The Computer, like all Technology, is Neutral
The Case Against this Statement
Name: Laura Nolan
The aim of this essay is to show that technology, the computer in particular, is not neutral and may cause damage to society. It is hoped that readers will gain a better understanding of the nature of technology as a result of reading this paper, and also that society should consider the role of technology carefully, rather than having a blind faith in its benign neutrality.
The origins, effects, and political influence of technology are considered. Technology may be non-neutral as a result of its design, reflecting some goal of its creator. Technology may bring about, inadvertently or otherwise, non-neutral effects. Finally, it is shown that technology can affect the arrangements of power in society. Technology is fundamentally not neutral, despite the fact that artifacts cannot act independently of human action.
The case of the computer in various settings is analysed: like other technologies, its properties - the freedom it gives weapons designers, the speed that accelerates the pace of world money markets, its restrictive window on the world, its damaging effect on human health - as well as its military origins, render it utterly non-neutral, and a technology which society should use with more discretion.
"Technique carries with it its own effects, quite apart from how it is used... No matter how it is used, it has of itself a number of positive and negative consequences." -Jacques Ellul, in [Chandler i]
There are two main schools of thought as to whether technology is neutral. One holds that technology is passive, has no intrinsic non-neutral properties, and that "what matters is not the technology itself but the social and economic systems in which it is embedded" [Langdon Winner in Mackenzie & Wajcman 1985, pp. 26]. The second school of thought holds that some technologies themselves have inherent non-neutral properties that are independent of social and economic context: "Tools are not neutral and their use may contribute to shaping our purposes" [Chandler i].
It is often said that technology itself must be neutral because it is passive - does nothing without human intervention. This argument is naïve, and fails to get to the heart of the question. The fact that technology doesn't do things on its own says nothing about its neutrality. Is the gun neutral simply because it requires a human being to pull its trigger? It still remains an artifact which, by making killing so easy, encourages the act. According to anti-gun groups, for example, people are more likely to suicide or commit violence against a family member if there is a gun in the household. Accidents involving firearms are also common [see http://www.ceasefire.org, for example]. It seems difficult to make a case for the neutrality of firearms based merely on their passivity. The same argument applies to technology in general.
In this essay, I will show that computers, and indeed many technologies, are not neutral. They are not neutral in relation to their origins, because technological development often has political ends and motives, and therefore non-neutral properties. Technologies can also have non-neutral effects, which come about as a result of the physical nature of the technology, rather than as result of the social and economic context in which they are used. If a technology is associated with particular patterns and effects, no matter how it is used or who controls it, then it isn't neutral in character. Finally, there is a question as to how technologies affect social and political structures and policies, where they are used. This question is brought up by Langdon Winner [in Mackenzie & Wajcman 1985], and concerns such questions as how the railroad affected the predominating structure of businesses. This is a question of profound importance, particularly in the case of the computer, which has potential to affect enterprise, governments, and other social structures and policy. The paper begins with an examination of technology in general, showing that certain technologies have non-neutral properties. The next part deals with a specific study of the computer, highlighting the non-neutral aspects of the technology.
First, however, I feel it is necessary to discuss the concept of technological determinism, for it has some relevance to the ensuing discussion. The concept of technological determinism holds that technology is the most important thing affecting society - that the state of technology determines the nature of society around it. Moreover, it also states that technology is independent of society, that the only things affecting technology are previous technology and science [Chandler i]. Many influential writers have been interpreted as technological determinists, particularly Karl Marx and Jacques Ellul [Chant 1989 section 2.2]. It is also the prevailing belief among most ordinary people today, although most sociologists don't agree with it. Personally, I think it is a mistaken view. There is certainly a grain of truth in it, for technology certainly affects society to a large degree, though it is not always the overriding factor in social change. Furthermore, even if a technology has the potential to bring about social change, society itself must take action to precipitate this change. The point I really cannot agree with, though, is that technology is separate from society, something which it cannot control.
This brings us on to the topic of the origins of technology. Technological development is not a random process. If a society has some need, whether real or perceived, for a certain technology, and provided there is financial incentive, developers will soon begin to work on it. A good example is that of the self-acting mule, or automatic spinning machine. It was developed during the nineteenth century, for the specific purpose of gaining power over skilled spinners. The spinners often resorted to strikes, insisted on high pay, and were generally a thorn in the side of the industrialists. This political situation provided the impetus for the development of the self-acting mule, a task which was a great challenge for the technologists of the day. The self-acting mule was eventually introduced, and though it was slow to diffuse throughout the industry, it did change the balance of power, as the device was used as a 'deterrent weapon' against the spinners [Mackenzie & Wajcman, 1985, pp. 84-92].
