Pacey (1983). Chapter 2 – Beliefs about Progress. (The Culture of Technology.)

Pacey, A. (1983). Chapter 2 – Beliefs about Progress. In The Culture of Technology (pp. 13–34). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[“Measuring progress” …]

“… it is tempting for the engineer to think of steam engines only in terms of their mechanical working. The reality, of course, is that steam engines were dependent on men, not only to stoke the furnaces, but to adjust valves, oil bearings and carry out maintenance.” (p 18)

[“The organization of work” …]

“… primarily, the factory was [page break] an invention concerning the organization of work, with an earlier origin than most of the machines it contained.” (p 18-19)

“Merchants trading in cotton and wool, yarn and cloth, wanted better control over production than they could achieve while spinners and weavers worked in their own homes. They believed that if they brought these people together in supervised workshops, they could stop embezzlement of materials, achieve more consistent quality,14 and enforce longer working hours and a faster pace of work. … the essence of the early factories was discipline, and the opportunity which this gave entrepreneurs regarding the ‘direction and coordination of labour’.16” (p 19)

“Like all complex phenomena, the industrial revolution had multiple causes. Some were linked to banking and finance, some to the availability of material resources, some to population trends. Britain’s essential contributions were related to all these, also to empirical skill, and above all to insights into the organization of work. But as science-based industries emerged later, Britain was less well equipped than Germany or France to take a lead.” (p 20)

“Changes in the organization of work not only meant an enforced pace of work and fixed hours, but especially the division of labour. … Wherever possible, machines or special tools were introduced to make these elementary operations even simpler, so that less skill was needed. … Thus work was both fragmented and deskilled.” (p 20)

“… the work of the designer has been undergoing exactly the same process of deskilling as manual work. Sometimes he is reduced to making a series of routine choices between fixed alternatives, in which case ‘his skill as a designer is not used, and decays’.” (p 22)

“In the modem ‘revolution’ the whole system is transformed. New materials, techniques and machines are used in an effort ‘to dissolve the labour process as a process conducted by the worker and reconstitute it as a process conducted by management’. The individual workman or operative is analysed almost as a piece of machinery; he or she is seen as a ‘sensory device’, linked to a ‘computing mechanism’ and ‘mechanical linkages’. This, says Braverman, is what modem industry ‘makes of humanity’; labour is ‘used as an interchangeable part’ and progress is seen as a matter of indefinitely increasing the number of tasks that can be carried out by machine. The final triumph is achieved when all the human components have been exchanged for mechanical or electronic ones.” (p 23)

[“Determinist deductions” …]

“All these views are variants of an attitude often referred to as technological determinism, which presents technical advance as a process of steady development dragging human society along in its train. Then many social problems are regarded as being due to ‘culture lag’, which arises when social norms and institutions fail to adapt to the latest developments in, say, automation or cable television.” (24)

“Innovation may then be seen as the outcome of a cycle of mutual adjustments between social, cultural and technical factors. The cycle may begin with a technical idea, or a radical change in organization, but either way, there will be interaction with the other factors as the innovation comes to fruition.” (p 25)

“As another student of human evolution has put it, ‘technology has always been with us. It is not something outside society, some external force by which we are pushed around … society and technology are … reflections of one another.’28 Equally, it is a myth that cultural lag occurs in every community as people try to keep up with their progressive technology. In the interactions which take place between various aspects of human activity ‘it is often technology that is lagging’.29” (p 26)

“When people think that the development of technology follows a smooth path of advance predetermined by the logic of science and technique, they are more willing to accept the advice of ‘experts’ and less likely to expect public participation in decisions about technology policy.” (p 26)

“… a view of progress which implies only one dimension of choice: either you accept innovation unreservedly, or you opt out. Silicon microchips have potential for many kinds of development, though; it is choices between these that matter.” (p 27)

[“Movements in progress” …]

“But choice here is not the simple [page break] weighing of known options — it involves, rather, different ways of approaching the unknown.” (p 28-29)

“The need is to keep open the possibility of waking up to the experience that there are new, radically different ways of dealing with economic problems, and that there are unexplored options for human benefit from technology.” (p 34)

Selected References

  • 14 Charles Babbage’s preface in Peter Barlow, A Treatise on the Manufactures and Machinery of Great Britain, London: 1836, pp. 50-5.
  • 16 D.S. Lai1des, quoted by Stephen A. Marglin, ‘What do bosses do?’, in The Division of Labour, ed. André Gorz, Hassocks (Sussex): Harvester Press, 1977.
  • 20 Harry Braverman, Labour and Monopoly Capital, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974, pp. 213-20: pp. 169-70, 180, 182 and 223 are also drawn on in this section.
  • 24 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson, New York: Vintage Books, 1964, chapter 2, pp. 74, 89.
  • 28 Solly Zuckerman, Beyond the Ivory Tower, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970, p. 129.
  • 29 C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970, p. 101.
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