a blog

by Josh Nicholas

Technology and society as chicken and egg

Is Twitter the cause or the by-product of our half-baked public discourse? Paper by Mark Kurlanksy is a thinly veiled rumination on this question.

Not Twitter exactly, but whether technology shapes society or is instead shaped by it. Kurlanky comes down very much on the latter.

It wasn’t paper and ink that spurred bureaucracy, philosophy, religion, drawing, painting, widespread literacy, or the accumulation and harmonisation of knowledge.

Rather, these technologies filled a pre-existing need, slotting in to a revolution that was well underway. Gutenberg didn't so much kick-start modern mass literacy and learning, as pour petrol on the fire.

A technology that is intended to redirect society will usually fail. In fact, most technology companies do not introduce new technology but new ways to use ideas that already exist.

Of course, Paper is very much a micro-history of, well, paper. Full of anecdotes of European water wheels, wind mills, buddhist monks and holy books. I’ve learned all I ever need to about the acid content of paper and the differences between rags and wood pulp.

But it’s Kurlanky’s reversal of technological causality that really makes this book worthwhile. Especially in the last few decades, we have become very adept at ignoring survivor bias and lesser-known forerunners, giving an extraordinary amount of credit to the Jobs, Zuckerbergs and Pages.

As if Google drove the internet rather than systematising and building upon the work of portals and curators like Yahoo. This is not to take away from these amazing technologies and technologists, but who really had the agency when it came to Google?

In his seminal work Das Kapital, Karl Marx said that the Luddites failed because they opposed the machines instead of the society. He observed: “The Luddites’ mistake was that they failed to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used.” In other words, it is futile to denounce technology itself. Rather, you have to try to change the operation of the society for which the technology was created...

You cannot warn about what a new technology will do to a society because that society has already made the shift. That was Marx’s point about the Luddites. Technology is only a facilitator. Society changes, and that change creates new needs. That is why the technology is brought in. The only way to stop the technology would be to reverse the changes in the society.

I’m not sure if Kurlanksy has me entirely convinced. But it certainly bears thinking about.