Assignment 1 – Heilbroner v. Hughes

DUE 25 January 2010 at 2pm via bSpace.

Heilbroner lays out a case for technological determinism.

In 250 words (max!) please answer the following quesiton: Does Hughes’s account of the development of the electricity network seem to support or question Heilbroner’s view? Give examples from the reading to support your argument.

45% of the class believed that Hughes did not support Heilbroner.

A selection of responses supporting this view:

  • In his article Heilbroner claims that technological determinism – the impact of machines on history – is a “technical conquest of nature that follows one and only one grand avenue of advance” (336). Basically, he states that technological development moves forward on one set path, and each phase must be enabled in order to progress: “it is impossible to proceed to the age of the steam mill until one has passed through the age of the hand mill, and in turn one cannot move to the age of the hydro-electric plant before one has mastered the steam mill (336). Hughes, however, makes somewhat of a different claim, saying there are distinct outside influences that effect the development of technology. For example, Hughes credits World War I – and related political, economic and ideological interests – with “altering the relative influence of the various contextual factors affecting electric power systems” (285). More specifically, “war brought the governments of Germany and the United States to fund the development of power plants,” which caused and accelerated development that would not have occurred otherwise (286). Hughes claims – contrary to Heilbroner’s beliefs – “that technological change can be shaped by non-technological factors, and technology is not necessarily a simple extrapolation of its past, or a working out of inherent technological implications” (286).  -Amy Azaren
  • Helibroner argues for technological determinism. He asserts that technology influences and drives social and cultural changes. Technology follows a certain course, by which the present technology sets the foundation for future technologies. Also, technology influences and imposes certain social and cultural characteristics. In order for certain technologies to be invented and sustained, a certain labor force with certain skills is required, as well as a certain structure for that labor force (p 340-341). It appears through the argument for technological determinism that an integral part of technological advance is the inevitable impact it has on societal structure and values.  Hughes account of the electricity network suggests a different relationship between technology and history. While Helibroner argues that “machines make history,” Hughes emphasizes that historic events and the related societal circumstances set the stage for technological advance (p. 286). His main focus was on the use of electricity during World War I, and how the war affected the technology during the war and thereafter. During the war, the requirements for power in the United States, Germany, and Britain changed. The events of the war expedited advances and quickly alleviated conflicts that inhibited technological change. Interconnection was a huge initiative that was achieved as a result of wartime stresses. Following the war, the system of interconnections influenced peacetime plans to prepare for future wars (p. 296). The historical events and the demands that resulted from these events influenced how electricity was used and how it advanced. – Clara Dellenbach
  • The distinction between Robert Heilbroner’s Do Machines Make History and the selected chapter from Thomas Hughes’ book, Networks of Power, is that where the former largely makes a case for technological determinism, or the role of technology in shaping the social characteristics of a society, the latter argues that the development of technology is, rather, varyingly shaped or constrained by non-technological factors, including the social, economic and political forces within a society. Heilbroner contends that the development of technology follows a “sequential and determinate” course, citing technical and material competence, technological congruence, and the accumulation of capitol as regulators of that course. While the course of technological development in a society relates to its social design, it is technology, he argues, that drives the changes within a social system. By contrast, Hughes suggests that unforeseeable events, such as the First World War, which exacerbated demands on electricity supply networks in Europe and America, have and will exert changes on the trajectory of a given technology. According to Hughes, between 1914 and 1918, the “particular imperatives of war” cleared the way for the interconnection of local electric utility providers into much larger regional systems. At the same time, following a period of integration, after the war corporate and political interests in the U.S., Britain and Germany resisted further reorganization, once again altering the course of development of electricity networks. – Farzad Sharif
  • Heilbroner’s explanation of technological determinism implies that “ages” or, more specifically, social tendencies are caused and in a sense defined by the technologies that arise at the time. One of his questions asks, “did the hand-mill give rise to feudalism?” And then, in turn, did the hand-mill give rise to the steam mill in a sort of inevitable progressive movement because society channels its energy in that direction. His 3 points of evidence are simultaneity, absence of tech leaps, and predictability. Hughes states that different impetus bring about technological change, rather than technologies moving in 1 direction by themselves. He states that electric energy arose because of a social need in WW1 for certain technology, the opposite of what Heilbroner says. In Germany during wartime they created electric power plants that used lignite to function because of the increased demand of power. He also states that progression in a sense isn’t necessarily linear. Hughes shows that the erection of enormous power plants in the U.S. served a function only for a time and that civilization didn’t accept and integrate it entirely after wartime—“as the values and imperatives of wartime faded, Muscle Shoals stood like an organism that had passed into a foreign—even hostile—environment” (287). Social change shapes entirely technological output, a prime example would be post-war Germany’s modifying of its wartime nitrogen plants into fertilizer producing plants. In a sense technology creates its own momentum but is altered to conform to social circumstances. – Robert Ang

