Prologue: the Net and the Self

Technology, Society, and Historical Change

Download 101.5 Kb.
Size101.5 Kb.
1   2   3   4   5   6

Technology, Society, and Historical Change

The Information technology revolution, because of its pervasiveness throughout the whole realm of human activity, will be my entry point in analyzing the complexity of the new economy, society, and culture in the making. This methodological choice does not imply that new social forms and processes emerge as a consequence of technological change. Of course, technology does not determine society.2 Nor does society script the course of technological change, since many factors, including individual inventiveness and entrepreneurialism, intervene in the process of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and social applications, so that the final outcome depends on a complex pattern of interaction.3 Indeed, the dilemma of technological determinism is probably a false problem,4 since technology is society, and society cannot be understood or represented without its technological tools.5 Thus, when in the 1970s a new technological paradigm, organized around information technology, came to be constituted, mainly in the United States (see chapter I), it was a specific segment of American society, in interaction with the global economy and with world geopolitics, that materialized into a new way of producing, communicating, managing, and living. That the constitution of this paradigm took place in the United States, and to some extent in California, and in the 1970s, probably had considerable consequences for the forms and evolution of new Information technologies. For instance, in spite of the decisive role of military funding and markets in fostering early stages of the electronics industry during the 1940s-1960s, the technological blossoming that took place in the early 1970s can be somehow related to the culture of freedom, individual innovation, and entrepreneurialism that grew out of the 1960s' culture of American campuses. Not so much in terms of its politics, since Silicon Valley was, and is, a solid bastion of the conservative vote, and most innovators were meta-political, but with regard to social values of breaking away from established patterns of behavior, both in society at large and in the business world. The emphasis on personalized devices, on


interactivity, on networking, and the relentless pursuit of new technological breakthroughs, even when it apparently did not make much business sense, was clearly in discontinuity with the somewhat cautious Tradition of the corporate world. The Information technology revolution half-consciously6 diffused through the material culture of our societies the libertarian spirit that flourished in the 1960s' movements. Yet, as soon as new Information technologies diffused, and were appropriated by different countries, various cultures, diverse organizations, and miscellaneous goals, they exploded in all kinds of applications and uses that fed back into technological innovation, accelerating the speed, broadening the scope of technological change, and diversifying its sources.7 An illustration will help us to understand the importance of unintended social consequences of technology.8

As is known, the Internet originated in a daring scheme imagined in the 1960s by the technological warriors of the US Defense Department Advanced Research Projects Agency (the mythical DARPA) to prevent a Soviet takeover or destruction of American communications in the event of nuclear war. To some extent, it was the electronic equivalent of the Maoist tactics of dispersal of guerrilla forces around a vast territory to counter an enemy's might with versatility and knowledge of terrain. The outcome was a network architecture which, as its inventors wanted, cannot be controlled from any center, and is made up of thousands of autonomous computer networks that have innumerable ways to link up, going around electronic barriers. Ultimately ARPANET, the network set up by the US Defense Department, became the foundation of a global, horizontal communication network


of thousands of computer networks (comprising over 300 million users in 2000, up from less than 20 million in 1996, and growing fast) that has been appropriated for all kinds of purposes, quite removed from the concerns of an extinct Cold War, by individuals and groups around the world. Indeed, it was via the Internet that Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of Chiapas' Zapatistas, communicated with the world, and with the media, from the depths of Lacandon forest. And the Internet played an instrumental role in the development of Falun Gong, the Chinese cult that challenged the Chinese Communist party in 1999, and in the organization and diffusion of the protest against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in December 1999.

Yet, if society does not determine technology, it can, mainly through the state, suffocate its development. Or alternatively, again mainly by state intervention, it can embark on an accelerated process of technological modernization able to change the fate of economies, military power, and social well-being in a few years. Indeed, the ability or inability of societies to master technology, and particularly technologies that are strategically decisive in each historical period, largely shapes their destiny, to the point where we could say that while technology per se does not determine historical evolution and social change, technology (or the lack of it) embodies the capacity of societies to transform themselves, as well as the uses to which societies, always in a conflictive process, decide to put their technological potential.9

Thus, around 1400, when the European Renaissance was planting the intellectual seeds of technological change that would dominate the world three centuries later, China was the most advanced technological civilization in the world, according to Mokyr.10 Key inventions had developed in China centuries earlier, even a millennium and a half earlier, as in the case of blast furnaces that allowed the casting of iron in China by 200 BC. Also, Su Sung introduced the water clock in AD I086, surpassing the accuracy of measurement of European mechanical clocks of the same date. The iron plow was introduced in the sixth century, and adapted to wet-field rice cultivation two centuries later. In textiles, the spinning wheel appeared at the same time as in the West, by the thirteenth century, but advanced much faster in China because there was an old-established Tradition of sophisticated weaving equipment: draw looms to weave silk were used in Han times. The adoption of water power was parallel to Europe: by the eighth century


