Technological Pessimism Essay

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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…show more content…
In other words, these new technologies are no longer discrete artifacts, more or less independent in their function; they are vast, technological systems. The second important development is ideological. The earlier Enlightenment notion of progress viewed technology as a necessary, but not sufficient cause of progress which was understood as a movement toward “a more just, republican society.” This political vision was gradually replaced by a technocratic notion of progress which amounted merely to the continued improvement of technology. Alongside these artifactual and ideological transformations, the terminology applied to the phenomena in question was also evolving. Older words or phrases for what we today would simply label technology included the “mechanical arts” or the “practical arts” — it was an older nomenclature better fitted to traditional, craft based technologies. But this terminology seemed inadequate to describe the reality of emerging complex technological systems. Marx points to Thomas Carlyle’s 1829 essay, “Signs of the Times,” as an instance of the search for a new vocabulary with which to name the shifting technological landscape. Carlyle suggested that his was an “Age of Machinery,” but by “machinery” he meant more than the material machines themselves. Included in the term was the “mechanical philosophy” associated with Descartes and Locke, the systematic division of labor, and the emergence of bureaucratic organization. By the late nineteenth
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