Michael_Q4

While Noble does not explicitly define technological determinism, his essay hints at what technological determinism is. In this context, technological determinism implies that technology development drives social change. Because technological development shapes, but is not shaped by, societal forces, it is presumed that technological choices are based purely on the merits of the technologies, and not on their effects on society. Technological determinism stands opposite of SCOT (social construction of technology), which argues that technology is shaped by numerous factors.

Noble uses the case of the adoption of automatically controlled machine tools as a test case for technological determinism. In technologically deterministic view, the societal implications of widespread adoption of these tools would include lowering the demand for high-skill machinists. Because these individuals were seen as the natural authorities on the shop floor, a decline in the demand for these individuals leads to an undermining of worker authority.

Noble begins by pointing out that there were two competing technologies as automatically controlled machine tools emerged: recorder-playback, and computer numerical control (N/C.) The recorder-playback tools recorded the actions of a single machines in preparing the part, and allowed it to be repeated across multiple machines. N/C, on the other hand, went directly from the engineering drawings, and the specified dimensions, to creation of a part by controlling the actions of the machines. Recorder-playback technology increased the impact of a highly skilled machinist, while N/C removed the machinist.
Noble notes that, while the development of these technologies may have been driven by Air Force needs, articles in the business press published prior to their development specifically highlighted the opportunities for reducing not only the work force, but the ability of the work force to bargain effectively for higher wages. This effect would stronger for CNC than it would be for recorder-playback systems, which depend upon the cooperation of the manufacturing workforce to be deployed. Because the CNC tools may also have clear technological advantages, which include the directness of going from drawing to manufacturing, we are left with the question: Did CNC win because it was the most effective technological choice, or was it chosen deliberately to marginalize high-skilled labor?

Noble shows that the post-WW2 era was a period of great labor strife: workers struggled to retain control of manufacturing over theories of rationalization. There was considerable open strife, including labor slow-downs and strikes. In this context, the introduction of both types of automated machine tools was resisted at the shop floor. Noble argues that the choice to introduce machines that undermined labor was influenced by this economic and political context, instead of other advantages of the technology. In this case, the social consequences of the tools are due to deliberate choices. Noble then, at the risk of undermining his arguments, points to the fact that the tools were not as disruptive as had been hoped: partially because the technology required its own high-skilled labor force, and partially because the labor force insisted on introducing them within the existing work structure.

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