ThoughtStorms Wiki

DavidNoble's case studies on American tech fetishism. In particular, explores how ideology affected technology choice on the machine shop floor, which he chose since it represented "the guts of modern industry."

Centers on the struggle between workers and management for authority over the shop floor. Technology can be used as part of a program which deskills workers for greater management control, or in one that removes management layers so teams self-organize and impose their own self-discipline.

It distinguished between two types of technology:

  • Numerical control: Favors management command & control strategies, where the tech implementors form a "planning department" alongside management, away from workers. The tasks are statically specified in detail by management. May be plagued by issues such as metal fatigue and complexity.
  • Record/playback: Used by machine-shop workers to record how they do something, in order for the machine to automate those steps. A primitive example might be of Emacs's ability to record keystrokes and commands for later playback. (SavedMacro)

I suspect this is what analysts mean when they claim corporations must carefully manage the transition between the startup phase and the big-company phase. A good startup is a skilled team with self-organization, while a big company is more hierarchical. PaulGraham explains, ''"When Viaweb was bought by Yahoo, I suddenly found myself working for a big company, and it was like trying to run through waist-deep water."

Further, I believe this book's arguments may be applied to programmers, in the worker role. After all, we are also tool-using workers who apply knowledge and experience to our work.

Tayssir John Gabbour

A passage from the chapter entitled "The Road Not Taken":

"It is a staple of current thinking about technological change that such a "successful" technology, having become dominant, must have evolved in some "necessary" way. Implicit in the modern ideology of technological progress is the belief that the process of technological development is analogous to that of natural selection. [...] Any successful technology, therefore – one which becomes the dominant and ultimately the only solution to a given problem – must, by definition, be the best, for it alone has survived the rigors of engineering experimentation and the trials of the competitive marketplace."

"This dominant darwinian view of technological development rests upon a simple faith in objective science, economic rationality, and the market. It assumes that the flow of creative invention passes progressively through three successive filters, each of which further guarantees that only the best alternatives survive. The first, the objective technical filter, selects the most scientifically sound solutions to a given problem. The second, the pecurianary rationality of the hard-nosed businessman, screens out the more fanciful technical solutions and accepts only those which are practical and economically viable. The third, the self-correcting mechanism of the market, dooms the less savvy businessman and thus insures that only the best innovations survive."

"But this facile faith assumes too much, and explains too little. [...] Thus, it begs and explains away all important historical questions: the best technology? Best for whom? Best for what? Best according to what criteria, what visions, according to whose criteria, whose visions?"

"In reality, the objective expert comes to his work as prejudiced as the next person, constrained by the technical "climate," cultural habits, career considerations, intellectual enthusiasms, institutional incentives, and the weight of prior and parallel developments – not to mention the performance specifications of the project managers and supporters. The full range of alternatives is never considered simply because these constraints predetermine the range of "realistic" possibilities. In reality, too, the so-called bottom line-minded businessman turns out to be a mythical figure as well. [...] Finally, the self-regulating market which is supposed to correct for such distortion and deception is too easily overwhelmed by the force of monopoly and the state, which sustain the more powerful dreamers at all costs."

"In short, the concepts of "economic viability" and "technical viability" are not really economic or technical categories at all – as our ideological inheritance suggest – but political and cultural categories."


"While new inventions are always at the outset "alternative technologies," challenges to established ways of doing things which are initially received with caution and skepticism, some fit with in this dominant scheme and others do not. Typically, however, only those which do not fit with in this larger framework of preferred development are required to pass rigorous tests of immediate technical and economic viability. And, since these are not really technical or economic tests at all, but political and cultural ones, they are predestined to fail."

Thanks for this Tayssir. Fascinating stuf :-)



I wonder if something like the PersonalComputer (with the killer apps. like WordProcessing and SpreadSheets) is a counter-example? It was very much a personal, labour augmenting tool which was initially distrusted and rejected by the corporate hierarchy (particularly the IT department) who prefered centralized mainframes. Nevertheless it became succesful.

And what about some of the more individualistic aspects of InternetCulture (Email, InstantMessaging, WebLogs) etc? All adopted by individuals in the face of indifference then hostility / suspicion by their employers.



See also :