The Technology of Social Structures
This is more me thinking out loud than expositing a theory: Do/Have/Will Social Constructions (i.e. governments, political ethos, economic theory, social mores) constitute a kind of technology?
The knee-jerk answer is ‘no’. Technology is most commonly applied to engineering and the harder sciences – it involves
tools, gizmos, or arrangements of same in ways to ease our lives. If we consider technology in wider sense, however – as from the Greek tekhnologia, which means ‘systematic treatment’ – couldn’t social constructions fit? The modern postal service, for instance, is a systematic treatment involving, at its heart, a societal convention of what constitutes ‘mail’, how it should be treated, and who is responsible for it. Yes, the crunchier kind of technology is involved, but those are merely time-savers. The inherent social construction of ‘mail’ is something else and, I feel, somehow technological.
I’m thinking about this for two reasons at the moment. First is that I’m teaching a class on Technology in Literature this spring, featuring a lot of science fiction works that we will be analyzing in historical contexts, and I’m noticing just how much society dictates technology and vice versa (more on that in a minute). The second reason is that, given all the social upheaval in the world (Lybia, Syria, Italy, the OWS movement, etc., etc.), one is forced to wonder if there isn’t a better system that we could implement to organize ourselves. Science Fiction is awash in such theories, from Heinlein’s various and sundry new societies in novels like Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress all the way to Iain M. Banks Culture novels or Star Trek’s Federation of Planets. Could any of that stuff work, one wonders? Is the reason it hasn’t so far is that we just haven’t ‘invented’ such a society yet?
Getting back to my first point above, it’s fairly clear that technology has a formidable influence over social constructions (just look at Facebook or, hell, look at the compass) AND that social constructions have a formidable influence over technology. After all, the reason why Europe wound up conquering most of the Earth isn’t because they were inherently smarter or better, but because they had a fractured social landscape that encouraged warfare and emphasized the acquisition of land in such a way that encouraged the growth and development of military technology to the point where they were simply the best at it (and please don’t start pleas for the skill and mastery of this or that indigenous people at warfare – the results really speak for themselves; the British Pound still trades favorably against all international currencies and the Zulu nation are a disaffected minority group in a mid-level African country holding a mere fraction of Britain’s much-faded influence and power. Guess who won that conflict?).
One of the problems, perhaps, with thinking about social structures in terms of technology is that we like to think of
technology as a linear progression, no matter how many technological dead-ends and reversals have shown themselves throughout the millennia. Societies, we have been trained to think, are not better or worse than each other so much as they are different. You can’t sit there in judgement of Russia’s predilection for Vodka and insist it is ‘less advanced’ than the cultural constructions of other places. Society doesn’t really work that way, does it? We aren’t taking steady strides towards the Social Singularity, are we?
Or is it the other way? Is technology not actually striding towards anything so much as it is following one of many, many possible paths that may or may not pay off, but does not indicate the ‘right’ way to do anything. What kind of world would we live in, then, if Betamax had trounced VHS, or where Tesla had overcome Edison? Still better: what kind of world would we have lived in where that would have been possible?
Wheels within wheels within wheels…