Did Machines Drive History?

Written by Mariona Coll ArdanuyJuly 11, 2019Comments: 0

Written by Daniel Wilson and Mariona Coll Ardanuy

Technological change is very often regarded with a combination of fascination and fear, and this is reflected in the way we talk about it: from those who see it as a synonym for progress to those who perceive it as a threat to humanity. We live in a period of profound change to which we are learning to adapt as we go; a situation also faced by those living through the first Industrial Revolution, two hundred years ago. Understanding how technological change was received by those who experienced it first-hand is one of the main goals of the Language Lab.

A peculiar feature of the language used to describe machinery has been the tendency to lapse into ‘technological determinism’. Whether deliberate or accidental, historians have worried that such language can imply that machines rather humans have the agency that ‘drives history’.*

In this first research outcome we aim to explore this problem using historical collections, by asking how machines were represented in specific relation to causation. In other words, to what extent were machines imagined as autonomous agents, able to drive change?

We are interested in discovering who propagated such depictions and in which sources. As a first step towards answering such questions, we aim to analyse to what extent technological terms have been portrayed as grammatical agents (as in the sentence “the steam engine changed the world”) in our sources, and what was connoted by these concrete linguistic forms.

With these aims in mind, we are developing computational methods (in collaboration with the 3I lab) that will allow large volumes of texts to be processed and analysed at scale. Our sources at this stage comprise a vast collection of digitised books (https://data.bl.uk/digbks/) and 11 million articles from regional newspapers from two characteristically different English counties: Lancashire (at the centre of the Industrial Revolution) and Dorset (which largely remained at its margin). We will work together with the Sources Lab to profile the characteristics of the different newspapers: in terms both of the publication itself (price, political leaning, religious affiliation, circulation, etc.) and also by those of its location (whether industrial, commercial, or topographical e.g., coastal, navigable by river, connected by railway, etc.); and with the Time and Space Lab to profile our sources in terms of the geographical scope of their content.

By comparing changes in linguistic patterns with the outcomes from the other labs, we will be able to trace the origin and diffusion of such agential understanding of technology across time and space. This analysis will complement existing historical research about who welcomed technological change and industrialisation, and who focussed on the social and cultural costs that were involved.

We will generate outputs in the form of academic publications and presentations, code, and annotated datasets, and we are working together with the Communities Lab on creating a panel in a forthcoming British Library exhibition on infographics.

* [Leo Marx and Merrit Roe Smith, Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism’, (MIT Press, 1994).]

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