"More than machinery, we need humanity."

“The Machine is Ambivalent” – on “inherent” qualities in technology

The question “is technology inherently evil or is the question a matter of how it is exploited and distorted in contemporary capitalism?” (quoted from Heathwood Press), is the type of conundrum that has lead to a torrent of books, articles, and debates. Indeed the easiest answer is not “technology is inherently good” or “technology is inherently evil” but to answer with another question: “how much time do you have? We could be here all week.”

Nevertheless, even if it is difficult to briefly sketch out a total answer, there are still points to be raised that may point towards one answer rather than another. The term “evil” certainly only makes the matter a bit more complicated, and thus it is easier to instead ponder Heathwood’s question: “is technology inherently coercive or is there still hope?”

Before this matter can be entered into it is important to first recognize that it may be fairly problematic to even speak of “technology.” What is meant by “technology?” The hammer? The steam engine? The computer? All of these? Some of these? Without delving into it further it is worth at least mentioning Leo Marx’s important paper on the topic “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept” an article which charts the difficulty of readily defining “technology.”  For there remains much difficulty in placing the word “technology” next to the word “inherently,” or, as Leo Marx put it (italics his):

“We amplify the hazardous character of the concept by investing it with agency—by using the word technology as the subject of active verbs.” (Marx, 576)

Yet it is irresponsible to sidestep the question merely on semantic grounds.

Technology does not naturally exist in the world. Humanity did not one day cross a stream and discover the phonograph or the airplane just sitting there waiting for them. Thus thinking of “inherent” qualities of technology is difficult, for technology has no qualities that were not imparted to it in the act of a given technology’s creation. True most technologies are made up of many “naturally occurring elements” (wood, stone, metal) yet it was in all cases human intervention that selected and incorporated these natural elements into a new (non-naturally occurring) creation, and the historical process by which humans picked certain elements over others further plays into the human choices that inform technology.

Thus, if it is fair to claim (as I think it is), that technology (still a “hazardous concept”) is always created by humans than it is the humans who invest (through the act of their creations) values into these technologies. These are values that can be further broadened or mutated as they are made use of by a society, and herein arises the matter of “coercive” versus “non-coercive” societies. There is a long history of the dream of technologies that would free humans from labor and lead to a utopia of leisure and plenty, and yet there is an equally vast history of these same devices winding up being used to increase the leisure and plenty of the wealthy and powerful while entrenching the poverty and destitution of the less powerful.

What emerges in the history of technologies (as written about by the likes of Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Langdon Winner, Neil Postman, etc…) is a historical march in which the types of technologies that transform society are those that reinforce the prevailing value system of that society. Values that may include keeping the current power structure in place, breaking down the resistance of workers, and transforming a populace into ready consumers of cheap machine made tchotchkes. Or, to return to the original question of “is technology inherently coercive?“ A simple answer may be, in an inherently coercive society, the technologies championed by that society will be inherently coercive.

This does not mean that a technology may not also be used for subversive purposes (you can use Google to search for anti-capitalist books, or you can use it to look up celebrity gossip) but such “subversive” purposes still make use of a technology that has a more coercive bias (technology’s accept certain kinds of uses, and a user must conform their activities to the demands of a given technology). Technology as a broad category (still a hazardous concept) cannot be easily tagged as “coercive” or “liberating,” even if certain technologies may more clearly lean in one direction than another. Furthermore this is made more difficult by the way that “coercive” and “liberating” dance with each other; the automobile, for example, may liberate an individual to hop behind the wheel and simply drive off, but at the same time it coercively binds them to a system of gas stations, tune ups, and the modes of production that designed and brought that car to market where this person bought (or stole) the vehicle. Coercive? Liberating? Look not at the technology but at the society that created and champions this technology.

As Lewis Mumford wrote (in Technics and Civilization [which may be a more optimistic reading of technology than his later works]):

“the machine is ambivalent. It is both an instrument of liberation and one of repression. It has economized human energy and it has misdirected it. It has created a wide framework of order and it has produced muddle and chaos. It has nobly served human purposes and it has distorted and denied them.” (Mumford, 283)

Yet this is not to claim that technology (or “the machine”) is neutral, but to show that the values found in a given machine and its use are always those invested in it by the human society that creates and uses the device. Are there certain technologies that have an authoritarian or coercive bias? Certainly, but this is not about “technology” but about the desire of societies to use technology for authoritarian and coercive purposes and to design and build more technologies that amplify these coercive and authoritarian tendencies.

To return to the question again: “is technology inherently coercive or is there hope?”  The answer is a difficult one, and it suggests that a coercive society will make use of technologies that can be deployed for coercive purposes thereby strengthening this coercive society. If there is hope (of which Walter Benjamin said “it is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us”) than it is not to be found in some gadget brought to market in our coercive society (even “ethical technical alternatives” like the Fairphone), but in the struggle to create a non-coercive society. And such a society will have much to overcome in terms of the “coercive” biases that have been built into much modern technology.

Technology has no qualities except those that are invested in it by the society that creates and uses it (which is not the same as “neutral”). “Inherently evil?” “Inherently coercive?” These are questions answered by a given society, though history (longstanding and contemporary) provides plenty of evidence that it is not only capitalism that can use technology for coercive and authoritarian purposes. “Technology” is too broad a category to label all of it as “coercive” or “authoritarian,” what is needed is to look honestly at technologies and see whether the balance of biases built into them tilt towards coercion or, perhaps if we are romantic, in another direction.

Technology may not be “inherently coercive” or “inherently evil” but that is no reason to place any hope in technology.

[NOTE – this brief {haha} piece was written to contribute to a discussion taking place in one of the forums at Heathwood Press {a group doing excellent work to advance Critical Theory for the current age}, the forum arose from a back-and-forth exchange on Twitter that revealed the poverty of that service for lengthy debates]

Works Cited

Marx, Leo. “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept.” Technology and Culture, volume 51, Number 3, July 2010, pg. 561-577

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. University of Chicago Press, 2010.



About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

10 comments on ““The Machine is Ambivalent” – on “inherent” qualities in technology

  1. N Filbert
    July 2, 2013

    remarkable postings of late! Thanks for thinking through these things for/with us

  2. T E Stazyk
    July 2, 2013

    I like the term “a hazardous concept.” A hammer can create or destroy and yes, some technologies are inherently positive or negative in how they make or enable human behaviour.

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This entry was posted on July 2, 2013 by in Civil Liberties, Culture, Government, History, Philosophy, Society, Technology, The Internet and tagged , , .

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