Melvin Kranzberg

in Notes

Kranzberg’s Laws

In October, 1985, Melvin Kranzberg (an eminent historian of technology) gave an address outlining six “laws” he’d noticed as he studied technology. As he points out, these aren’t “laws in the sense of commandments but rather a series of truisms” about how technology develops.

Before diving into the laws, though, he makes a few points about technological determinism: the idea that “Technology… has become autonomous and has outrun human control.” Not all scholars, he points out, agree. Lynn White Jr, for example, has said that technology “merely opens a door, it does not compel one to enter.” But as Kranzberg rightly points out in a provocative extension of the metaphor:

Nevertheless, several questions do arise. True, one is not compelled to enter White’s open door, but an open door is an invitation. Besides, who decides which doors to open–and, once one has entered the door, are not one one’s future directions by the contours of the corridor or chamber into which one has stepped? Equally important, once one has crossed the the threshold, can one turn back?

These are really deep questions, and ones to which Kranzberg admits “we historians do know the answer.” Technological determinism is a complex idea. Concretely, I wonder: was the internet inevitable? What do “the contours of the corridor or chamber” made by social media, smart speakers, and artificial intelligence look like? Can we turn back? Is there any reason we’d want to?

I don’t know. But I resist the idea that technological determinism. I’m not keen on what Mike Sacasas has called “the Borg complex”, the idea that “resistance is futile.” I’ve always been of the opinion that “what we can see, we can change.” Or to put that in the words of Marshall McLuhan, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”

But I digress–back to Kranzberg’s address. His six laws:

  • Law 1: Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral. Here, like the historian of technology he is, he’s talking about social change. Introduce the internet (or any technology) and it will change things in ways expected and unexpected. It’s the law of unintended consequences: there will be unexpected benefits and drawbacks, and often, perverse results–effects contrary to what was intended. And it will be different based on the variety of cultures and contexts. (He gives a great example of the pest control DDT in both the United States and India.)
  • Law 2: Invention is the mother of necessity. In other words, once a technology is made, it will necessitate the improvement of a variety of other inventions so it can work most effectively. (Or as Andy Crouch puts it, less forcefully, “What does this artifact make possible? What can people do or imagine, thanks to this artifact, that they could not before?”)
  • Law 3: Technology comes in packages, big and small. He gives the example of the radar, which a variety of people claim to have invented because it’s a complex technology made up of many pieces, all invented in different times and places. In a class I taught on voice technology, I was fond of illustrating the many technologies underlying a virtual assistant, all of which silently and invisibly allow us to play music or turn a light on in a room.
  • Law 4: Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions. Consider the adoption of Google Glasses, which has (and may always) run into privacy concerns. Kranzberg gives the example of communal kitchens, which would reduce housework but conflict with our modern idea of a home.
  • Law 5: All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant. It’s a bold and arguable claim, but I think he makes a good point for it.
  • Law 6: Technology is a very human activity–and so Is the history of technology. “Or to put it another way, man could not have become Homo Sapiens, “man the thinker,” had he not at the same time been Homo faber, “man the maker.”

It’s a fantastic address, and clarifying. I hope to write some more about these laws, and some reflections on what they mean for designers and technologists. But at a minimum, they encourage me to think more explicitly about the history of technology, “the most relevant” history of all. Even if that claim is hyperbolic, it’s surely more necessary to think about how things got the way they are. As Kranzberg says, “the history of technology is the story of man and tool–hand and mind–working together.”

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