Closely associated with reification is another feature of technological determinism whereby technology is presented as autonomous (or sometimes 'semi-autonomous'): it is seen as a largely external - 'outside' of society, 'supra-social' or 'exogenous' (as opposed to 'endogenous'). Rather than as a product of society and an integral part of it, technology is presented as an independent, self-controlling, self-determining, self-generating, self-propelling, self-perpetuating and self-expanding force. It is seen as out of human control, changing under its own momentum and 'blindly' shaping society. This perspective may owe something to the apparent autonomy of mechanisms such as clockwork. But even texts are autonomous of their authors once they leave their hands: as published works they are subject to interpretation by readers, and beyond the direct control of their authors.
Isaac Asimov suggested that
The clear progression away from direct and immediate control made it possible for human beings, even in primitive times, to slide forward into extrapolation, and to picture devices still less controllable, still more independent than anything of which they had direct experience.
(Asimov 1981, p. 130)
The most famous theorist adopting this perspective was the sociologist Jacques Ellul in his book The Technological Society. Ellul declared that 'Technique has become autonomous; it has fashioned an omnivorous world which obeys its own laws and which has renounced all tradition' (Ellul 1964 p. 14). He presented complex interdependent technological systems as being shaped by technology itself rather than by society.
Other adherents to the doctrine of technological autonomy have included Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, Mark Twain, Henry Adams, John Ruskin, William Morris, George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut (Winner 1977, p. 19). Significantly, 'autonomy' is a key concept in Western liberalism: autonomous individuals are capable of directing and governing their own behaviour. But even in the context of this political ideal for the individual, autonomy is always limited by social conditions and circumstances. Indeed, the notion of an individual as 'a law unto himself' is a nightmare.
Ellul declared that 'there can be no human autonomy in the face of technical autonomy' (Ellul 1964, p. 138). He insisted that technological autonomy reduces the human being to 'a slug inserted into a slot machine' (p. 135). Critics of the notion of technological autonomy argue that technology is itself shaped by society and is subject to human control.
Neil Postman links the notion of technological autonomy closely with the notion that 'a method for doing something becomes the reason for doing it' (Postman 1979, p. 91). Referring to standardized human behaviour and to what he calls the 'invisible technology' of language as well as to machines, Postman argues that 'Technique, like any other technology, tends to function independently of the system it serves. It becomes autonomous, in the manner of a robot that no longer obeys its master' (Postman 1993, p. 142).
Elsewhere he defines 'The Frankenstein Syndrome: One creates a machine for a particular and limited purpose. But once the machine is built, we discover, always to our surprise - that it has ideas of its own; that it is quite capable not only of changing our habits but... of changing our habits of mind' (Postman 1983, p. 23). Although Postman denies that that 'the effects of technology' are always inevitable, he insists that they are 'always unpredictable' (Postman 1983, p. 24).
Technology which no-one seems to control seems to have 'a will of its own'. This stance involves anthropomorphism or technological animism in its crediting of an inanimate entity with the consciousness and will of living beings. Technologies are seen as having 'purposes' of their own rather than purely technical functions. Sometimes the implication is that purposiveness arises in a device from the whole being greater than the sum of the parts which were humanly designed: unplanned, a 'ghost in the machine' emerges.
The notion that technological developments arise to 'fill needs' is reflected in the myth that 'necessity is the mother of invention'. It presents technology as a benevolent servant of the human species. But as Carroll Purcell puts it, 'many modern "needs" are themselves inventions, the product of an economy that stimulates consumption so that it can make and market things for a profit' (Purcell 1994, p. 40).
The notion of technology having its own purposes is widespread. Ralph Waldo Emerson (d. 1882) declared that: 'Things are in the saddle,/ And ride mankind' ('Ode, inscribed to W. H. Channing'). Marshall McLuhan asserted that 'in... any social action, the means employed discover their own goals', adding that 'new goals [are] contained in... new means' (McLuhan & Watson 1970, p. 202).
