Technology and Society

Graham Seaman [graham at]

URL: link


Philosophers have interpreted technology. Some of them have even criticised it. But if the point is to change it, what changes should be made and how? Can the story of free software suggest how general changes in technology can be made? Or can critical theories of technology suggest which direction free software should take?

The non-critical view

'The form of made things is always subject to change in response to their real or perceived shortcomings, their failure to function properly. This principle governs all invention, innovation and ingenuity... Since nothing is perfect .. everything is subject to change over time'

(Petroski, the Evolution of Useful Things, 1993)

The Whig view of technology: everything is always changing for the better. Start from DOS and you will inevitably pass through Windows 2K; Moore's law is a law.

Left Critic: Marx

Criticism limited to technology in production


'This specialisation in passivity, i.e. the abolition of specialisation itself as specialisation, is what characterises machine labour. Improvements within the mechanical workshop itself are aimed at removing as far as possible all the skills which have again grown up on its own basis. It is therefore completely simple labour, i.e. uniformity, emptiness and subordination to the machine.'

(Marx, 1861 ManuscriptsRemote link)

The path of technology is just as determined as for the non-critical view - but now (alienated) reason is imposed by capital. Since the designers/inventers/programmers who implement the machines are invisible ('numerically unimportant'... 'insignificant'...), there is no human agency to disturb the process.

Right critics: stage 1

Practical criticism: Cobbett, Ruskin, Thoreau ...

NB. illegal to make candles at home at this time

Strategy: remove dependence on factory work and factory products by restoring and creating home-based production.

Right critics: stage 2

The pessimists: Heidegger, Tolkien, Ellul

Nature as 'standing reserve'

The Entwives gave their minds to the lesser trees, and to the meads in the sunshine... they did not desire to speak with these things... the Entwives ordered them to grow according to their wishes, and bear leaf and fruit according to their liking; for the Entwives desired order, and plenty, and peace (by which they meant things should remain where they set them).

(J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings (1954)

'Technique must reduce man to a technical animal, the king of the slaves of technique. Human caprice crumbles before this necessity; there can be no human autonomy in the face of technical autonomy.'

(Jaques Ellul, The Technological Society, 1954)

'[By] the Machine (or Magic)...I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent powers or talents - or even the use of those talents with the corrupt motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form, though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized ... The basic motive for magia ... is immediacy: speed, reduction of labour and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect.'

J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters (1951/4)

Technology's direction is fixed in advance by Reason. And it is a bad direction. Pessimism or mysticism are the only alternatives ...

The bicycle story

'The 'working' of a machine is not an intrinsic property of the artefact, explaining its success; rather it should figure as a result of the machine's sucess'

Wiebe Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites and Bulbs (1995)

If 'working' is redefineable, technology does not have a single predetermined path


Common element: restore human control over technology. Requires both openness and involvement.

'A truly technological machine is an open one, and the ensemble of open machines presupposes man as permanent organiser, as living interpreter of machines both in themselves and in relation to other machines. Far from being overseer of a gang of slaves, man is the permanent organiser of a society of technical objects which need him as musicians need a conductor... So man's function is to become both coordinator and permanent inventor of the machines around him'

Simondon, Du mode d'existence des objets techniques (1958)

All caught on the 'how' question:

What 'works'?

Politics in a post-industrial society must be mainly concerned with the development of design criteria for tools rather than as now with the choice of production goals

(Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality)

The Lucas Plan shopping list:

  1. The process by which the product is identified and designed is itself an important part of the total process.
  2. The means by which it is produced, used and repaired should be non-alienating.
  3. The nature of the product should be such as to render it as visible and understandable as possible while compatible with its performance requirements.
  4. The product should be designed in such a way as to make it repairable.
  5. The process of manufacture, use and repair should be such as to conserve energy and materials.
  6. The manufacturing process, the manner in which the product is used, and the form of its repair and final disposal should be ecologically desireable and sustainable.
  7. Products should be considered for their long-term characteristics rather than short-term ones.
  8. The nature of the products and their means of production should be such as to help and liberate human beings rather than constrain, control and physically or mentally damage them.
  9. The product should asssist cooperation between people as producers and consumers, and between nation states, rather than induce primitive competition.
  10. Simple, safe, robust design should be regarded as a virtue rather than complex 'brittle' systems.
  11. The product and processes should be such that they can be controlled by human beings rather than the reverse.
  12. The product and processes should be regarded as important more in respect of their use value than their exchange value.
  13. The products should be such as to assist minorities, disadvantaged groups, and those materially and otherwise deprived.
  14. Products for the Third World which provide for mutually non-exploitative relationships with the developed countries are to be advocated.
  15. Products and process should be regarded as part of culture, and as such meet the cultural, historical and other requirements of those who will build and use them.
  16. In the manufacture of products, and in their use and repair, one should be concerned not merely with production, but with the reproduction of knowledge and competence.

But how?

Free software -> technology

('Rather than present this field as a magic act, the sources of lysergic acid materials in nature shall be detailed and their mystery removed')

Is it making at home?


Almost (no ICs) anything... (but why no precision plastics!?)

Need 'makeability': continuity through raw materials to modular blocks plus culture - valid alternative definition of 'works' available at start


Semiconductor technology does not work any more!

'The rules were different in the 1960s ... trying to hold back the spread of information ... felt unsporting ... scientists threw their employers secrets across the table as casually as they would pay for a round of drinks.'

(Inside Intel, Tim Jackson)

But ... where are the polymer people?

Suppose this works: ecological problems immediately become obvious. Who decides how urgent they are?

Technology -> Free software

Any reverse lessons?

If all the office workers of the world used Star Office instead of Word, what would have changed?

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