On Kranzberg's First Law of Technology

The purpose of this short piece is to discuss the historian Melvin Kranzberg’s ‘first law of technology’. Kranzberg laid out his six laws of technology at his inaugural address as President of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) on October 19th 1985.[1] The first of these laws he laid out in the following manner:

Kranzberg's First Law reads as follows: Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral. 

By that I mean that technology's interaction with the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves, and the same technology can have quite different results when introduced into different contexts or under different circumstances. 

Many of our technology-related problems arise because of the un foreseen consequences when apparently benign technologies are employed on a massive scale. Hence many technical applications that seemed a boon to mankind when first introduced became threats when their use became widespread. For example, DDT was employed to raise agricultural productivity and to eliminate disease-carrying pests. Then we discovered that DDT not only did that but also threatened ecological systems, including the food chain of birds, fishes, and eventually man. So the Western industrialized nations banned DDT. They could afford to do so, because their high technological level enabled them to use alternative means of pest control to achieve the same results at a slightly higher cost.

But India continued to employ DDT, despite the possibility of environmental damage, because it was not economically feasible to change to less persistent insecticides and because, to India, the use of DDT in agriculture was secondary to its role in disease prevention. According to the World Health Organization, the use of DDT in the 1950s and 1960s in India cut the incidence of malaria in that country from 100 million cases a year to only 15,000, and the death toll from 750,000 to 1,500 a year. Is it surprising that the Indians viewed DDT differently from us, welcoming it rather than banning it? The point is that the same technology can answer questions differently, depending on the context into which it is introduced and the problem it is designed to solve.

Thus while some American scholars point to the dehumanizing character of work in a modern factory,[2] D. S. Naipaul, the great Indian author, assesses it differently from the standpoint of his culture, saying, "Indian poverty is more dehumanizing than any machine."[3] Hence in judging the efficacy of technological development, we historians must take cognizance of varying social contexts.

It is also imperative that we compare short-range and long-range impacts. In the 19th century, Romantic writers and social critics condemned industrial technology for the harsh conditions under which the mill workers and coal miners laboured. Yet, according to Fernand Braudel, conditions on the medieval manor were even worse.[4] Certain economic historians have pointed out that, although the conditions of the early factory workers left much to be desired, in the long run the worker's living standards improved as industrialization brought forth a torrent of goods that were made available to an ever-wider public.' Of course, those long-run benefits were small comfort to those who suffered in the short run; yet it is the duty of the historian to show the differences between the immediate and long-range implications of technological developments. 

Although our technological advances have yielded manifold benefits in increasing food supply, in providing a deluge of material goods, and in prolonging human life, people do not always appreciate technology’s contributions to their lives and comfort. Nicholas Rescher, citing statistical data on the way people perceive their conditions, explains their dissatisfaction on the paradoxical ground that technical progress inflates their expectations faster than it can actually meet them.

Of course, the public's perception of technological advantages can change over time. A century ago, smoke from industrial smokestacks was regarded as a sign of a region's prosperity; only later was it recognized that the smoke was despoiling the environment. There were "technological fixes," of course. Thus, one of the aims of the Clean Air Act of 1972 was to prevent the harmful particulates emitted by smokestacks from falling on nearby communities. One way to do away with this problem was to build the smokestacks hundreds of feet high; then a few years later we discovered that the sulphur dioxide and other oxides, when sent high into the air, combined with water vapor to shower the earth with acid rain that has polluted lakes and caused forests to die hundreds of miles away.

Unforeseen "dis-benefits" can thus arise from presumably beneficent technologies. For example, although advances in medical technology and water and sewage treatment have freed millions of people from disease and plague and have lowered infant mortality, these have also brought the possibility of overcrowding the earth and producing, from other causes, human suffering on a vast scale. Similarly, nuclear technology offers the prospect of unlimited energy resources, but it has also brought the possibility of worldwide destruction.

That is why I think that my first law-Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral-should constantly remind us that it is the historian's duty to compare short-term versus long-term results, the utopian hopes versus the spotted actuality, the what-might-have-been against what actually happened, and the trade-offs among various "goods" and possible "bads". All of this can be done only by seeing how technology interacts in different ways with different values and institutions, indeed, with the entire sociocultural milieu.

