The relation between technology and culture


Patricia Backer


Baark and Jamison (1986) approach the study of technology transfer and appropriate technology by looking at the relationship between culture and technology. They define technological imperative as the universal, modernizing trend in technology development. To balance this technological imperative, Baark and Jamison defined the term "cultural critique of technology" to include the images of technology as well as the values challenged by technological change.

According to Baark and Jamison (1986), at any historical juncture, the "cultural critique of technology exists in society as an overall societal assessment of technological change" (p. 4). Considering both the technological imperative as well as the cultural critique of technology, they have developed what they term is the technology and culture problematique (see Figure 1).




The relations between technology and culture is conceptualized by these researchers in Figure 1. From the perspective of the technological imperative, culture is viewed as forming a context or a background for the development of technologies. The focus, however, is technological development itself in which certain technical, infrastructural and policy conditions lead to new technical products and processes. Culture, in this perspective, comes into play only as a context for technology and technological policy decisions, not as a determinant of technology itself.

The other perspective takes culture as the starting point and "places technology in relationship to the historical evolution of culture and cultural frameworks" (p. 5). Culture is not considered solely as a series of responses or adjustments to technology; rather, it is seen as an essential mediator and adversary to the non-cultural, the "universal," mechanical, and artificial realm of technology. A cultural critique of technology is one in which the non-cultural elements are evaluated, judged and forced into new directions as fits the individual society or culture.

Baark and Jamison (1986) describe the first phase of cultural critique of technology in the early 19th century. The crucial cause was the widespread mechanization of the workplace, the depersonalization of productive work, and the subsequent replacement of the worker with a machine. The machines were attacked directly (Luddites), both as physical objects and as symbols of social development.

"The machine was not an impersonal achievement to those living through the Industrial Revolution, it was an issue...In the uncertainty of the times, it still seemed possible to halt the process of rapid technological change" (Berg, 1980)

However, this first phase of technological culture critique was, according to Baark and Jamison (1986), superseded by the ensuing technological development itself. The revolts against technology, done by the Luddites and others, were localized attacks on specific machines and they were confined to areas where skilled workers were particularly hard-pressed by the advent of mechanization. The spreading of the factory system in the 1850s and 1860s subverted these local criticisms and voided the effects of local direct criticism.

The second phase in the cultural critique of technology occurred in the 1870s and 1880s-- this critique was a societal one derived from the writings of Marx and other social theorists. Morris (1976, p. 649-650) did not oppose mechanization but the way that mechanization was used.

"Our epoch has invented machines which would have appeared wild dreams to the men of past ages, and of those machines we have yet made no use...It is not this or that tangible steel and brass machine which we want to get rid of, but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny which oppresses the lives of all of us."

Overall, all the different social critiques had a belief in the power of the organized working class to take power over technology away from the industrial capitalists. In the United States, this cultural critique had a different perspective than similar critiques in Europe. In the United States, technology was evaluated almost entirely in positive terms. Leo Marx (1964) attributes this phenomena to the American experience which he states was a more assimilating one than Europe. The machine in the United States was incorporated into a dominant pastoral ideal that was, in some sense, more all-encompassing than similar ideals in Europe.

"When Morris wanted the machine to be adapted to its environment--and thus made more congenial to a small community--Bellany saw the machine developing largely on its own terms, creating a managed city and a managed garden" (Baark and Jamison, 1986, p. 29).

This phase of cultural critique was superseded by the imperialist expansion of the 1890s to early 20th century when the working classes benefited from the exploitation of the foreign colonies and the new technological products (like the bicycle, car, washing machine, etc). As mass production developed some of its techniques and products, this social critique of technology faded.

The next phase of criticism developed after World War I when there was a reactionist response to the technology of war. Gandhi, in 1908, had already written a critique of Western civilization that blamed technology for much of what he called the disease of civilization. According to him, it was the very speed and power of Western society that was at the root of its problem--these were all a sign of its moral decay. "The tendency of the Indian civilization is to elevate the moral being, that of western civilization is to propagate immorality" ( Gandhi, 1908). Gandhi popularized the possibility of another civilization--a non-Western, non-technological civilization. In this third phase of cultural criticism, technology was being criticized from outside its original cultural context (the West). However, in the last twenty years, this criticism has proven inadequate. According to Baark and Jamison (1986), it is not enough to criticize the technological civilization and try to humanize the machine. This approach has proven to be inadequate in resolving issues brought about by technologies that can devastate the planet (nuclear) or dramatically change human life.

The latest phase in criticism has been a ecological or environmental critique, a universal form of critique about modern technology's domination of nature. This critique is not a direct rejection of technology nor just a political critique, instead, it combines features from earlier phases of criticism while adding a scientific dimension about the effects of technology on the environment.

"as with the technological imperative so with the cultural critique: a cross-cultural approach helps us distinguish the universal from culturally specific. By comparing cultural different cultural areas, we can better appreciate the constructive, the truly imperative, function of culture in the development of technology. It is our contention that it is only by examining both sides of the technology-culture dichotomy, each in their own terms, that an awareness of their necessary interaction can emerge. For what seems to be the cruciality of cultural specificity--the stubborn truth of cultural uniqueness, of cultural comparative advantage, that only a cross-cultural comparison can aptly indicate" (Baark and Jamison, 1986, p. 32).



Baark, E., & Jamison, A. (1986). In E. Baark & A. Jamison (Eds.), Technological development in China, India and Japan (pp. 1-34). New York: St. Martin's Press.

Berg, M. (1980). The machinery question and the making of political economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gandhi, M.K. (1908). Hind swaraj or Indian home rule. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press.

Morris, W. (1976). as quoted in E.P. Thompson's book William Morris. London: Merlin Press.