Also related to technological autonomy is the frequent assumption or implication that technological developments, once under way, are unstoppable: their 'progress' is inevitable, unavoidable and irreversible. In favour of the inevitability of technological developments (and against the mysticism of inspired genius) many theorists cite simultaneous invention widely dispersed geographically.
Some critics who use the term 'technological determinism' equate it simply with this notion of inevitability, which is also referred to as 'The technological imperative'. The doctrine of the technological imperative is that because a particular technology means that we can do something (it is technically possible) then this action either ought to (as a moral imperative), must (as an operational requirement) or inevitably will (in time) be taken (see Hasan Ozbekhan 1968).
Arnold Pacey suggests that the technological imperative is commonly taken to be 'the lure of always pushing toward the greatest feat of technical performance or complexity which is currently available' (Pacey 1983, p. 79). The mathematician John von Neumann wrote with some alarm that 'technological possibilities are irresistible to man.' (in Mumford 1971, p. 186). Jacques Soustelle declared of the atomic bomb that 'Since it was possible, it was necessary' (in Ellul 1964, p. 99). And fatalists might add that since we can now destroy the planet, in time we will. The technological imperative is a common assumption amongst commentators on 'new technologies'. They tell us, for instance, that the 'information technology revolution' is inevitably on its way and our task as users is to learn to cope with it.
Those who pursue certain problems primarily because they are 'technically sweet' are following the technological imperative. It implies a suspension of ethical judgement or social control: individuals and society are seen as serving the requirements of a technological system which shapes their purposes. Ellul argued that technology becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end, a phenomenon dubbed 'teknosis' by John Biram, who also refers to those accepting this as 'teknotic' (cited in Shallis 1984, p. 80). Many argue that the pursuit of the technological imperative involves adopting an instrumental or technicist attitude: treating even people as a means to an end. The technological imperative is typically argued to develop as technological systems become large, complex, interconnected and interdependent. It can seem prohibitively expensive to abandon a complex technological system such as nuclear power, although it is not impossible, given the political will.
Abbe Mowshowitz argues that 'to assert that technology has become an autonomous agent of change is not to attribute an occult quality to the growth of modern society which transcends human choice. It simply means that mechanization has affected social organization and individual behaviour in such a way as to create a foundation for further development along certain lines. We have cultivated a special relationship to technology wherein needs and conflicts are almost invariably formulated as technical problems requiring technical solutions' [what are usually called 'technical fixes'] (Mowshowitz 1976, pp. 256-7).
Major critics of the pursuit of the technological imperative have been Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich. Michael Shallis notes that:
The imperative implies that the invention of a new technique demands its adoption and development, and although there are countless examples of 'useless' inventions that no one wants and which are not developed but fade away, the general tendency has been to pursue possible developments for their own sake. The technological imperative concerns that self-motivated pursuit and implies that it is somehow inevitable... Technology is promoted... as if the idea of the imperative was true.
(Shallis 1984, pp. 64-5).
Technologies which are technically possible are not always developed or when developed, are rejected. We need only consider the lack of commitment to developing alternative energy sources.