Volti, Rudi. Society and Technological Change. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1988.

(selected ideas - not a review!)

Chapter 1

Volti reminds us that the word technology was coined by Jacob Bigelow in 1820. The Greek word is techne, meaning art or craft or skill, and the Indo-European word is teks, meaning to weave or fabricate. Technology is "a system based on the application of knowledge, manifested in physical objects and organizational forms, for the attainment of specific goals." (6) Norbert Wiener, a 20th-century mathematician, emphasizes the importance of feedback systems. Feedback is "a method of controlling a system by reinserting in it the results of the last performance." (p. 10 qtd from Otto Mayr, "The Origins of Feedback Control" )

Chapter 2

Technology involves the redistribution of wealth, power and relationships therefore entrenched networks can and do resist technological change or adjust that change to their own benefit. Technology, because it is a system, requires different management skills and holds out a promise of rational betterment of society. But administration does not equal politics.

Chapter 3

Key steps in technological change may be incremental and many are incorporated in the "scaling up" process. Further improvements are made after the market return justifies making them. Not all inventions make it through the social grid. Jacob Schmookler researched effective demand - which may be a driving force in technological development - and in such cases, the change is generally incremental and steady.
However, there is also "belated demand," which characterizes the reaction to a breakthrough invention: it has no clear immediate use but, if it succeeds at all, needs more time to create its market. Planned, hierarchical and non-competitive societies produce less new technology. However, government-funded technologies (weapons and medicine) are important ways to foster new technology. And, as always, individual tinkering, play and efficiency "cranks" are fruitful sources of change.

Chapter 4

Volti distinguishes specialized pursuits in acoustics, mathematics, the principles of physics, chemistry and optics as sciences, and says they are characterized by the question "is it true?" He characterizes the technology everyone uses with the question: "does it work?" (NB this division can be problematized.) Science and technology certainly interact at many levels, but science is judged, he says, quoting Langdon Winner, by results, and must by expressed by technology to answer the question "what can you do?"

Chapter 5 Diffusion

At 1500 China had the most technological advances - paper, compass, gunpowder, printing, the differential gear, watertight bulkheads, etc. These all came West, along with the the stirrup, which dates about 8th century AD (or 4th century?) and moves from the steppes to Europe and Asia. American technology could be dated from 1790 when the Slater spinning factory was opened. America's great asset were her immigrants; Leo Baekeland, Charles Steinmetz, to name two. Copying is harder to do without the existing systems in place. Then, there is the question of how to apply technology appropriately so that it does not distort or impoverish the recipient country. People are necessary to carry the specific skills involved in a technology transfer. Blocks to adoption can be technical, economic, cultural and political, e.g.: it doesn't work; it doesn't pay; it wasn't invented here; patents are owned by big companies with a stake in the status quo.

Chapter 6 - PreIndustrial Work

An increase in production generally adds an increase in labor. !Kung bushmen work about 12-19 hours a week to supply their necessities. By contrast, an agricultural society requires about 300 days of labor a year. Medieval guilds organized labor to reduce competition and allow modest changes while keeping a decent number of people in business through price fixing. Work itself was not seen as ennobling and the clock was not a regulator of work. Clock tyranny begins in 1820 with the widespread availability of the same and continues through factories. William Taylor used time studies, much to the dismay of shop floor workers. Time is fungible - it can be saved or wasted.

Chapter 7

Are jobs lost or gained? The effect of technology is profound but the totals are hard to add up. Certainly some kinds of jobs get created and others get wiped out. In America, service jobs are rapidly outstripping manufacturing jobs, and may simply be following the route of agriculture. If so, government training and cross-over time should be a standard. NB Teaching is the last medieval apprentice - journeyman - master job.

Chapter 8 Technological Change and Life on the Job

The stretch out, monotony and boredom as well as task and time tyranny are not technological concomitants: they are social arrangements for the control of many and profit by few. Separating working and planning, or deskilling jobs, is not inevitable or necessary. Organization and discipline are separate matters; they do not require machinery to implement.

Chapter 9 and 10 Print and Electronic Media

Printing and literacy created significant social change. Volti mentions some of the psychological aspects of reading: a solitary act, an egotistical act, a fixed point of view, the encouragement of linear sequential thinking …. I wonder about all of that. I can think of dozens of examples in which reading encourages multiple points of view, non-linear thinking, etc. He mentions the importance of the cylinder rotary press which brought down the price of newspapers to 1 cent.

(NB penny paper in 1837 and the dollar watch around 1850.)

TV was created by Vladimir Zworykin or Philo Farnsworth (take your pick; Volti picks Zworykin) by 1939. Prior to that, the FCC was created for radio regulation and started to distribute frequencies in 1934. He asks, typically, if the TV is a wasteland, a catharsis or a catalyst for violence. Does it attach our ability to process thoughts?

Chapter 11, 12 & 13 Warfare and Why

Organization gave the Romans power; stirrups and horses supported (literally!) the medieval knight culture; muskets and cannons and organization formed the core of modern armies; machine guns and long-range gunboats gave the West 85% of the world; long-range rockets and the atomic bomb made warfare global and final: mutually assured destruction. Why do we develop such technology? The late adoption of some obvious improvements in weaponry underscores the fact the social systems are involved all along the way. When it comes to weapons, identification, investment and interest are governing forces. Is it possible to suppress inventions? Certainly, and Volti cites poison gas and guns in Japan as examples.

Chapter 14, 15 & 16

Is technology a juggernaut, a solvent, a doubling and trebling of certified information (exponential increase in journals, etc). Are engineers good managers? He describes the way technology interacts with organizations via Charles Perrow's study along two axis:
variability of raw material - variability of problem solving processes.

Few exceptions and analyzable searches
Routinized organizations: steel mills, custodial institutions like prisons
Few exceptions and unanalyzable searches Craft industries: custom-made products; socializing institutions like schools
Many exceptions and analyzable searches
Engineering firms: heavy industry
programmed learning schools
Many exceptions and unanalyzable searches Non-routine manufacturing - aerospace; therapeutic institutions like psychiatric hospitals
(p. 240)

Technology brought to life via a large corporation has specific features

Individuals can make changes - for example, William Simms, who taught the navy to shoot. Governments, by investment, taxation and regulation support and adjust technologies well beyond what the market can or will do. The educated populace - c.f. Tom Jefferson - is our only hope.