the Chinese were using hydraulic trip hammers, and in 1280 there was wide diffusion of the vertical water wheel. Ocean travel was easier for the Chinese at an earlier date than for European vessels: they invented the compass around AD 960, and their junks were the most advanced ships in the world by the end of the fourteenth century, enabling long sea trips. In military matters, the Chinese, besides inventing gun powder, developed a chemical industry that was able to provide powerful explosives, and the crossbow and the trebuchet were used by Chinese armies centuries ahead of Europe. In medicine, techniques such as acupuncture were yielding extraordinary results that only recently have been universally acknowledged. And, of course, the first information processing revolution was Chinese: paper and printing were Chinese inventions. Paper was introduced in China 1,000 years earlier than in the West, and printing probably began in the late seventh century. As Jones writes: "China came within a hair's breadth of industrializing in the fourteenth century."11 That it did not, changed the history of the world. When in 1842 the Opium Wars led to Britain's colonial impositions, China realized, too late, that isolation could not protect the Middle Kingdom from the evil consequences of technological inferiority. It took more than one century thereafter for China to start recovering from such a catastrophic deviation from its historical trajectory.

Explanations for such a stunning historical course are both numerous and controversial. There is no place in this Prologue to enter the complexity of the debate. But, on the basis of research and analysis by historians such as Needham, Qian, Jones, and Mokyr,12 it is possible to suggest an interpretation that may help to understand, in general terms, the interaction between society, history, and technology. Indeed, most hypotheses concerning cultural differences (even those without implicitly racist undertones) fail to explain, as Mokyr points out, the difference not between China and Europe but between China in 1300 and China in 1800. Why did a culture and a kingdom that had been the technological leader of the world for thousands of years suddenly become technologically stagnant precisely at the moment when Europe embarked on the age of discoveries, and then on the industrial revolution?

Needham has proposed that Chinese culture was more prone than Western values to a harmonious relationship between man and nature, something that could be jeopardized by fast technological innovation. Furthermore, he objects to the Western criteria used to measure technological development. However, this cultural emphasis on a


holistic approach to development had not impeded technological innovation for millenniums, nor stopped ecological deterioration as a result of irrigation works in southern China, when the conservation of nature was subordinated to agricultural production in order to feed a growing population. In fact, Wen-yuan Qian, in his powerful book, takes exception to Needham's somewhat excessive enthusiasm for the feats of Chinese traditional technology, notwithstanding his shared admiration for Needham's monumental life-long work. Qian calls for a closer analytical linkage between the development of Chinese science and the characteristics of Chinese civilization dominated by the dynamics of state. Mokyr also considers the state to be the crucial factor in explaining Chinese technological retardation in modern times. The explanation may be proposed in three steps: technological innovation was, for centuries, fundamentally in the hands of the state; after 1400 the Chinese state, under the Ming and Qing dynasties, lost interest in technological innovation; and, partly because of their dedication to serve the state, cultural and social elites were focused on arts, humanities, and self-promotion vis-à-vis the imperial bureaucracy. Thus, what does seem to be crucial is the role of the state, and the changing orientation of state policy. Why would a state that had been the greatest hydraulic engineer in history, and had established an agricultural extension system to improve agricultural productivity since the Han period, suddenly become inhibited from technological innovation, even forbidding geographical exploration, and abandoning the construction of large ships by 1430? The obvious answer is that it was not the same state; not only because they were of different dynasties, but because the bureaucratic class became more deeply entrenched in the administration due to a longer than usual period of uncontested domination.

According to Mokyr, it appears that the determining factor for technological conservatism was the rulers' fears of the potentially disruptive impacts of technological change on social stability. Numerous forces opposed the diffusion of technology in China, as in other societies, particularly the urban guilds. Bureaucrats content with the status quo were concerned by the possibility of triggering social conflicts that could coalesce with other sources of latent opposition in a society that had been kept under control for several centuries. Even the two enlightened Manchu despots of the eighteenth century, K'ang Chi and Ch'ien Lung, focused their efforts on pacification and order, rather than on unleashing new development. Conversely, exploration and contacts with foreigners, beyond controlled trade and the acquisition of weapons, were deemed at best unnecessary, at worst threatening, because of the uncertainty they would imply. A bureaucratic state


without external incentive and with internal disincentives to engage in technological modernization opted for the most prudent neutrality, as a result stalling the technological trajectory that China had been following for centuries, if not millenniums, precisely under state guidance. A discussion of the factors underlying the dynamics of the Chinese state under the Ming and Qing dynasties is clearly beyond the scope of this book. What matters for our research purposes are two teachings from this fundamental experience of interrupted technological development: on the one hand, the state can be, and has been in history, in China and elsewhere, a leading force for technological innovation; on the other hand, precisely because of this, when the state reverses its interest in technological development, or becomes unable to perform it under new conditions, a statist model of innovation leads to stagnation, because of the sterilization of society's autonomous innovative energy to create and apply technology. That the Chinese state could, centuries later, build anew an advanced technological basis, in nuclear technology, missiles, satellite launching, and electronics,13 demonstrates again the emptiness of a predominantly cultural interpretation of technological development and backwardness: the same culture may induce very different technological trajectories depending on the pattern of relationships between state and society. However, the exclusive dependence on the state has a price, and the price for China was that of retardation, famine, epidemics, colonial domination, and civil war, until at least the middle of the twentieth century.

