Technological Pessimism

Topics: Technology, Karl Marx, 20th century Pages: 4 (1207 words) Published: December 11, 2013
Are we living in an age of technological optimism or technological pessimism? In The Idea of Technology and Postmodern Pessimism  Leo Marx, a leading historian of technology and American culture, argues that while technological optimism had been the default mode of American culture throughout most of its history, technological pessimism asserted itself to an unprecedented degree in the second half of the twentieth century. His essay traces the roots of what he terms “postmodern pessimism” in the earlier, dominant technological optimism and the evolution of our terminology for what comes to be known as “technology.” This latter semantic history, not unlike that which undergirds his more recent Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept throws light on significant shifts in the nature of technology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These shifts fuel a new way of conceptualizing technology which in turn becomes a precondition for the emergence of technological pessimism. Marx begins by reminding us of the “progressive world picture” which emerges out of the Enlightenment. For the cultures of modernity, “conceptions of history,” he explains, “serve a function like that served by myths of origin in traditional cultures: They provide the organizing frame, or binding meta-narrative, for the entire belief system.” And the “conception of history” animating Enlightenment society expected “steady, continuous, cumulative improvement in all conditions of life” driven by the advance of science and what was then called, among other phrasings, “the practical arts.” The West’s “dominant belief system,” in Marx’s words, “turned on the idea of technical innovation as a primary agent of progress.” But then come the shifts Marx perceives in the concept of technology. The first development is artifactual, it relates to the actual technological artifacts. The introduction of mechanical, chemical, and electric power led to the development of “large-scale, complex,...
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