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Technology, Systems, and Salients

Brad Allenby explores the social factors affecting technological evolution.

Students of technology sometimes speak of “salients” and “reverse salients.” The idea is that technological evolution is an advancing front, like a wave on a beach. Some parts of the wave run ahead, but eventually are held back by others (the “reverse salients”).

This systematic model can be applied to specific technologies, such as bicycles or telephones: Bijker, et al. in The Social Construction of Technological Systems takes such an approach. It can also be applied broadly to suites of technologies such as those that, taken together, constitute the Industrial Revolution (Landes in The Unbound Prometheus takes this approach, though he calls the process “challenge and response,” not “salients”).

This idea of technology, technological evolution, and industrialized cultures is different from the usual linear approach. We tend to think of technology as artifacts -- a car, a computer -- or perhaps as techniques. The “salient” approach sees technology as an integrated system: an expression in a time and place of a complex set of artifacts, production and consumption methods, material and energy systems, mental models, cultural constructs, institutions, and even ideologies.

The Industrial Revolution, for example, was not just the spinning jenny (invented by James Hargraves around 1765). Rather, it involved new technologies across the system required to turn raw cotton into printed cloth: cleaning, carding, preparation of roving, spinning, weaving, bleaching, printing, and marketing and transporting cloth.

At different times, the technology of a particular activity might lag, creating a “reverse salient”-- usually overcome by the strong economic pressures caused by progress in the coupled technologies. Today’s example might be the coupled evolution of computer software, hardware, and networks.

Technological evolution is not easily bounded. For example, the evolution in the textile sector could not have occurred without, and was a causal factor in, the breakdown of the older production model of home-based work, replaced first by small shops, then large factories. It was also a factor in generating demand for new materials and energy sources, so factories could be sited without regard for water power -- and thus was coupled to the industrialization of iron production and the shift from wood to coal. Among the results were the demographic shifts from rural to urban work patterns, the rise of new institutions, and the globalization of Eurocentric culture.

What does this have to do with environmentalism? To return to our example, it is interesting that the jenny’s introduction caused civil disobedience -- riots, in this case, rather than destroying crops, but the parallels with biotech are at least suggestive. Similar patterns may be emerging with nanotechnology, a technology system that has yet to be really defined, much less commercialized, but that has already been attacked by environmentalists, and with aquaculture, an emerging technology that has been dismissed as unsustainable by deep greens. History and the “salients” analysis, however, suggest that such absolute opposition to specific technologies is both tactically and strategically unwise.

Tactically, because absolutist opposition to specific technologies, while emotionally satisfying, overlooks the coupled nature of technological systems, bound not just to other technologies, but to economics, culture, and ideology. These technologies arise not in a vacuum, but as a part of an evolving pattern (in our case, an intensive focus of technology, economics, and culture on information structures), and opposition to a particular salient is unlikely to succeed. It may well preclude rational and desirable shifts in the way a technology evolves.

Strategically, because the world as it is now, and as it must be to support six billion-plus people, is technological. At its highest level, the system is heavily coupled, and even major cultural and technological trends are themselves salients. Trying to pick and chose technologies profoundly misunderstands the nature of technological and cultural evolution.

This does not mean principled, ethical action is not feasible. But it does mean that, absent a more sophisticated sense of the evolutionary patterns and drivers of these systems, any effect is likely to be minimal. Not raw emotion, but rather a full understanding of the processes underlying technological evolution, is a key to living responsibly and rationally on an anthropogenic Earth -- our true challenge.

Brad Allenby is Environment, Health, and Safety VP for AT&T, an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia’s Engineering School and Princeton Theological Seminary, and Batten Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School. The views expressed herein are those of the author, and not any institution with which he is associated.

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