Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 637.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Thu, 12 Feb 2004 08:07:02 +0000
From: "Amsler, Robert" <Robert.Amsler@hq.doe.gov>
Subject: RE: 17.620 science, technology and modern culture
I believe the major difference between Veblen's view and our current reality
is that he saw machines, which we would have to qualify as "mechanical
machines", as the dominant force driving change. For his time this was true
enough, but he could not have forseen the way in which "mechanical machines"
would fundamentally change the character of other disciplines such
chemistry, biology and medicine.
Given access to mechanical machinery, chemistry began discovering new
substances and new manufacturing processes. Electrical components usable for
generating and receiving radio waves were a product of chemistry. The
silicon chip a product of chemistry and manufacturing machines built to
tolerances never before imagined. Both of these developments, the
"communication machine" and the "information machine" were beyond Veblen's
perspective since they didn't alter the economics of labor, they extended
the sensory reach of the human mind. While negative effects of communication
and information processing do exist, it is harder to argue that things would
be far better without their changes to our lives.
We could perhaps argue that "information machines" are beginning to displace
human mental work, but if anything this displacement seems to replace
drudgery with more creative work. The typing pool, a room filled with slaves
to the mechanical machine typewriter, have been displaced by individuals
working with their own word processors in a far less structured environment.
Human workers enslaved by the Henry Ford assembly line are now displaced by
true robots doing the same work.
I guess one could argue more successfully that "information machines" have
started a disturbing dehumanization of society itself (whereas mechanical
machines only dehumanized the workers in factories). By displacing
person-to-person interactions by automated phone answering systems,
displacing bank tellers by ATMs, etc. we have contributed to less human
contact in our daily lives.
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