Fire in the Historian’s Gut
If you do any sort of history or philosophy of technology you inevitably run up against a group of historians/theorists who in the 1960s/1970s, coeval and overlapping with Modernization Theory, began talking about the determinism of technology, though in much more pessimistic terms than you’ll find in development theorists at the time. Some of this came out of looking at the Industrial Revolution and the resulting impact the advent of large-scale machines and factories had on everyday life and the everyday man. While the field has moved very far away from any technological determinism (even if certain journalists haven’t), it’s always nice to read E.P. Thompson who gets angry as he denounces those who would see technologies outside of their human habitats. Here, talking about time-disciplining technologies like bells and clocks, but also fines, supervision of labor, preaching and schooling, he takes to task these “theorists of growth” who forget the role of human conflict in history:
The evidence is plentiful, and, by the method of contrast, it reminds us how far we have become habituated to different disciplines. Mature industrial societies of all varieties are marked by time-thrift and by a clear demarcation between “work” and “life”. But, having taken the problem so far, we may be permitted to moralize a little, in the eighteenth-century manner, ourselves. The point at issue is not that of the “standard-of-living”. If the theorists of growth wish us to say so, then we may agree that the older popular culture was in many ways otiose, intellectually vacant, devoid of quickening, and plain bloody poor. Without time-discipline we could not have the insistent energies of industrial man; and whether this discipline comes in the forms of Methodism, or of Stalinism, or of nationalism, it will come to the developing world.
What needs to be said is not that one way of life is better than the other, but that this is a place of the most far-reaching conflict; that the historical record is not a simple one of neutral and inevitable technological change, but is also one of exploitation and of resistance to exploitation; and that values stand to be lost as well as gained. The rapidly-growing literature of the sociology of industrialization is like a landscape which has been blasted by ten years of moral drought: one must travel through many tens of thousands of words of parched a-historical abstraction between each oasis of human actuality. Too many of the Western engineers of growth appear altogether too smug as to the gifts of character-reformation which they bring in their hands to their backward brethren.
This was published in a 1967 article in Past & Present titled “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Professionalized to the grave, I often wonder if such a blatantly politicized statement, really a shredding apart of a certain realm of contemporaneous political and economic thought, could make its way into formal history today.