Storytelling in technology: The myth of progress

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A system is an imaginary machine, invented to connect together in the fancy those different movements and effects which are already in reality performed. – Adam Smith

In his book, Technology’s Storytellers: Reweaving the Human Fabric,  John M. Staudenmaier describes how the Lakota people in North and South Dakota, USA, did not use clocks to measure time. Instead, they used events and experience as a reference point, as they had done since before people measured time in a systematic fashion, that is, before clocks were invented.

However, this different timekeeping system conflicted with the modern world and so society decided that the Lakota people were unreliable and incapable of managing their time. The cognitive dissonance of this belief sadly led to raised levels of depression and dysfunction amongst the Lakota people. Staudenmaier questioned the belief that keeping time according to a clock is a superior way of living, and began to ask why do we always perceive technological invention to be progress.

To answer this question, Staudenmaier analysed all of the articles published in Technology and Culture journal from 1957 to 1980 and decided that storytelling and mythmaking is as prevalent in technology as it is everywhere else.

The myth of progress

Historian, Reinhard Rürup has said that technology is an independent force holding sway over humans, which may contrast with what actually happened. Historiographically speaking (that is the study of the history of history), technology is always a success. Historians interpret history with the presumption that any advance is progress.

There is no documentation or eye-witness accounts from the Iron Age and Stone Age, so historians have created a story to interpret the past and describe the advancement of humans which is taught in schools today. The Iron Age was better than the Stone Age for it was a more advanced age and society because of the tools archaeologists have found.

We don’t really know that for sure though. In fact, we have no idea. Perhaps there were other tools which were far more sophisticated but didn’t endure through time.  As it stands, the tools which have been found are what the story of history is based on. It is possible that history didn’t happen like that at all.

For we assume that when we look back the best tools were adapted and others were discarded. However, this is may not be the case. If we think about recent history and two Sony inventions: Betamax and the mini disc, we can see how these were good products. Betamax was superior in quality to VHS, but VHS was cheaper, as were recordable CDs, and this is what ultimately influenced consumers to choose VHS and CDs – cost not superior technology.

Once society has embraced a specific technology, momentum gains, and society adapts its working systems. Think about it: How many times have we updated and changed our music systems in the last 30 years? Vinyl to Cassette to CD and now mp3. Each time we have lost sound quality, which makes me imagine Stone Age old-timers sitting amongst the Iron Age entrepreneurs reminiscing about bronze tools: None of this Iron tools rubbish, we had great bronze hammers…

Rarely do we question if we are making the right sort of progress.

Humans against techology

In 1811, textile workers known as Luddites began systematic attacks on the expanding factories and mills, and smashed up the wide frames or machines which had began to replaced the skilled workers with unapprenticed factory hands who worked long dangerous hours and produced cheaper cloth.

The attacks continued for two years and were punishable by hanging and troops were sent in to protect the factories. Ultimately, the Luddites failed and the Industrial Revolution caused no end of misery and replaced one way of working with another for financial gain. Human satisfaction was not factored into the equation. Factory owners did not care if their workers were happy or safe, or if the new system suited them, rather like the Lakota people, the mill workers had to put up and shut up in order to survive.

The term Luddite was not really used again until the 1950s when publicists adopted it as a term of insult for people who did not want to adopt new technology, it was ultimately a way of shaming people to conform.

Invention, Innovation, Development

In his quest to identify how progress takes places, Staudenmaier classified technological advances in three ways: invention, innovation and development.

  • Invention is a personal mysterious act challenging what we do and how to do it differently. The success of an invention depends on how persuasive the inventor can be. If the inventor doesn’t have a compelling argument, then the invention goes the way of Betamax.
  • Innovation is always linked with entrepreneurs and is driven by economic factors. And, like in the case of the Lakota people or the Luddites, there is always a tension between tradition and innovation. Businesses will squeeze costs to measure success. From call centres to farmers feeling the squeeze, money talks.
  • Development is a group endeavour, step-by-step and what is feasible rather than what is hoped for. Eventually what was hoped for is forgotten the feasible becomes the success.

In each one of these approaches, failure is rarely dwelt upon. Businesses rewrite their stories constantly to tell everyone about their triumphs, and to persuade everyone that technology makes things better, even when it causes deep unhappiness.

Science Fiction

Science fiction (SF) has been a way for writers to criticise governments, institutions and businesses without getting into trouble for centuries and as such there are recurring themes which reflect our worries about technology such as: humans destroying the world, living in a post-apocalyptic world or dystopia, robots taking over, mind control (or dumbing down).

However, for every story there is about the horrors of technology and it being something humans have invented but can’t control, there equally as many stories about how technology will save us and create a cosmic bliss where we will all live happily ever after. And, there are many areas – medicine, sanitation, electricity, communication – where life is infinitely better than it was, even 20 years ago, albeit not for everyone. In some countries, the above remain scarce and as far out of reach as the moon.

However, as the great SF writer Jules Verne himself said:

While there is life there is hope. I beg to assert…that as long as a man’s heart beats, as long as a man’s flesh quivers, I do not allow that a being gifted with thought and will can allow himself to despair. – Journey to the Centre of the Earth

We just have to make sure when we are recording new stories of technology and advancement, we include everyone, so that we can all attain cosmic bliss, not just the persuasive ones.

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