Jonathan's Response

Noble argues against technological determinism (109). What is technological determinism, and why does Noble reject it?

Technological determinism, instead of simply a theory or belief regarding the role of technology in society, can more precisely be described as an ideology. Within this ideology is the general belief that technology shapes society, that the development and spread of technology operates independently from social influence.

From a Marxist perspective, technology and capital are interdependent, constantly building on each other. Thus, they follow a similar logic. Marx describes the process by which capital circulation, divorced from its social origins, appears to take on a life of its own. It “suddenly presents itself as an independent substance,” he observes, “endowed with a motion of its own, passing through a life-process of its own, in which money and commodities are mere forms which it assumes and casts off” (Capital, Vol. I, p. 154). Both capital accumulation and the development of technology, therefore, can claim to be devoid of moral commitments, natural, and unfettered by human bias.

As Marx notes in “The machine versus the worker,” while the improvement of technology seems to sometimes “of no great moment,” it actually has important effects on the laborer’s potential. Machinery is a “power inimical” to the worker, he follows, “ and as such capital proclaims it from the roof tops and as such makes use of it” (156). In this sense, the ideology of technological determinism not only serves the interests of the capitalist class, but, like capital, it obscures the social relations at the heart of the labor process.

In his historical analysis of automated machine tools, therefore, Noble wishes to contest this apparent natural march of technology. For the technological determinist, he notes, social analysis only needs to focus on the (supposedly) inevitable effects of new machinery. A more critical perspective, however, would see how technological determinism glosses over the real questions at the heart of the emergence of new technologies. Noble’s critical historical analysis, therefore, reveals the social choices, philosophies, and interests that went into the development of automated machine tools. Their development was not a inevitable process independent from society, but, as Noble concludes, numerical control’s introduction into the production process led to greater managerial control, “it is because the technology was chosen, in part, for just that purpose” (120).

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