Monday, September 22, 2008

Viewing Technological Change (Option 2)

Both Rebecca Harding Davis and Frederick Winslow Taylor make poignant arguments about the impact of technological change on human societies and psychologies. In Life in the Iron Mills, Davis critiques technology and the social changes it creates primarily from a Marxist perspective. Her emphasis on class reveals an underlying assumption that Davis makes: that technology is inherently harmful to the working classes. In fact, Davis suggests that technology is almost always the enemy of the working class based on her vivid, horrific descriptions of industrial laborers. Taylor, on the other hand, presents technology from a utilitarian point of view. Technological change, according to Taylor, can evoke enormous opportunities for prosperity across all rungs of the class ladder. Thus, Taylor offers a rich counter-argument to Davis in his book The Principles of Scientific Management. Insufficient checks on corporate enterprise, unequal wealth distribution, and basic human greed are the root causes of income disparity, not technology. Therefore, Taylor’s argument more accurately reflects the impact technological change has on human society.
Davis and Taylor would both agree that technology and technological change can bring about prosperity. In Life in the Iron Mills Mitchell laughs and exclaims, “Money has spoken!" Here, Davis emphasizes the role that technology plays in generating wealth. However, the author stresses the fact that technology has for the most part generated wealth for the upper classes and for the owners of the means of production. Davis’ assumption, however grim and alarmist, is absolutely true. Any cursory glance at the ways Third World countries currently undergo their economic development proves that a budding middle and upper class necessitates a mass of underpaid workers who fuel economic progress.
In The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor claims, “Maximum prosperity can exist only as the result of maximum productivity” and therefore echoes the story told in Life in the Iron Mills (p. 12). However, Taylor puts a positive spin on technological advancement and the prosperity it creates. Instead of claiming that income disparity is the direct by-product of technology, Taylor lauds technology for enabling greater freedom and opportunity for all human beings. On page 18 of The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor criticizes the economic model that creates a class of underpaid workers while at the same time denouncing the waves of white collar workers who are overpaid and under-worked. Technology has the capacity to make people lazy, suggests Taylor. In that sense, Taylor also reflects what Davis points out as the soullessness of modern industrial society.
Where Davis and Taylor disagree is on the role of technology and technological change. Davis posits technology as the culprit for the downfall of civilization and for the death of the human spirit. Her dystopic vision is understandable and reasonable given the still widespread problem of poverty and inequality worldwide and even within the wealthiest nations in the world. However, Davis places an unreasonable amount of blame on the impersonal forces of technological change. Technology is not the problem, as Taylor points out. Technology can in fact be the solution to class conflict for several reasons. For one, technology increases access to information. With greater access to information, citizens can learn the ugly truths about why corporations prosper at the expense of underpaid, disenfranchised, and disillusioned workers. Moreover, technology opens opportunities for entrepreneurial ventures. In liberal democracies based on free and open markets, technology can help people prosper so long as social institutions such as schools, health care, and banking is kept under tight regulation by citizens concerned about making the world a better place.


Kevin Hengelbrok said...

I'm not your primary commenter... but I wanted to say a few things. I read your essay because you were the only one to tackled option 2 and I really liked your argument. I feel you presented both sides very well. You did a very good job contrasting the ideas from Taylor and Iron Mills. But, I you can make your essay better if you add what you think about technology (not to mention finish up the prompt). Try going into if you think where we are with technology is good or bad. People often call letter writing a "lost art" because no one does it anymore. We either call them or shoot the person an email. I believe if you add some comparisons to the modern era your essay will become much stronger.

Adam Johns said...

Davis isn't a Marxist. Not all socialists are Marxists, although all Marxists are socialists. That might be a nitpick, since functionally we might be able to substitute "socialist" for Marxist in your paper, but words do matter...

Does Taylor actually say anything remotely like this: "Taylor offers a rich counter-argument to Davis in his book The Principles of Scientific Management. Insufficient checks on corporate enterprise, unequal wealth distribution, and basic human greed are the root causes of income disparity, not technology." You seem to attribute this basic though to him, which seems curious. My worry here is that you have an interesting argument but aren't sufficiently concerned with the specifics of what the texts actually say.

Your generalizations about the third world don't sound crazy, but again you show a lack of concern for evidence...

Your last, extended discussion of how Taylor is right and Davis is wrong about technological change has a fundamental problem. You aren't presenting a structured argument based on evidence: there is no "because of points a, b, and c, drawn from the texts and from research, I conclude that Taylor is right and Davis is wrong." Your argument is interesting, and you certainly hit some of the right notes, but this essay is disorganized, repetitive and short on actual evidence, despite the good topic.

I agree with Kevin, incidentally, that you do a decent job (although still short on detail) explaining what Davis and Taylor think. Where you fall short is explaining your preference, which I think he was getting at as well.