Logo IMG

Getting Better All the Time?


The author and the reviewer are among a distinguished list of analysts of technology. Personally, I find great learning in studying Jacques Ellul on technology.

The issue that neither Kelley nor Nye address is what exactly determines whether technological evolution represents progress.

One of the challenges in analyzing technology is defining exactly what "technology" is. I like Ellul's definition of “Technology” as "the organized ensemble of all individual techniques which secure any end whatsoever." [The quote comes from his book The Technological Society (1964) -- it was originally titled: La Technique: L'enjen du siècle, "the stake of the century."]

I agree with Ellul that “technology” is neither good nor bad: technology has no value system. If technology has no value system, how does it create “progress?”
Ellul identifies characteristics of technology, some of which were identified by Kelley and some of which weren’t. According to Ellul technology is:
- Self directed: guided only by efficiency
- Self augmenting: technology leads to technical solutions to more technical problems; the technological process is characterized by positive feedback.
- Wholisitic: once a technological orientation is adopted the self-augmenting characteristic brings into existence all aspects of technology.

Ellul asserts that technology is a closed system that directs change in society rather than being determined by considerations developed outside of it. Stated bluntly, efficiency has its own standards.
From that perspective, it is natural that once adopted, a technological approach necessarily becomes self directed.
Because technology itself has no value system, decisions are made on technological criteria. Stated simply, four is bigger than three, no matter whether four comes with pollution and drains natural resources whereas “three” might include clean air, renewable resources, etc. The human consequences come not from four vs. three, it comes from “four of what?” vs. “three of what else.”
Combining these observations I will assert “technology” represents an attempt at optimization against a set of criteria. These criteria in themselves may provide value or lead to harm to any given segment of those affected by the technology. Technology is all about optimization; it is not about the criteria used for optimization. Whether technological advancement can be considered progress or not depends strongly on the criteria used to channel technological progress.

Once the criteria are chosen, the path of technological evolution becomes self augmenting. The criteria that channel the evolution of technology thus act in the same way that selection factors channel biological evolution.

The danger of a technological orientation is that criteria that are easily quantified (such as cost) are more easily adopted than other criteria that rely on normative value (such as quality of life). We see the effects of defaulting to easily quantified criteria in many aspects of modern society; take, for example, the desire within the West and Australia to develop metrics to evaluate research investments. We see this in “improvements” that reduce unit costs at the price of robustness or other factors—such as the recent recall on second-generation hip replacement units.

From this perspective, many of the debates about whether technological evolution represents progress are misplaced because technology has no values. The debate about technological progress instead should be focused on the criteria used to guide the evolution of technology.

posted by David Myers
July 7, 2011


Connect With Us:


Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

RSS Feed Subscription

Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.

Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.

Subscribe to American Scientist