Three decades ago, a historian wrote six laws to explain society’s unease with the power and pervasiveness of technology. Though based on historical examples taken from the Cold War, the laws read as a cheat sheet for explaining our era of Facebook, Google, the iPhone and FOMO.
You’ve probably never heard of these principles or their author, Melvin Kranzberg, a professor of the history of technology at Georgia Institute of Technology who died in 1995.
What’s a bigger shame is that most of the innovators today, who are building the services and tools that have upended society, don’t know them, either.
Fortunately, the laws have been passed down by a small group of technologists who say they have profoundly impacted their thinking. The text should serve as a foundation—something like a Hippocratic oath—for all people who build things.
1. ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral’
Dr. Melvin Kranzberg was a professor of the history of technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the founding editor of Technology and Culture. In 1985, he delivered the presidential address at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in which he explained what had already come to be known as Kranzberg’s Laws — “a series of truisms,” according to Kranzberg, “deriving from a longtime immersion in the study of the development of technology and its interactions with sociocultural change.”
I’ll list and summarize Kranzberg’s laws below, but first consider this argument by metaphor. Kranzberg begins his address by explaining the terms of the debate over technological determinism. He notes that it had become an “intellectual cliche” to speak of technology’s autonomy and to suppose that “the machines have become the masters of man.” This view, which he associated with Jacques Ellul and Langdon Winner, yielded the philosophical doctrine of technological determinism, “namely, that technology is the prime factor in shaping our life-styles, values, institutions, and other elements of our society.”