Questioning technological determinism

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Credit: gartonjoneswestminster.com

In the first issue of a new open-access journal, Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, Taylor Dotson – an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Liberal Arts, and Social Sciences at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology – writes about the assumptions, beliefs, and patterns of thought undergirding “technological determinism and permissionless innovation as technocratic governing mentalities.”* That is, they contribute to the biasing of political discourses, practices, and organizations toward non-decision making and adaptation with regard to technological change.

It’s a most interesting paper, and I think Dotson’s right on the mark. This paper is highly relevant to the current discourse on the future of human space flight.

Dotson provides concise definitions of his two key concepts: “technological determinism [is] the idea that technology autonomously drives history, and permissionless innovation [is] the belief that technology best benefits humanity if innovation remains nearly unregulated.”

According to a well-sourced Wikipedia entry on the topic (thanks to those who assembled it!), “Most interpretations of technological determinism share two general ideas: that the development of technology itself follows a predictable, traceable path largely beyond cultural or political influence, and that technology in turn has “effects” on societies that are inherent, rather than socially conditioned or produced because that society organizes itself to support and further develop a technology once it has been introduced.”

Dotson rightfully characterizes technological determinism and permissionless innovation as “normative phenomena.” That is, “their foundational beliefs, ideas, and assumptions constitute governing mentalities that shape discourse, thinking and action regarding technological innovation to the advantage of a narrow range of elite actors.” (I’ve added the emphasis.) “Because they help mobilize bias (within the political organization of technological societies so as to encourage adaptation to technological change) and non-decision-making (regarding the potential consequences of emerging technologies rather than conscious democratic steering) they can be termed technocratic governing mentalities.”

My own observations support Dotson’s – “permissionless innovation is quickly becoming the motto of those aiming to legitimate a ‘hands-off’ approach to the sociotechnical ‘disruptions’ sought by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.” (See my post of June 25, 2014, on Jill Lepore’s critique of the idea of “disruptive innovation.”)

He observes that “permissionless innovation” is a manifestation of what he calls “Silicon Valley techno-libertarianism.” From my perch inside the aerospace community, I interpret talk (thank goodness, that’s all it is so far) for the human colonization of other planets, the mining of asteroids, and large-scale space tourism (hotels on the Moon and such) as advocacy for permissionless innovation.

This administration’s seemingly uncritical embrace of “innovation” disturbs me. Enactment of legislation legalizing asteroid mining appalls me – for all the important issues that Congress is not acting on, it had time for this one? The media industry’s enthusiasm for technological innovation, with little critical analysis and plenty of cheerleading for the next wacky, impractical, and cost-prohibitive toy (read: space elevators, planetary terraforming, warp drive and the like) is bothersome as well.

I’ve studied the history of the idea of progress, which is deeply rooted in Christian theology. It’s a very Western idea. The idea that technological progress (innovation, disruptive innovation, whatever you want to call it) is inherently necessary and good is questionable. I myself would go so far as to say that it’s dangerous. As Dotson points out, this belief leads societies to embrace new technologies with little thought to the social change they may bring out – good, bad, or ugly.

Dotson says “meeting the challenges presented by technological determinism and permissionless innovation will entail,” among other things, “challenging system-justifying ideologies.” My ongoing project involves just that. (See, for example, my post of March 27.) Right on, Professor Dotson, I’m with you.

 

* “Technological Determinism and Permissionless Innovation as Technocratic Governing Mentalities: Psychocultural Barriers to the

Democratization of Technology,” ESTS 1, 2015, 98-120, http://estsjournal.org/article/view/8/20.

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