If a technology is developed, but is seen as bad for society it may be banned or controlled, as in the case of nuclear power and genetically modified foodstuffs. There is nothing which compels a society to adopt a technology once it is developed. So, ultimately, if any technology is developed and becomes successful, it is because society, in some way, shape, or form, has allowed it to happen. However, more often than not, which technologies are accepted and which rejected depends on more than just whether the product is safe or consumers freely choose to buy it.
The history of technology is rich with examples of how political influences act on technology: how the electric fridge became a success due to the backing of powerful electricity companies [Mackenzie & Wajcman, 1985, pp. 202-219]; how politics within the US Army resulted in an inferior version of a very well-designed rifle being manufactured for its troops in Vietnam [Mackenzie & Wajcman, 1985, pp. 239-251]; how the political influence of the US Department of Defence resulted in the technique of machining by numerical control being developed while the more accessible technique of record/playback was abandoned [Mackenzie & Wajcman, 1985, pp. 109-124]; even how printing technology of the 19th century was designed so that women could be excluded from the printing industry [Mackenzie & Wajcman, 1985, pp. 125-146]. The physical form of technologies is in many cases an embodiment of political ends; therefore the technologies concerned cannot be said to be neutral.
"The definitive aim of technology is the exploitation of the world's natural resources in the interests of the human race, or some portion of it". [Chant pp. 42]. By definition, therefore, technology has non-neutral properties. If technologies benefit people in some way, or favour one group over another, then they are not neutral. Indeed, by this definition, the very idea of a neutral technology is meaningless. Like the proverbial glass hammer, it is something nobody would have any use or need for. It would benefit nobody, so nobody would want it, or bother developing it.
The next point to be considered is the effects of technology, and whether they are independent of social and economic context. I am not taking a technological determinist view here, since, as I already discussed above, I believe that society affects technological development profoundly, and that there is more to social change than technology alone. However, it is hard to dispute that technological change has some effects on society - I will take this as a given. The main question is whether the technology is neutral and the effects depend entirely on social context, or the technology is not neutral and the effects are more or less inevitable when it is used.
In his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander argues that television has certain inherent properties that render it non-neutral. In fact, he argues that the nature of the medium itself determines much about how it is used: "Far from being neutral, television itself predetermines who shall use it, how they will use it, what effects it will have on individual lives, and, if it continues to be widely used, what sorts of political forms will eventually emerge."
- Jerry Mander, in [Mander 1980, pp. 45]
His arguments are based on the properties of the device itself, rather than on the social context it is used in. It is a device which allows a few people to broadcast to many people. It is then inevitable that the wealthy will use this tool in order to sell things, and that others will not have easy access to the medium. The nature of the medium determines that it works best with short, 'snappy' pieces with an emphasis on form rather than content - see MTV for examples of this. This, along with the ways in which visual images are processed inside the brain, affects how people think, particularly if they spend up to half their leisure time watching it, as the book suggests. It also affects how political campaigns are run. These arguments all add up to one fact - television is not neutral, and can not be altered sufficiently to make it so [Mander 1980]. No matter what the political or social context in which the device is used, if it is used enough, the same patterns will emerge.
Many other examples could be given. The gun is an obvious one, discussed briefly above, as is nuclear power, discussed by Mander [Mander 1980, pp. 44], and also Langdon Winner [Mackenzie & Wajcman 1985, pp. 35]. Winner also gives an interesting example concerning the parkways of New York, whose overpasses have a very low clearance, preventing buses from travelling on these roads. This was intended to hinder the travel of poorer sections of society, reflecting the attitude of the designer of the system. But this example differs from that of the television in that the parkways could easily have been designed to allow passage of buses. In the first case, the non-neutrality of television is an inherent property of the medium. In the second, the social effects of the parkways are not inherent. This doesn't change the fact, however, that neither technology is neutral.
The final point to consider regarding the neutrality of technology is whether technology can affect the social and political systems of power in the society in which it is used. In the words of Langdon Winner: "... the adoption of a given technical system brings with it conditions for human relationships that have a distinctive political cast - for example, centralized or decentralized, egalitarian or inegalitarian, repressive or liberating" [Mackenzie & Wajcman 1985, pp. 31].
