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Agency and accountability
The history of technology as a mature specialty within the discipline is young; the important work has taken place in the past few decades. If you’re not an academic, stick with me. This is going to stay firmly-grounded in layman’s terms. One of the important debates in the field has been over the use of an evolutionary model for the history of technology—and that means what you think it does: a model based on evolution, as in Darwinian evolution. For the most part, the model has been rejected, for good reason. The big problem is that the mechanism by which Darwinian evolution works—natural selection by random mutation—is not the mechanism by which the history of technology primarily works—human agency. “Agency” is a good term; we use it to mean power, the ability to exercise decision-making to affect what happens. Evolution may be—I would argue it is—an attractive model for most of the history of technology, given that inventors are usually unknown to us, given that such a complex interplay of external forces comes to bear on the development of a technology, and given all the neat analogies between how evolution works and what we see happen in the history of technology. For example, in evolution, we know of cases in which the same trait has evolved independently across time and space—such as adaptive camouflage. In the history of technology, we know of important examples, such as the dugout canoe, that have been developed independently by different peoples at different times in different places.
I decided a while back, then, that evolution could serve as a useful metaphor for the history of technology, especially pre-modern history of technology, which is what I work on. It’s important for any intelligent person, though, to understand that the distinction here between model and metaphor is no “academic” distinction; it’s of critical importance. That importance is because of the human agency I already mentioned, and the point of this essay is to explain why an accurate positioning of human agency is important far beyond intellectual discourse.
In general, one of the prime fallacies that we historians combat—and this is of central importance in HoT—is determinism—the assumption that something other than human decision—whether individual or collective—is driving history. Borrowing evolution wholesale from the biological sciences as a model for the history of technology is deterministic. It assumes, whether explicitly or no, that things “just happen naturally;” technology “evolves” in response to changing external forces. There is inevitability. That isn’t true. Technology changes—or doesn’t—because humans decide whether it will or not. Sure, those decisions are guided and constrained by external forces, but they are still decisions. Invention is a decision. Adoption is a decision. Changing or not changing something is a decision.
OK fine, we get it,; if you do this, you’re not explaining the why of history right, even if you’re getting the what right. But why is this important outside intellectual discourse? Because removing human agency from history also removes human accountability.
In fact, history has already shown us, in no uncertain terms, that the misapplication of Darwinian evolution is one of the most powerful evils of the modern world—perhaps the most powerful. All of you have heard the phrase social Darwinism. All of you probably also know that “social Darwinism” doesn’t come from Darwin. Most or perhaps all of you know that Darwin never wrote the phrase “survival of the fittest.”
Social Darwinism is a set of fallacies and mistakes dating from the late nineteenth century, once the basic ideas Darwin laid out in The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man had had time to percolate through literate society and be co-opted and manipulated by bad actors and bad thinkers, looking for something novel to justify what they already believed and what they were already doing, in an age where religious justifications were increasingly insufficient. In general, it was a way oppressors and exploiters could weaponize Darwin’s theories to justify themselves and their actions by claiming that they were “natural.” Capitalists and slaveowners (who were also capitalists) loved social Darwinism and used it well. Social Darwinism made modern racism, in fact. It isn’t that racism didn’t exist before; it certainly did. But social Darwinism offered a way to make racism “natural”—a way to make it seem part of the modern world, rather than a reactionary holdover from an earlier one. Authoritarian politicians used racism and a politicized social Darwinism so effectively that they started and waged the most destructive war in human history from 1937 to 1945, and that war (all of it, not just the Holocaust) was fueled by the new racism that grew out of social Darwinism. It is the racism that is still with us.
There are those who are convinced—regardless of how freely they will admit it—that it is the “natural order of things” for some people to win and some to lose—for some to succeed at the expense of others, and for some to thrive while others suffer. That this is not because of human decisions, but because it “just is.” Even when humans do make decisions, it is justifiable for humans to make decisions to perpetuate—or even instigate—a society based on oppression and exploitation of some by others because that is the “way of nature.” Removing human agency removes human accountability.
Such people have no place in the conversations that the rest of us are having about how to make our human world—and by extension the non-human world—a better place. They are, to use an old expression, “beyond the pale”—which literally means “beyond the stockade fence” that keeps us inside safe from those outside. They cannot participate meaningfully in these conversations because their alternate reality has removed the central mechanism of human affairs—human decisions—from human affairs. Unfortunately, however, they have money and power—nowhere near all of it, but enough to do great harm.
So, I hope that it’s now clear why this is so much more than an “academic exercise”—though I’d also point out that most important thoughts that end up having a profound effect on us begin as “academic exercises.” To a large extent, we just explained World War II, among other things, and that’s pretty big. But in terms of something of more immediate relevance, we have the prime challenge of our species right now: the elimination of poverty, and all that comes from it, by creating a society that does not create and perpetuate poverty, and then justify it. That cannot happen as long as social Darwinists have power. So, it is incumbent on all of us to fight this old distortion of the most important discovery in the history of biological science, even as we continue to use what Darwin actually did teach us, a century and a half ago, about how things actually do work here on Earth.