55% of the class believed that Hughes did support Heilbroner

Selection of responses:

  • Hughes’ account of the development of the electricity network questions Heilbroner’s view, but is not completely opposed to it. Heilbroner argues that technology has a strong influence on socioeconomic order, thus technological developments may result in historical changes or events. For example, the invention of the steam mill following that of the hand mill aided in the shift from the feudal economy to capitalism.  He also argues that technology is on a sort of set course, with one development necessarily following the technology that came before it, like a series of prerequisites ending in whatever the current technologies are. Hughes, on the other hand, argues that technological developments reflect the historical climate in which they occurred. The electric power systems invented during World War I were developed to meet the needs of a wartime environment. Those electric power systems were still used after WWI, “[carrying] into peacetime certain aspects of the wartime environment.” For example, in response to a shortage of nitrogen during WWI, Germany built huge energy plants. After the war, Germany found that the private sector would not support these plants, so they had to be government funded. In that instance, Hughes’ account is in line with Heilbroner’s view because the public support of technology influenced the overall economic structure of Germany, thus influencing the country’s socioeconomic order; it follows that Hughes agrees with Heilbroner that technology influences socioeconomic order. -Theresa Townsend
  • In my opinion, Hughes’ account of electric utilities in Germany, the UK, and the US following WWI supports Helibroner’s argument. Though the title of Helibroner’s piece, “Do machines make history?” implies that he will be making a broad statement supporting technological determinism, in fact his argument is much more nuanced. Helibroner’s two planks are that there is a certain sequence to technological progress and that “a given technology imposes certain social and political characteristics upon the society in which it is found .” (Helibroner 340) Without qualification, these statements seem to present a narrow view of technological determinism (that technology progresses by some inherent nature, and that it shapes society) which Hughes’ account would call into question. In reality, however, Helibroner concedes that “the machine will reflect, as much as mould, the social relationships of work,” (342) pointing out, for example, that a mass market is a necessary social prerequisite to the advancement of mass production technologies. Hughes’ account supports this qualified determinism, where technology and society shape each other. Hughes describes how social factors, from WWI’s effects on government power to the competing interests of centralized and local interest groups to individuals’ efforts to ensure that their views would prevail, all shaped the electricity utilities of Germany, the UK, and the US. However, the technology available (and its effect on the price of various methods of power production) was clearly another key factor in this process, and it seems clear that both Hughes and Helibroner would agree that while technology does shape society, the reverse is also true. -Daniel Foster
  • In Heilbroner’s article, “Do Machines Make History?” he argues that technological advances are responsive to social directions. Heilbroner explains that new social and political characteristics develop in societies as a result of technological changes imposed on them. Heilbroner uses the example of the development of the steam-mill and the hand-mill to illustrate the idea that technological changes progress in continuous stages. In Hughes’ account of the development of the electricity network, he supports Helibroner’s view of technological determinism. Hughes explains that the pressing demands during wartime brought the governments of Germany and the United States to fund the development of power plants. Hughes writes, “The particular imperatives of war accelerated economies of scale and the use of capital – intensive technology, thereby creating a wartime style of technology” (Hughes 288). The notion of technological changes responding to the social and political aspects of society supports the views presented by Heilbroner. Furthermore, Hughes also points out that “Giant Power was an idea initiated by wartime conditions,” and that technology does not only depend on knowledge and skills, but also on the division of labor and industry (297). According to Hughes, Germany built giant power plants with their existing cheap and abundant sources of energy that were already available to them. This idea supports Heilbroner’s views because he argues that technological change must be compatible with existing social conditions, including economic and other institutions of society. Hughes’s account of the development of the electricity network definitely supports Helibroner’s views. -Jody Leung
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