Thesis #2

Kranzberg’s First Law of technology rules OK

Melvyn Kranzberg (1917-1995) was an eminent historian of technology who was Callaway Professor of the History of Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the founding Editor of the academic journal Technology and Culture. His explorations of the history of technologies led him to formulate the celebrated ‘Six Laws of Technology’.

The first of these says that “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral”.

This is more profound than it looks, because much of our contemporary discussion about powerful technologies like the Internet often oscillates between two extremes. Evangelists tend to portray a particular technology as overwhelmingly beneficial (with some possible but manageable downsides). Opponents see it as essentially malignant. The most common intermediate position is to say that the technology is inherently neither good or bad and that everything depends on the uses to which it is put.

Kranzberg viewed his ‘laws’ not as commandments but rather as “a series of truisms derived from a longterm immersion in the study … of technology and its interactions with sociocultural change”. What his First Law suggests is that, regardless of its intrinsic merits or demerits, any significant technology will eventually have major effects on society. And it’s only when those effects begin to become manifest that we will be able to reach a judgement about it.

Further Reading

Kranzberg’s laws:

Melvin Kranzberg: “Technology and History: ‘Kranzberg’s Laws’”, Technology and Culture, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Jul., 1986), pp. 544-560.

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