What we see in Kranzberg’s ‘first law of technology’ is a sense that technology is open-ended in relation to its moral and ethical potentiality. Technology is neither inherently good, nor inherently bad, but rather contains the capability to adapt and change in relation to both (a) the user or employer of technology, and (b) the locality or social and normative context in which that piece of technology is employed or engaged with. Nonetheless, the key takeaway from Kranzberg’s first law should be the overarching common ‘unforeseen-ness’ that sits within the potentiality of all technology. A single piece of technology can shift in its condition as being ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘neutral’ in result from any unforeseen circumstances, adjusting its past trajectory in such a manner. The example that Kranzberg gives is of the pesticide Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), with which the unforeseen circumstances of its ecological effect led to its ultimate regulation and its shift from so-called ‘good technology’ - one that dramatically aids agricultural yields in reducing those plants spoiled by insects and pests - to that of ‘bad technology’, causing harm.

Hence, it is significant that we understand technology in the political domain with Kranzberg’s first law in mind. For instance, amidst her exceptionally accessible theorising and recalling of experiences with networked protest movements in the early 2010s, Zeynep Tufekci recalls how “technology alters the landscape in which human social interaction takes place”, citing Kranzberg’s first law in regards to the effect of social media on the political sphere.[5] As social media began as a means for old friends, past schoolmates and family members to reunite and communicate, it would not necessarily have been within the foresight of their Silicon-Valley founders, coders and investors that Facebook, Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger and Reddit would become the political salons for democratic activists across the globe; much in the way that philosopher and critical theorist Jürgen Habermas argues that coffee houses became the discursive site for political dissent as a corner-stone of the public sphere during the enlightenment, as “seedbeds of political unrest”.[6]

Similarly, the same could be said for the use of precisely these same platforms for illiberal activity. The fact that Election Rigging, the January 6th 2021 ‘Storming of the Capitol’ or the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, VA were equally coordinated on these same platforms demonstrates that social media, as a mode of technology, is not simply ‘good’ in itself. Rather it can just as much lead to mass-democratization as it can democratic backsliding and mass-surveillance, given the context and the manner of its use outside that of its intended purpose as technology, i.e. in a context that was not foreseen by the neoliberal Prometheans of Silicon-Valley.

Broadening our use of the term ‘technology’ to include a wider array of increasingly abstract entities, the creation and use of certain algorithms can be utilised as an illustration of precisely this same necessity to keep Kranzberg’s first law of technology in mind. In 2018, whilst researching face perception, Stanford University’s Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski forged an artificially intelligent computer algorithm that could determine the facial features of those who self-identify as both Gay and Lesbian to a 91% and 83% accuracy, respectively.[7] On the one hand, such a technology (the algorithm) allows us to greater understand and research the relationship between sexuality and physical composition, a link that is still subject to wide discussion as even to its existence. This is the beneficial capacity of such a technology, but only within a liberal humanist context. If such a technology were to be acquired by, say, the governments of Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, The United Arab Emirates, or Yemen, for instance, whereby the capital punishment of homosexuality is statutorily exercised, its effect would be the thoroughly dystopian abetting of persecution and state-sanctioned mass-murder.

Although it would be the most indulgent of speculation to claim a trace of any influence in his work, when reading Kranzberg’s thoughts, one cannot help but be drawn back to the ‘Tool analysis’ of Martin Heidegger in both ‘Being and Time’ and his ‘The Question Concerning Technology’.[8] It is well beyond the scope and intention of this short piece to comment on the relationship between Heidegger’s grasp of technology and how this compares and contrasts to that of Kranzberg. However, for the sake of drawing out a surface-level connection, such a potential to moral and ethical shift in regards to the unforeseen-ness of technological potentiality and usage can be thought to stem, in a Heideggerian and phenomenological mode of analysis, to the manner in which the physical usage and purpose of usage for a particular object is permanently in flux. With potential usages and purposes of usages withdrawn, ready to be unveiled, for Heidegger, technical objects as ‘equipment’ [Zeug] slide between readiness-at-hand [Zuhandenheit] – a tool in its withdrawn state – and presence-at-hand [Vorhandenheit] – a tool in a condition of usable accessibility.

