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Technology: Neutral tool or inescapable logic?

In 1908 Lalar Blanton (below) worked spinning cotton in the  Rhodes Manufacturining Company.  She was photographed by Lewis Hine, who apparently told the owners of mills in South and North Carolina that he was interested in industrial machinery, when in fact he worked for the National Child Labor Committee.


Thanks to the work of historian Joe Manning, Myra Cook identified the ten year old in the photograph as her grandmother.  Before that, B____ was ….., even though Hines’ photographs played an important role in ending child labor in the American South

Cook did not know that her grandmother worked in the mill as a child, and she told the Lincoln Times-News that  “I felt sadness that my dear granny never had a childhood.”

Joe Manning, a retired social worked, has  documented the stories of more than 350 individuals in Hine’s photographs.”

Commenting on another photograph from the same series, philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg points out something we might not notice right away: “The machines are built to her height.  The mill was designed for operation by children four feet tall…The machines would be obsolete without children to operate them.” (622)

What if people in 1908 believed that democracy and society were powerless to confront the demands of technology?



In Science and Technology Studies (STS), people label this view technological determinism.
People who are ‘modern’ have a penchant for differentiating (Weber) or purifying (Latour) the world into distinct realms… essences…The technological is separate from the social or political, it comes with its own logic of efficiency.  On this view, “Democratic theory cannot reasonably press for reforms that would destroy the economic foundations of society.”
We don’t need to look far to find this view in contemporary Educational Technology circles.
The complementary view sees technology as the neutral tool, and like the NRA, it sees people rather than the tool as the problem.
On this view, “in a different social context it could just as well be operated democratically” (238)
Obviously, the machinery in the cotton mill puts the lie to this idea – it’s design dictates possibilities for use.  This point is even more obvious with architecture – think of the abelist assumptions,
Will Kymlicka points
In Chapter 1, Feenberg steers his way between two polarized views of technology in an industrial democracy –  “Technology is determining”, coming from outside society, containing its own logic… and that (LOCATION: 235) Or b) “Technology is neutral” (238) a neutral tool, a mere means, …   Feenberg explores this idea in relation to democracy, but it applies more broadly. Bruno Latour covers similar ground in his On Technical Mediation.
“Though we may be competent at using many technologies, most of what we think we know about technology in general is false. Our error stems from the everyday conception of things as separate from each other and from us. In reality technologies belong to an interconnected network the nodes of which cannot exist independently qua technologies.”
a need to think in terms of systems…
this is why we can be perplexed…
lessons here:
social and technical are intertwined
and as Michael Callon writes in the Afterward, we need to continue to work on “keeping the future open by refraining from making irrevocable decisions that one could eventually regret, requires vigilance, reflection, and sagacity at all times. Politics, as the art of preserving the possibility of choices and debate on those choices, is therefore at the heart of technological dynamics.”
At once

Driving the skills agenda: Preparing students for the future (’An Economist Intelligence Unit report, sponsored by Google’)


They open their report with the claim that ““Evolving business needs, technological advances and new work structures, among other factors, are redefining what are considered to be valuable skills for the future.” (2) And later, they use a survey of business leaders to imply that it is schools that better … . “According to the business survey, employers feel they should play a more active role in deciding what students are taught and that their position as stakeholders should be more explicit. Nearly three-fifths (57%) of executives think business does not have enough say in setting the curriculum in their country…” (18)

When discussing the perspectives of developing countries, the report sounds closer to an Onion takedown and it is hard to read out loud with a straight face.

Trades on perpetuating privilige or dreams of escape from oppression…

Latin America: “ Ms Vegas [Emiliana Vegas, chief of the Education Division at the Inter-American Development Bank]agrees. “In Latin America, socioemotional skills are a big part of the gap between what employers need and what young people have. For example, tourism companies need people who will smile and be polite to guests, and often graduates just don’t possess those publicfacing techniques.””


While we might be comfortable imagining a shift in schools that need to supply creative types who will have satisfying, challenging white collar jobs at Google, I don’t think anyone wants tourism companies and the demands of privileged tourists to determine what skills children be taught in the normal course of education.


same school ““Technology has been absorbed into a great deal of industries, but education has been much slower to change—classrooms often look as they did 100 years ago,” says Ms Vegas of the Inter-American Development Bank”. – 15


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I footnotes