Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

heed the Marxist critique

Kevin Kelly has a book coming out soon called What Technology Wants. Kevin, meet Leo Marx:

We amplify the hazardous character of the concept by investing it with agency — by using the word technology as the subject of active verbs. Take, for example, a stock historical generalization such as: “the cotton-picking machine transformed the southern agricultural economy and set off the Great Migration of black farm workers to northern cities.” Here we tacitly invest a machine with the power to initiate change, as if it were capable of altering the course of events, of history itself. By treating these inanimate objects — machines — as causal agents, we divert attention from the human (especially socioeconomic and political) relations responsible for precipitating this social upheaval. Contemporary discourse, private and public, is filled with hackneyed vignettes of technologically activated social change — pithy accounts of “the direction technology is taking us” or “changing our lives.”

. . . To attribute specific events or social developments to the historical agency of so basic an aspect of human behavior makes little or no sense. Technology, as such, makes nothing happen. By now, however, the concept has been endowed with a thing-like autonomy and a seemingly magical power of historical agency. We have made it an all-purpose agent of change. As compared with other means of reaching our social goals, the technological has come to seem the most feasible, practical, and economically viable. It relieves the citizenry of onerous decision-making obligations and intensifies their gathering sense of political impotence. The popular belief in technology as a — if not the — primary force shaping the future is matched by our increasing reliance on instrumental standards of judgment, and a corresponding neglect of moral and political standards, in making judgments about the direction of society. To expose the hazards embodied in this pivotal concept is a vital responsibility of historians of technology.


  • The first thing that popped into my mind when I read this was the advent of steel weapons, and the changes in the socio-political landscape that followed.

  • There's always the danger, in examining technology's effects on society, to mistake agency for autonomy, but, still, Marx here goes too far in the other direction.

  • I'm wondering if Nick Carr would elaborate on his comment that Marx goes too far in the other direction. I suppose I think that inanimate objects don't possess agency but rather instrumentality. Agency seems to me to entail intentionality.

  • First of all, Kevin Kelly isn't careless or coarse in his thoughts. I've been admiring his blog previews of the book's chapters for a while. Kelly goes for depth and Marx totally misses the point by reacting to the book's title alone.

    And I agree with Nick Carr. Marx uses a lot of words to merely say what a lot of people would like to be reassured by. But the agent/instrument distinction is only tentative compared to our adamant and impatient reality. We both roll over too willingly to technology and fail to respect its potency to change things.

    I tried to ask what can we and can't we do to make tools "just tools," here.

  • I misinterpreted the main post as saying Leo Marx was responding to Kevin Kelly! Instead, Kelly is writing after Marx and does rise above the sloppiness Marx is decrying.

    Once again I recommend sampling some of Kelly's blog, for instance, the piece about the Amish. Or this essay What Technology Wants.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]