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Technological Momentum and Education

Essay Topic:

Hughes presents a case for talking about technological momentum as a point between two opposite ideas; social constructivism and technological determinism. This raises questions as to what exactly the relationship is between technological momentum and soft determinism. Both ideas deal with the effect society has on technology and the effect that technology has on society.

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I will argue that while both ideas seem to be the same, there are important distinctions to make between the two. One is that Hughes’s idea of technological momentum is time dependent.

So it is sensitive to society, culture, and the changes that occur to a technological system as it matures. On the other hand, soft determinism doesn’t distinguish between when a system will tend to be affected most by society, and when that technological system will have the most influence on society. In his essay, Thomas Hughes presents a case for technological momentum. The idea of technological momentum lies between the extremes of social constructivism and technological determinism. Social constructivism is when social or cultural forces determine technological change.

Technological determinism, on the other hand, is the idea that technical forces determine social and cultural changes (Smith, 102). Within his essay Hughes points out how technological systems evolve during their lifetime to fall under either of these extremes. According to Hughes, the maturity of the system often times dictates its influence on society and the impression the society itself can have on the technological system. One might point out that the idea of technological momentum is similar to the idea of soft determinism.

The soft view of determinism is the belief that technological changes drives social change, but social pressures also influence it. Both of the ideas use the view that technology effects society, and that society effects technology. The ideas of technological momentum and soft determinism are very similar in the ways that they view the relationship between society and technology, as both state that social development shapes and is shaped by technology (Smith, 102). However there are important distinctions between the two that prove that they are indeed different.

One important distinction to make between technological momentum and soft determinism is that Hughes’s technological momentum is time dependent and takes into account the multitude of changes that a technological system undergoes during its lifetime. Hughes emphasizes that a young or less complex system will be influenced more by society than influence society, which maintains the social constructivist’s view that it is primarily society that influences technology and technological change within the system.

Ultimately, technological momentum and soft determinism are not two concepts referring to the same idea because of the emphasis Hughes puts on time and the maturity of the technological system, and how that plays a role in whether it’s technologically deterministic or socially constructed. In his essay Technological Momentum, Hughes uses examples of various technological systems to help support his claims. His example for a system that both shaped and was shaped by society is EBASCO. The Electric Bond and Share Company (EBASCO) was an American electric utility holding company of the 1920’s.

EBASCO provided financial, management, and engineering construction services for the utility companies. There are multiple instances of social construction within EBASCO’s history. Hughes begins illustrating the social constructivism side of the spectrum by showing the technological forces that helped shape the EBASCO system. “The spread of alternating (polyphase) current after 1900, for instance, greatly affected, even determined, the history of the early utilities that had used direct current, for these had to change their generators and related equipment to alternating current or fail in the face of competition. Smith, 106-107)” This example demonstrates how EBASCO was technologically influenced by society. If the new alternating current technology hadn’t been gaining popularity at the time, EBASCO wouldn’t have been forced to change their equipment to keep up with the competition. Not only did external technological forces shape EBASCO’s technical core, but economic ones did as well. Hughes points out the political forces that shaped the EBASCO system during its evolution. “Small urban utilities became regional ones and then faced new political or regulatory forces as state governments took over jurisdiction from the cities.

Regulations also caused technical changes (Smith, 107). ” This political influence shaped the EBASCO system as well. As the state governments took over they implemented guidelines that pushed for changes within the EBASCO system if they wished to stay in business. In addition to political and technical influences, Hughes uses an example of geographical forces playing a role in EBASCO’s development. He states “As the regional utilities of the EBASCO system expanded, the confronted geographical realities as they sought cooling water, hydroelectric sites, and mine-mouth locations (Smith, 107). Hughes would say that these geographical issues played a role in EBASCO’s development as they had to discover a way to work around some forms of geography and while learning the most efficient means to utilize the other. Hughes would say that from a social constructivists’ standpoint, these technological, economic, political, and geographic forces all, with varying levels of intensity, influenced the EBASCO system during its development. While all of these social components did influence EBASO over time, Hughes claims that “the interaction of technological systems and society is not symmetrical over time (Smith, 108). Here, Hughes emphasizes his claim that as a system becomes larger and more complex, it gathers momentum and becomes less shaped by and more the shaper of its environment. By the 1920’s the EBASCO system was now a large technological system with capital investment, customers, and influence on local, state, and federal governments. The company also largely interacted with many industries and communities. Hughes claims that these various components added to the momentum of the EBASCO system. Hughes also uses an example of another technological system in his essay to show the role of technological determinism.

As merchant ships began to be replaced by submarines during World War I, the United States attempted to increase its supply of nitrogen compounds. They selected a process that required large amounts of electricity so the government had to construct a hydroelectric dam and power station. However, before the nitrogen-fixing facilities being built near the dam were completed, the war ended. Now, the supply of synthetic nitrogen compounds exceeded the demand. The U. S. government was left not only with process facilities but also a very large dam and power plant (Smith, pg 110).

In 1933, however, a hydroelectric, flood-control, soil- reclamation, and regional development project sponsored by Senator George Norris and the Roosevelt administration and presided over by the Tennessee Valley Authority became created. The technological momentum of the dam had carried over from WWI to the New Deal (Smith, pg 111). Hughes views this process of creating a technological system and observing it go beyond its original purpose and going on to shape the society in which it resides as a prime example of technological determinism.

Hughes sums up the technological determinism present in the hydroelectric dam example by stating that “this durable artifact acted over time like a magnetic field attracting plans and projects suited to its characteristics. Systems of artifacts are not neutral forces; they tend to shape the environment in particular ways (Smith, pg 111). ” In his essay, Hughes has some claims about when social constructivism would be the dominant influence and when technological determinism would be the stronger influence.

Hughes’s idea of technological momentum can be described as a spectrum that determines the way a technological system is manipulated. On one end you have social constructivism. On this end Hughes claims that younger developing systems tend to be on this end of the spectrum because they are more open to sociocultural influence. On the other end of the spectrum lies technological determinism. Hughes claims that technological systems that are technologically deterministic tend to be the more mature systems because they are older and prove to be more independent of outside influences and therefore more deterministic in nature.

By defining technological momentum as being time dependent Hughes maintains that the concept of technological momentum avoids the “extremism of both technological determinism and social construction by presenting a more complex, flexible, time-dependent, and persuasive explanation of technological change (Smith, 104). ” One objection to my claim might be the fact that just because soft determinism doesn’t explicitly address time doesn’t mean that it doesn’t consider time because it would be difficult for a technological system to be socially constructed and technologically deterministic at the same time.

My response would be that while it may be assumed that only one action can be done at a given time, it is not specifically stated in the description. The idea of technological momentum looks at time within the context of the maturity of the technological system. Soft determinism looks solely at whether a system can be both socially constructed and technologically deterministic, but not how this may change overtime due to the maturity of the system and the momentum it has gained.

In conclusion, Hughes explains his idea of technological momentum by placing it on a spectrum with social constructivism on one end and technological determinism on the other. Technol ogical momentum is related to soft determinism because of the effect society has on society and the effect that technology has on that society. However, it is important to make an important distinction regarding time. Hughes’s technological determinism is time dependent so it is sensitive to society, culture, and the changes that occur to a technological system as it matures.

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