How strongly does technological change shape historical change?

How strongly does technological change shape historical change? This is quite a tough question because of how broad both technological and historical changes are. Let’s start with terms:

‘historical change’ is the more complicated; it can cover social, political, cultural and other broad trends. ‘Technological change’ I think is more straightforward. Whenever you answer an essay question pay attention to the keywords. In addition to the two changes, it is asking about how ‘strong’ the connection is between them. So you are going to make and defend a statement about that connection and how strong it is.

In terms of literature, you should start with the key readings as well as texts mentioned in the lecture. MacKenzie and Wajcman give you the concept of ‘technological determinism, which is the strongest, most extreme form of a connection: technological change drives (determines) changes in society over time. You would be brave (ie probably wrong) to defend technological determinism (although does Edgerton come close?). Winner on the other hand argues that some technologies powerfully shape social/political choices (think of the implications of his bridges case study). But how generalizable or common are Winner-type cases?

In this essay you need to strike a balance:

you do not have space to summarise all of the historical change, obviously. But on the other hand, one or even a handful of cases are not going to prove a general point.  So I would approach this by making a series of general points in support of your overall argument, and in each case briefly offer (with good historical references!) cases that illustrate the point.

In terms of further literature, you can look at the references in each of the key readings, you can find and use other good general accounts of the technology/society relationship (for example, David Nye, Technology Matters, or Leo Marx and Merritt Roe Smith (eds.), Does Technology Drive History? and their book reviews – searchable via www.JStor.org), and you can read and cite the papers in good history of technology journals (eg Technology and Culture).

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