A rather similar, contemporary story can be told, and will be told in this book (in volume III), of the inability of Soviet statism to master the Information technology revolution, thus stalling its productive capacity and undermining its military might. Yet we should not jump to the ideological conclusion that all state intervention is counterproductive to technological development, indulging in a historical reverence for unfettered, individual entrepreneurialism. Japan is of course the counter-example, both to Chinese historical experience and to the inability of the Soviet state to adapt to the American-initiated revolution in information technology.

Historically, Japan went, even deeper than China, through a period of historical isolation under the Tokugawa Shogunate (established in 1603), between 1636 and 1853, precisely during the critical period of the formation of an industrial system in the Western hemisphere. Thus, while at the turn of the seventeenth century Japanese merchants were trading throughout East and South-East Asia, using modern vessels of up to 700 tons, the construction of ships above 50 tons was prohib-


ited in 1635, and all Japanese ports, except Nagasaki, were closed to foreigners, while trade was restricted to China, Korea, and Holland.14 Technological isolation was not total during these two centuries, and endogenous innovation did allow Japan to proceed with incremental change at a faster pace than China.15 Yet, because Japan's technological level was lower than China's, by the mid-nineteenth century the kurobune (black ships) of Commodore Perry could impose trade and diplomatic relations on a country substantially lagging behind Western technology. However, as soon as the 1868 Ishin Meiji (Meiji Restoration) created the political conditions for a decisive state-led modernization,16 Japan progressed in advanced technology by leaps and bounds in a very short time span.17As just one significant illustration, because of its current strategic importance, let us briefly recall the extraordinary development of electrical engineering and communication applications in Japan in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.18 Indeed, the first independent department of electrical engineering in the world was established in 1873 in the newly founded Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo, under the leadership of its dean, Henry Dyer, a Scottish mechanical engineer. Between 1887 and 1892, a leading academic in electrical engineering, British professor William Ayrton, was invited to teach at the college, being instrumental in disseminating knowledge to the new Generation of Japanese engineers, so that by the end of the century the Telegraph Bureau was able to replace foreigners in all its technical departments. Technology transfer from the West was sought through a variety of mechanisms. In 1873, the machine shop of the Telegraph Bureau sent a Japanese clockmaker, Tanaka Seisuke, to the International Machines exhibition in Vienna to obtain information on the machines. About ten years later, all the bureau's machines were made in Japan. Based on this technology, Tanaka Daikichi founded in 1882 an electrical factory, Shibaura Works, which, after its acquisition by Mitsui, went on to


become Toshiba. Engineers were sent to Europe and to America. And Western Electric was permitted to produce and sell in Japan in 1899, in a joint venture with Japanese industrialists: the name of the company was NEC. On such a technological basis Japan went full speed into the electrical and communications age before 1914: by 1914 total power production had reached I,555,000 kw/hour, and 3,000 telephone offices were relaying a billion messages a year. It is indeed symbolic that Commodore Perry's gift to the Shogun in 1857 was a set of American telegraphs, until then never seen in Japan: the first telegraph line was laid in 1869, and ten years later Japan was connected to the whole world through a transcontinental Information network, via Siberia, operated by the Great Northern Telegraph Co., jointly managed by Western and Japanese engineers and transmitting in both English and Japanese.

The story of how Japan became a major world player in information technology industries in the last quarter of the twentieth century, under the strategic guidance of the state, is now general public knowledge, so it will be assumed in our discussion.19 What is relevant for the ideas presented here is that it happened at the same time as an industrial and scientific superpower, the Soviet Union, failed this fundamental technological transition. It is obvious, as the preceding reminders show, that Japanese technological development since the 1960s did not happen in an historical vacuum, but was rooted in a decades old tradition of engineering excellence. Yet what matters for the purpose of this analysis is to emphasize what dramatically different results state intervention (and lack of intervention) had in the cases of China and the Soviet Union, as compared to Japan in both the Meiji period and the post- Second World War period. The characteristics of the Japanese state at the roots of both processes of modernization and development are well known, both for Ishin Meiji20and for the contemporary developmental state,21and their presentation would take us excessively away from the focus of these preliminary reflections. What must be retained for the understanding of the relationship between technology and society is that the role of the state, by either stalling, unleashing, or leading technological innovation, is a decisive factor in the overall process, as it expresses and organizes the social and cultural forces that dominate in a given space and time. To a large extent, technology expresses the ability of a society to propel itself into technological

mastery through the institutions of society, including the state. The historical process through which this development of productive forces takes place earmarks the characteristics of technology and its interweaving in social relationships.

This is not different in the case of the current technological revolution. It originated and diffused, not by accident, in an historical period of the global restructuring of capitalism, for which it was an essential tool. Thus, the new society emerging from this process of change is both capitalist and informational, while presenting considerable historical variation in different countries, according to their history, culture, institutions, and their specific relationship to global capitalism and information technology.

Share with your friends:
1   2   3   4   5   6

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page