There certainly seems to be ample evidence to support this view. The technology of production seems to require a hierarchical structure - that of workers subject to the authority of a supervisor - to run smoothly. Up until the advent of the PC, the computer was compatible with large companies, because of the expense and the personnel required to run and maintain large mainframes. A related point is how use of technology can influence policies of organisation that use them, as the requirements and abilities of the technology being used begin to supersede other interests. Steve Talbott brings up the point that organisations once set up to pursue some ideal can easily move away from it as profit dictates. The computer makes it plain exactly where the profit lies: "The power of computer-based organisation to sustain itself in a semi-somnambulistic manner, free of conscious, present control - while maintaining a certain internal, logical coherence - is increasing to a degree we have scarcely begun to fathom" [Talbott 1995, chapter 8]. Mander also makes this point when he discussed how environmental and political groups begin to abandon their original principles to a certain degree in an attempt to obtain TV coverage [Mander 1980].
I think I have succeeded in showing that technology does have certain non-neutral qualities. I will now discuss the computer, beginning with its origins; then discussing risks to human health associated with the computer; a discussion of computers and international politics follows; the final topic is computers and education.
"Just as living organisms grow according to the environment in which they are raised, so a technology can be understood as a response to the surroundings in which it develops. For computer technology, these surroundings have been, and still are, dominated by the military."
-Colin Beardon, in [Berleur et al, 1990, pp. 233]
Some of the earliest uses of technology were in the military, cracking codes during World War Two, computing firing charts for weapons, and so on. Today, they are still used in military applications as diverse as weapons control, simulating conflicts, command and intelligence applications. Most of today's weapons are automated to some extent; some, such as guided missiles, would be impossible.
The influence of the military on the computer has been profound. Without military funding, the computer might still be the curiosity it was fifty years ago. In the beginning, only universities, very large companies, and the military could afford computing technology. The military provided much of the funding required to develop transistors and integrated circuitry, in order to make computers light enough for use in ballistic weapons. Computers were also made cheap enough for personal use. What computers are today, they are principally because of military organisations.
Computers also derive from the Western scientific viewpoint - rational and logical to a fault, and also restrictive and stifling to creativity. And, as Talbott point out, they reflect their makers: "We have embodied in our technology are our own habits of thought" [Talbott 1995]. In fact, each different computer system is different and unique, because they are programmed to do different things. "The computer" isn't a homogeneous, undifferentiated entity; it is many different things. Here lie many of the problems encountered in the discussion of the computer and neutrality. A computer chip in a missile programmed to destroy, and a PC with educational software are very different devices in their implications and effects, but both come under the heading "the computer". I shall show, though, that neither can be considered neutral.
Considering the computer as a physical device, specifically the PC or workstation, the first characteristic that springs to mind is its effect on the human body. It is a health risk, and, in many ways, a device of torture! Despite the best efforts of ergonomics, heavy use of computers still has physical consequences. Common problems associated with computer use are back and shoulder pain, eyestrain, and headaches. Anyone who has worked a forty-hour week in front of a computer for even a few months will experience such effects - I am speaking from experience here! The effects of this type of injury can become serious over a long period, not to mention making life very unpleasant for millions of those who are forced to use computers heavily at work [Kling 1996, pp. 826-829]. There may also be health risks from the radiation produced by VDUs, but there has been little research done on the topic [Kling 1996, pp. 830-837]. Computers, then, pose a significant health risk to their users, something that is not a neutral effect in relation to human well being.
The computer has affected the arena of international affairs in quite profound ways. The first concerns the use of computers in the military. Here the computer has proven a force for the maintenance of the status quo. Powerful nations develop computerized defense/early warning systems that monitor the globe. Their purpose is to give a warning if missiles are being launched, to allow the military to respond quickly. However, these systems are built according to a set of assumptions. If these assumptions become untrue, the system becomes unreliable, and can't easily be modified. As a result, "the technology has created the need for the superpowers to control the world political situation so that the assumptions upon which their defence systems are built are not altered" [Berleur et al 1990, pp. 244]. There is also an issue involving computer technology in weapons. The use of data processing to guide missiles renders them very dangerous. In the words of Frank Barnaby, "Policies are changing because military technology has produced more precise weapons. Once available, weapons are usually deployed, and policies then have to be modified to justify (i.e. rationalise) the deployment" [cited in Berleur et al 1990, pp. 245]. If the effect of computerization of military organisations is to hinder a pursuit of peace, the highest ideal to which the human race can aspire, then computers are not neutral.
