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Technological Determinism

Nicholas Johnson

NOTE: This essay is a recently discovered bit of writing by a 20-year-old Nicholas Johnson as college student in 1955. It reveals the confidence of youth since it was, apparently, prepared for distribution to media, political or other leaders of the time. It's been scanned from a yellowing carbon copy (there were no computers or copying machines in those days). It has been uploaded mostly just for fun, but also for the insights it provides as to the relationships in everyone's thinking between long-forgotten early insights and those of subsequent careers. -- N.J. August 22, 2000

There are many theories of history and social change.  Scholars have been trying for years to combine such varied problems as the fall of the Roman Empire, why men wear pants, and an increasing number of college graduates, into one all-inclusive theory.

Some believe social change is caused by religious, economic and political ideas, others that geography and natural resources are responsible, while still others advocate population character, shifts, and birth rates as the cause.  And there are many other theories as well.

The theory which I believe to be most valid, and of greatest concern to us today, is what might be called "technological determinism."  Technology means tools and gadgets, such as a spear, wheel, canoe, compass, automobile, jet plane, or hydrogen bomb.  Determinism means that it is technology which "determines" the type and degree of social change and thereby the course of history.

Human beings have always had a desire to play with their gadgets; to improve, invent, and adapt technology. They have at the same time desired to avoid change.  But technology and stability are incompatible.  Once a community has accepted the automobile, for example, they are forced to accept a revised social order.  People begin traveling more and discovering other ways of working and behaving.  Nationalities begin to intermarry where previously they did not speak.  Everyone spends more time away from home.  Change may come gradually or suddenly, but eventually it always comes.  When faced with a choice between things as they are, and a new tool, gadget, or piece of machinery, Man has always chose the new technology.

Most everyone might agree that viewing history in this way is interesting.  But how is it significant?

Let's consider another aspect of technology.  It is cumulative.  Think for a moment of the difference between a canoe and a sailing vessel.  How many hundreds of thousands of years passed between the time the first log was hollowed out and used as a canoe, and the time the first sailing ship crossed the seas?  Maybe a million years.  What changes were wrought by this technological advance?  Quite a few.  Let's compare these differences, however, with those brought on by the differences between and ordinary World War I bomb and a post-World War II cobalt covered hydrogen bomb.  In destructiveness it is a difference between killing a neighborhood of ten persons and demolishing an industrial area of ten millions.

This type of technological change demands great social change on the part of the citizens of the world.  That this change is greater than that required of those adjusting to a sailing vessel, most would concede.  How much greater would be subject to question.  The time available for such changes to be made, however, can be measured.  It is thirty-five years rather than one million.  Technology tends to be cumulative.  Technological changes come faster and faster, and each is greater than the last.  This produces the same pattern in the social changes new technology demands.

If the technological determinists are correct in their analysis, we are confronted with a tremendous responsibility.  We must make changes every day -- in our thinking, our governments, and our attitudes -- comparable to those for which our ancestors had hundreds of years.

And of possibly greater significance is the fact that if we don't make these choices fast enough we may never have a second chance.  Large scale war, as a means for solving group differences, is no longer possible.  A stronger international organization than the United Nations is inevitable if we are to survive.  Social change today is not a matter of individual frustration or social disintegration.  It is a question of continued civilization.

I believe that this theory has great validity, urgency, and potential.  Its validity can be shown from the pages of our history books.  Its urgency is measured by our present world situation.  Not thousands, but millions, must be prepared and anxious to accept different attitudes toward their fellow men.  Its potential, as a motivating idea for stage, screen, radio, TV, novel, etc., production is unchallenged.  What could be more fascinating?  We are groping for an understanding of where we are, how we got here, where we are going, and always have been.  It will now be not only fun, but [sic]

I am not a writer.  I am a student.  How this idea can best be utilized and presented is, of course, up to those of you to whom I send this paper.  It might be possible to illustrate it with one, or numerous examples of the effects of new technology on a culture and relate it to our present situation.  The emphasis might be placed upon today's problems, and examples from history taken only as illustrative material.  The effects of new technology upon an individual family, person, or couple might be told.

Credit for this point of view should go to several sources.  I happened to have heard it first from Dr. R. H. Montgomery of the Department of Economics, University of Texas.  The economist Thorstein Veblen had earlier mentioned some of these ideas.  Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, published a book a year or two ago called The Impact of Science on Society.  Edward R. Murrow recently reminded us on his evening news commentary (31 January 1955) that Eisenhower's use of the power recently granted to him by Congress (regarding the Formosan situation) will result in not only the success or failure of an amphibian landing, but of the continued existence of a majority of the world's population.  He has mentioned this theme before, as have many others.  This is another effective way to accomplish the purpose I have outlined.

There have been many others, of course.  This is is not my idea.  It is my wish only to have more persons become aware of this particular theory of social change, with the fervent hope that it may hasten the establishment of organizations and attitudes compatible with the continued survival of civilization.

--Nick Johnson
1 February 1955