Animistic accounts are particularly applied to the complex technologies, and to reifications of technology as an interdependent 'system'. Some authors may indulge in deliberate ambiguity about animism as an evasion of commitment. But people commonly refer to particular machines or tools in their daily lives as having 'personalities'.
Technological animism was the basis for a philosophy called 'resistentialism'. Its leading figure, Pierre-Marie Ventre, declared that 'Les choses sont contre nous': Things are against us. One resistentialist commentator summarizes the Clark-Trimble experiments of 1935:
(Jennings 1960, p. 396)
Resistentialism was actually dreamt up by the humourist Paul Jennings in 1948, but it is one of those schools of thought which ought to exist, and which in our most technologically frustrating moments we devoutly believe to be true. For some light relief, I recommend the whole of Paul Jennings' account of this fake European philosophy, which can be found in Dwight Macdonald's book, Parodies.
It is such a philosophy which advises us not to let the photocopier know how urgent your task is, because this is a sure recipe for breakdown. Here is an anonymous but official-looking notice I once saw displayed above a photocopier:
For many of us, despite its satirical dimension, that notion expresses an experiential truth: emotionally, we are all capable of technological animism.
For some more serious theorists technology (or technique) is presented as an autonomous force but not as a conscious being with 'a will of its own'. For such theorists technological autonomy may refer primarily to the ways in which a technology apparently under control for the purpose for which it is used can have unpredictable and cumulative knock-on influences on the use of and 'need' for other technologies. Such 'repercussions' are not direct and immediate consequences.
One commentator, W. E. Moore, has suggested that 'a more tenable formulation' than the complete autonomy of technology may be that technology is 'a segment of culture more subject to change than other aspects of culture, and therefore possibly of causal significance in social change', adding that 'under certain conditions this is likely to be correct' (in Potter & Sarre 1974, p. 484).
The idea of Technology as itself autonomous is sometimes criticized as 'mystification' (e.g. Benthall 1976, p. 159, re. Ellul). The assumption of technological autonomy can disempower us politically by suggesting that technology is mysterious and inexplicable. The computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum notes that 'today even the most highly placed managers represent themselves as innocent victims of a technology for which they accept no responsibility and which they do not even pretend to understand' (1976, p. 241).
A serious concern of the critics of technological determinism is that a belief in the autonomy of technology may deter those who feel helpless from intervening in technological development. The stance of technological autonomy could then be seen as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Seymour Melman argues that 'the machine mystics - if taken seriously - leave us feeling helpless, deficient in understanding, and without a guide to how to get anything done. This is the main social function of this literature. Therein lies its thrust as a status-quo conserving body of thought' (1972, p. 60).
We are also encouraged to trust the supposedly neutral judgement of technical specialists and 'experts'. Our role as responsible forward-looking citizens is to accept, adjust and adapt without protest to the new technology as a fact of life. As Raymond Williams puts it, 'if technology is a cause, we can at best modify or seek to control its effects' (1990, p. 10). We are not free to accept or reject technological developments.
Futurologists such as Alvin Toffler declare that 'rather than lashing out, Luddite fashion, against the machine, those who genuinely wish to break the prison hold of the past could do well to hasten the... arrival of tomorrow's technologies [because] it is precisely the super-industrial society, the most advanced technological society ever, that extends the range of freedom' (Toffler 1980, cited in Robins & Webster 1989, p. 14-15). Margaret Thatcher insisted in 1982 that 'Information Technology is friendly: it offers a helping hand; it should be embraced. We should think of it more like E.T. than I.T.' (Robins & Webster 1989, p. 25). It is hardly surprising that the stance of technological autonomy is sometimes associated with fascism.
It has been suggested that 'the major issue at stake is the degree of relative autonomy of particular phenomena, whereby autonomy is confined within certain limits or structures' (O'Sullivan et al. 1983, p. 17).