beginning of this process can be traced back to the collapse of the authority of the Catholic Church, which sparked the Renaissance. The reaction to the Renaissance was the Reformation. Once the Christian Church had become fragmented and the Protestant notion of individual salvation gained currency, it was an easy step towards individualistic and scientific thought-systems once the initial fervor of faith had been lost. The connection between Protestantism and capitalism has often been traced. A technological or economic determinism would claim the inevitability of this whole process.
  8. It would seem that an entirely new development in technology would have consequences that are entirely new and cannot be foreseen. Our assessment of this depends heavily whether we are entirely "environmental determinists" (i.e., believe that human beings are entirely determined by their immediate environment) – or see some irreducible element in human nature and the psyche – such as the collective unconscious and the Jungian archetypes.
  9. Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler are two of the best-known thinkers in this area.

To be continued.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.







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