An aspect of overlap, perhaps, between these two frameworks of thinking about technology, equipment and tools, is the condition of flux they are in between usage as a particular piece of technology, i.e., between its cryptic condition in withdrawal from employment and its renewed presence through a distinct usage. For instance, a bayonet can be thought of in one condition as piece of ‘bad’ technology, present-at-hand as a tool of war on the frontline of a conflict. After its withdrawal into a condition of readiness-at-hand, slipping from existence as a forgotten object sitting in the sheath attached to one’s belt, much like the way the floor-as-object or oxygen-as-object slips from existence constantly for us, the bayonet regains a presence-at-hand as a cooking implement around the campfire, or as an antique for aesthetic show.

In this, any object, and thus by extension any technology, is neither ‘good’, nor ‘bad’, nor ‘neutral’, but intimately connected to the contextual milieu in which it is utilised, withdrawn and redefined as present-to-hand – open always to the manner in which an object may become present-to-hand in a state outside the horizontal purview of its creator; open always to potentiality. This is known to any who have attempted to use the handle of a screwdriver as a hammer, their teeth as scissors, a calculator as a ruler, a boot as a drinking receptacle, or their Facebook profile to incite political dissent.  

Thus, through its emphasis on the non-neutrality and a-morality of technology, what we can tease out from Kranzberg’s first law is a certain social responsibility for the technology that we forge. When technology is utilised outside of its initial context, in an unforeseen and ‘regressive’ or ‘reactionary’ manner[9], it has surpassed its usage from within the horizon of its creator, and at this point becomes unanchored from its initial purpose or use as a piece of ‘good’ technology in its initial stages. In this vein, it is the responsibility of our social and political associations to be aware of this always immanently potential shift.

To be clear, this is not to state that regulation is required to be all-encompassing, nor criminally enforceable, necessarily. Rather, the claim, as an extension of Kranzberg’s first law of technology, is that we cannot assume that any mode or use of technology is immune from moral or ethical inversion through a wholly novel usage of that same object in a distinct context or environment that was not foreseen by its creator. An appreciation of this condition may just make for the more responsible public regulation of new technologies and a wider normative appreciation of how any technology can be turned on its head for some gain by someone, somewhere, for some purpose.

[1] Melvin Kranzberg (1986) ‘Technology and History: “Kranzberg’s Law”’, Technology and Culture, 27(3): 544-560, pp. 545-548.

[2] E.g., Christopher Lasch (1984) The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

[3] Quoted in Dennis H. Wrong (October 28th 1984) “The Case against Modernity”, New York Times Book Review. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/28/books/the-case-against-modernity.html (Accessed 22nd August 2022).

[4] Fernand Braudel (1981) Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century – Volume 1 – The Structures of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[5] Zeynep Tufekci (2017) Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p. 124.

[6] Jürgen Habermas (2015) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge: Polity Press. p.59.

[7] Discussed at length in: David A. Kenny (2020) Interpersonal Perception: The Foundation of Social Relationships. Second Edition. New York: Guilford Press. p.77.

[8] Matin Heidegger (2001) Being and Time. Oxford: Blackwell; (2011) “The Question Concerning Technology”, David Farrell Krell (Ed.), Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964). Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 213-238. For an excellent discussion of Heidegger’s ‘Tool analysis’ see the work of Speculative Realist Graham Harman, a founder of Object-Oriented Ontology (Triple O): Graham Harman (2010) ‘Technology as Objects and Things in Heidegger’, Cambridge Journal of Economics 34(1): 17-25; (2002) ‘Tool Being’: Heidegger and The Metaphysics of Objects. Chicago, IL: Open Court.

[9] In contradistinction to the ‘progressive’ manner that most technology is created within, in relation to ‘necessity’ – see Kranzberg’s second law.