There are also significant problems associated with the computerization of global money markets. Since their computerization, predictably, the speed and volume of transactions has grown. This was inevitable, since what computers do is to speed up systems and allow them to deal with greater volumes of data. This change has created problems for national governments, which are losing control over the state of their currencies, the lifeblood of their economies. As governments lose the power to regulate their economies, ruthless speculators gain the power to destabilise currencies. The computer has been responsible for a profound change in the balance of economic power, in favour of rich speculators over ordinary citizens. This seems an inevitable and non-neutral result of the widespread use of computers throughout society.
Education is fundamental to every society, because it is the process whereby society defines its future self. In developed societies today, we are rapidly bringing about the computerization of education. Considering the extent to which computers have diffused throughout society, and their importance to the world of business, it seems inevitable that this would come about. Initiatives such as the Schools IT 2000 program aim to put computers and Internet connections in every classroom, and place an onus on teachers to use them in an appropriate way. How does this issue relate to the question of technological neutrality? In his essay The Web and the Plow, Lowell Monke analyses the computer as an educational tool, and finds it lacking [Monke i]. Where the computer becomes paramount in education, the emphasis moves from development of the student's qualities to stuffing the student full of information. The idea of a liberal, well-rounded education - education for its own sake - is not really compatible with the computer as a major teaching tool. Computer mediated learning results in a distancing of the student from subject matter, an unnecessary layer of abstraction, as well as a way of interpreting the subject matter. Consider for a moment what would happen if all primary and secondary students in the country used exactly the same CD ROMS and webpages to learn their subject matter, rather than each relying on information supplied by their teachers to suit their individual needs. Education is not an assembly line process that churns out seventeen year-olds clutching freshly printed Leaving Certificates; it is more personalised, and more human. To me, it seems that the computer should have little or nothing to do with a well-rounded basic education, as least not in the way the Schools IT 2000 initiative envisages. There is room for basic computer literacy, though it will become increasingly unnecessary to teach that in school as more and more students will have a PC at home. If the computer has any place in primary or secondary education, the best route might be a course teaching students how to cope with the computer infested "Information Society" we are supposed to be living in.
"Computers bring certain values to the educational table. These values will amplify certain kinds of learning while ignoring or even discouraging others" Lowell Monke, [Monke i]. The qualities, such as wisdom and maturity, that have long been the fundamental goals of education, are discouraged by the use of computers in learning. The computer, if it continues to wax in importance in the educational system, could transform the nature and content of education, therefore of future societies. The computer is not a neutral tool in an educational context.
In conclusion, I contend that the computer is not a neutral technology. It is a potent weapon in the hands of the military: ask the inhabitants of Pristina, capital of Kosovo, what they think of computing in the hands of the US military! Like so many of today's technologies, it has untoward implications for the health and well being of its users. For many people today, working with computers isn't a choice, but a necessity - they are forced to put up with symptoms such as back pain, headaches, and eyestrain. To these people, the computer may be a hated tormentor - anything but neutral. In international affairs, the computer has had its impact, as the inertia of military information systems dictates that the powers possessing them have more of an interest in stability than in peace; and as the balance of economic power moves from national governments to fickle speculators. And computers are making their distinctive mark on education at all levels, possibly changing the face of future society.
There is also ample evidence to show that technological neutrality in general is a myth. Technology is a reflection of the biases and goals of its creators, and its use can bring about specific ends. This is an important truth, which must be realised by everybody if we are to have a hope of creating a better society in the Information Age. The computer, like all technology, is NOT neutral!
[Chandler i]: Technological or Media Determinism, an essay by Daniel Chandler. Available online at http://www.aber.co.uk/~dgc/tdet01.html.
[Chandler ii]: Engagement with media: Shaping and being shaped, an essay by Daniel Chandler for CMC magazine, available online at http://www.aber.co.uk/~dgc/determ.html
[MacKenzie and Wajcman 1985]: The Social Shaping of Technology, Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman (eds.), 1985, Open University Press.
[Chant 1989]: Science, Technology, and Everyday Life 1870-1950, Colin Chant (ed.), 1989, Routledge in association with the Open University.
[Berleur et al, 1990]: The Information Society: Evolving Landscapes, Jacques Berleur, Andrew Clement, Richard Sizer and Diane Whitehouse, 1990, Springer-Verlag/Captus University Publications.
[Kling 1996]: Computerization and Controversy - value conflicts and social choices, Rob Kling (ed.), 1996, Academic Press.
[Talbott 1995]:The Future does not Compute: Transcending the Machines in our midst, Steve Talbott, 1995, O'Reilly & Associates.
[Mander 1980]:Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander, 1980, Harvester Press.
[Monke i]: Computers in Education: the Web and the Plow, Lowell Monke, available online at: http://www.public.iastate.edu/~lmonke/online_doc.html#Plow