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The high and low pressure regions of technological determinism August 2, 2007

Posted by malthusio in Uncategorized.
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The idea of technological determinism has largely been dismissed, since the production of a tool does not completely prescribe its use. Simply becuase someone makes a hammer, that doesn’t mean you have to use it to pound nails. You can use it to take out nails, open boxes, fix sensetive electronic equipment, and even kill people. However, a given tool or tool set is bound to be more conducive to some use patterns than others. Otherwise, one tool would be perfect for every job. Even though the hammer as described above may seem like the perfect everytool, the fact is that there are some things it is not good for, such as precision surgery, beauty treatments, or even inserting and removing bolts and screws.

There are also some tools that are more easily produced and developed than others. This will depend on the paradigm the tool is associated with. For example, we could say that the hammer is part of an “impact paradigm”, which would include modern metalurgical techniques such as drop forging, rubber stamping, type-writing, martial arts, baseball, hockey, tennis, etc. However, there is no way that something such as a “wheel” would be developed as part of this paradigm. But anyways, back to hammers. As the saying goes, “if all you have is a hammer, all the world looks like a nail”.   

 So while a given technology may not force us to use it in a specific way, the paradigm associated with it largely dictates our patterns of thoughts (although even this is not completely determined. otherwise, it would be impossible to ever develop new paradigms) through paradigmatic closure. One of the things I am interested in is the effects of the degree of saturation of a paradigm, or paradigmatic niche.

 Imagine, when the hammer is first invented and the impact paradigm is born (just for the sake of argument pretend the hammer was the first invention in this paradigm, even though it probably wasn’t). It takes a while for this technology to filter out through the general population. Perhaps impact reactionaries or anti-hammer activists slow the dispersion of this technology. No matter. Eventualy, everyone has a hammer. Even if you have no need for a hammer, you still have to keep up with the Jones’s.  At this point we enter into a period of post-hammerism where we have a proliferation of different types of hammers, and other impact technologies such as tennis raquets, rubber stamps, drop forges, and typewriters are being invented. But after this, then what? As more and more impact technologies are invented, it becomes harder and harder to invent new ones, and technological growth slows (assuming this to be the only active paradigm). At this point, a paradigm shift is required to ensure continued technological growth and advancement.

At first, the paradigm is unsaturated, and I would say, creates a region of low pressure. Once the paradigm becomes more saturated, you have a region of high pressure. In some abstract sense (not that this isn’t abstract already), we can also think of  each paradigm having a (probably elastic) size or volume. It might even make sense to think of a paradigm as having a shape or topology as well, but I’ll admit that I’m not exactly sure what this would mean. I’m just running with the analogy. Once we start adding more paradigms, things get more complicated, since different paradigms can be combined to produce different technological artifacts. The ways in which these different paradigms can be combined defines a topology, and just as each paradigm itself has a size, so will the links between them. Again the links might have a shape, but I’m not sure what this would mean.

The point is that becuase we can think of paradigms and thier connections as some kind of structure to house flows, with regions of high and low pressure, the growth and effects of technology could possibly be modeled using fluid dynamics, or the max flow problem from graph theory, where technology itself (differentiated by paradigm set) is the fluid. Now because the adoption of technology is associated with the, eventual if not immediate, adoption of it’s associated paradigm, adopters of a technology become hosts for the meme expressed by that paradigm (and btw, “meme” does not mean virus as is suggested by the Bell book. see the journal of memetics for details – now reopened!). So adoption of a technology, and hence paradigm, can heavily determine patterns of thought (in the same way that the Sapir-Worf hypothesis suggests that language heavily determines culture and thought).

 Now in and of itself, this does not suggest that technology is always something that “happens to people”, but some technologies (or perhaps all technologies?) just happen to have paradigm-memes that encourage passivity through thier use patterns. Broadcast media are perhaps some of the best examples. The passive meme associated with being on the recieving end of broadcast media encourages passivity in other contexts as well. Not only is it possible then for technology to “happen to people”, but under this meme it becomes “desireable” as well. Seeing as how any media can be used to piggyback other memes on it’s content, it is also possible for “active” memes to be transmitted over broadcast media. However, any “active” meme could serve to undermine the inherently passive meme associated with being on the recieving end of such media. If the undermining were successfull, and the passive meme either nullified or rejected, it does not seem as though there would be much to keep this technology in currency (because users would no longer be satisfied with simply being consumers).

Asside from the regions of low and high pressure I have talked about with relation to paradigmatic saturation, there are also such regions of pressure associated with memetic saturation (aka. peer pressure… sort of), as the meme is transmitted to more and more hosts. Since social networks have a topology and size, memetic dispersion may be amenable to some form of analysis using fluid dynamics as well. While fluid dynamics are somewhat probabalistic (I think?) they are not random. Basicaly, the constraints of the fluid dynamics of both systems (paradigmatic saturation and memetic dispersion) serve to define the limits of determinism vs agency.

However, if as the saying goes “shift happens”,

then it’s possible that memetic dispersion will not be able to keep up with the rate of paradigmatic saturation. Ultimately human cognitive capacity becomes the limiting factor, since the relationship between technological dispersion, and technological adoption is ultimately many to 1. This is because new technologies and paradigms can be developed and dispersed relatively independantly. However, one person can only adopt them so fast (and only maintain so many at a time). This means that beyond a certain point, it is impossible for memetic dispersion to be homogeneous, since different people will have to pick and choose what technologies (and memes) to adopt. With limited memetic dispersion, selections governed by a particular meme are less certain (since the meme hasn’t been transmitted across a large body of hosts yet). This means that asymptoticaly, the effect of memetic dispersion will be negligable, and will generate a region of constant low pressure. But at the same time, this is because each (meme) host is already rate saturated! I’m not sure exactly how this would affect paradigmatic/technological dispersion pressures, but I’m sure it would.  

damn but it’s late…

 More posthumanist techno-optimism:

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