Momentum: A Concept in Technology Studies


Until fairly recently, it was widely believed that technical development was determined by the advance of scientific knowledge and in turn determined the organization of social life. Technology, like fate, was a product of human action beyond human control. This “deterministic” theory of technology was supposed to explain why all developed societies gradually come to resemble each other: since science is everywhere the same, so must be technology and the society that depends on it. But this view is no longer widely held by contemporary researchers. We now believe that technology is not determining but that social, political and cultural factors influence the direction of development. In sum, technology is not fate but depends on our choices.

Nevertheless, human beings are clearly not free to make whatever they please. There seem to be great forces steering development. Some if not all of these forces do emerge from technology itself. These latter are of special interest and relevance to policy makers for reasons I will explain.

The American historian of technology, Thomas Hughes, has proposed an interesting theory of technical development focussed on large scale systems such as the electrical system or the airline industry. These systems are composed of networks of people and devices in complex combinations. Although their components each have a separate existence, they are designed or ordered to work together like the parts of a single huge machine. The subordination of each element to the whole is essential to the efficient functioning of the system. Thus the airline industry requires not just planes but airports designed for them, pilots and mechanics trained to operate them, strategies for sharing airspace, and so on and so forth, all combined by managers to work together harmoniously.

Hierarchical management is the preferred strategy of system builders in most industries such as this one because of the complexity of the network.

Systems are bounded by environments which they do not control. The airport is part of a city, the airlines must buy food for the passengers, their pilots belong to a union, and air travel depends on the weather. But systems have a way of incorporating important parts of the environment as they expand. In this way they guarantee their functioning against accidents and enemies. Thus large companies tend to buy up their smaller suppliers and attempt to control the unions that represent their workers. In some cases systems expand by interlocking in intricate patterns for strictly technical reasons. Efficiencies in the electric power industry depend on serving a very wide area with different levels of demand throughout the day, a fact which explains the growth of gigantic generating plants and electric grids covering continents.

Unlimited expansion thus seems also to be the preferred strategy of system builders.

Large scale technological systems acquire momentum as they grow. By this is meant that once the basic decisions have been made and implemented, the system tends to continue in the same direction indefinitely. The culture of the organization is shaped by its early technological choices and excludes the exploration of alternatives. Often the cost of changing direction is very high. The momentum of the system thus pulls it forward along what appears to be a predetermined pathway. So the electric power industry continues to be based on huge centralized generators although solar and other small scale generation is proving to be efficient and environmentally desirable. Sometimes a large scale system may be drawn toward disaster by its own unstoppable momentum as is the case today with the US auto industry. Its commitment to large vehicles seems to have led it into a dead end where Toyota will pick up the pieces.

The concept of momentum is related to another concept in economics: path dependence. Path dependence means that once a choice among alternatives is made there is no way to go back to the rejected alternatives. The chosen path has altered the environment in such a way as to cancel all second chances. The past continues into the present and cannot be ignored. The adoption of private automobile transportation in the United States is an example. It led to the construction of remote suburbs and the dismantling of public transportation. Today the automobile is essential to daily life in most American cities. The old high density cities well served by buses and trolleys no longer exist to make the return to public transportation practical.

What are some of the implications of this approach to technical systems? Large scale systems with centralized management and a strong tendency to expand along the lines laid out at their origin dominate all modern societies. As they develop they generate more and more technical constraints that lock in their pattern of growth. Although technology as such is not determining, the large scale technical systems it supports have deterministic features. These monstrous systems overwhelm the puny protests of human beings and even political authorities have trouble steering them.

It is difficult to imagine a modern world without large scale technical systems. On the other hand, it is possible to imagine a variety of different ways of building them with very different human and environmental consequences. This is why it is so important that modernizing societies start out right, considering the long term consequences of irreversible decisions that are likely to determine their future.

But this is not at all the spirit of capitalist growth. Capitalism divests itself of social controls to the fullest extent possible. It strives only to achieve the simple goal of short term profitability and if that has unfortunate consequences for third parties or the long term future, so be it. No one is rewarded with stock options for protecting the environment or the health of future generations. These are not corporate goals but social goals. Government regulation is therefore necessary to protect and further such non-commercial values. But how much regulation and for what purposes? That is a very difficult question.

In the West, regulation usually appeared ex post facto, after the initial growth of the large scale technical systems that dominate our societies. Government sometimes planned huge engineering feats, such as hydro-electric dams and aqueducts, but most development was in private hands. In many cases no one in government could anticipate the effects of private decisions that created new and unprecedented industries. Developing societies such as China are in a position to direct development much more actively. They have excellent information at their finger tips about the consequences of technical choices. They control their economies much more thoroughly than did capitalist governments in the early part of the last century. They can, in short, learn from mistakes made elsewhere.

The theory of large scale technical systems explains why this is so important. A technical choice that seems relatively minor and innocent at first may initiate a process with immense consequences over generations. The automobile industry of France started out over a century ago producing small numbers of luxury vehicles and race cars. Today approximately 20% of the economy is tied up in the automotive economy. That dependence on automobiles in turn chains the French economy to Middle Eastern oil producers and therefore also to the increasingly irrational U.S. government which promises regular deliveries from client states such as Saudi Arabia. This is a trajectory of development that meets its limit only in the ultimate constraints of gas prices and ancient stone cities that cannot be rebuilt around wider roads.

Developing societies can look at such examples and consider their own future in the light of our present. Is the pattern observed in this or that industry in advanced societies desirable? Are there alternatives?

Naturally, the accumulated knowledge of advanced societies offers a short cut to rapid development. It is easy to learn about automobile production or the airline industry from Western books and experts. This is a reason to follow the pattern set in the West. But given the nature of large scale technical systems and the momentum they rapidly acquire, there are also reasons for caution. Critical voices in the West and Japan can be extremely useful in evaluating possible trajectories of development before commitments have been made that are difficult to reverse. This is why it is desirable that the huge literature on social and environmental problems of advanced societies be rapidly made available in China and studied by all those with responsibilities for development.

The issue if not whether one is for or against development but concerns which development is best in the long run. These issues are constantly debated in the advanced countries where the momentum of large scale technical systems makes it difficult to promote much needed change. The developing world has an opportunity to start out on the basis of the lessons of this historical experience less constrained by past mistakes.