Discussion: Is Technology Predictable? Read this week’s Peter Drucker article (attached to the question) and use it to help see if Technology is Predictabl

 

Read this week’s Peter Drucker article (attached to the question) and use it to help see if Technology is Predictable? If it is, why are JcPenny and Sears not Amazon? Why is Blockbuster not Netflix? How does it change investment decision rules? 

Task Requirement:

Write a 300- to 500-word description in which you discuss and answer the above questions 

  • Cite and use APA format if you use outside sources. 
  • Describe how this discussion will change your thought process of how you will view business in the future.
  • Leave a question for peers in your answer.  

Comment: Is Technology Predictable?

Author(s): Peter F. Drucker

Source: Technology and Culture , Oct., 1969, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Oct., 1969), pp. 522-527

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for the History of
Technology

Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3101571

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COMMENT: IS TECHNOLOGY PREDICTABLE?

PETER F. DRUCKER

Three cheers for the Harvard Program on Technology and Society.
And three cheers for its director, Emmanuel G. Mesthene. It is good
news that a large number of scholars-economists, for instance, or soci-
ologists-are taking a close look at technology, its dynamics and its im-
pacts. It is good news, for instance, that an economist finally tries to re-
late technological development to economic theory, as Anne P. Carter is
doing in one of the studies under the program. Or that another econo-
mist (Raymond Vernon) is trying to relate technological development
to international trade and investment. It is good news that a prominent
philosopher (Morton White) tries to relate technology to the main cur-
rents of American philosophical thought. And it is, above all, good
news that technology is being seen by nontechnologists as part and
parcel of human activity and society, instead of, as has been so com-
mon in our universities, as something “outside” and “nonhuman.”
But above all there is reason for thanks for the courage which Mes-

thene himself displays and for his willingness to give us, in this fourth
report on the program, his first conclusions. Mesthene dares to define
technology. And while his definition, “knowledge applied to practical
purposes,” is clearly too broad (does a fox who has learned not to cross
the Trans-Canada Highway during daytime hours, as most of them
have, apply technology?), it is at least a break out of the strait-
jacket of the traditional definition of technology as machines. Mesthene
has the courage to see technology as a human activity rather than as a
“force.” And he has the courage to speculate and to generalize.
The fundamental insight that underlies Mesthene’s essay is invaluable.

He is the first writer, to my knowledge, to realize the pointlessness of
arguing whether technology is “good” or “bad.” The problem of tech-
nology is that it may become too much of a good thing. The problem,
in other words, is one of “trade-offs” between countervailing impacts:
the balance between the need for more crops in a hungry world and the
protection of life and health against the toxic effects of insecticides, the

DR. DRUCKER, professor of management at New York University’s Graduate
School of Business, is the author of many books, including The Future of Industrial
Man and the recently published The Age of Discontinuity. He is a former presi-
dent of the Society for the History of Technology.

522

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Is Technology Predictable?

boon of making more babies survive the first two years and the threat
of a “population explosion,” the desire of the great majority for more
access roads into the national parks and the desire of a small, a very
small, minority to hike, to camp, and to enjoy solitude. The impacts of
technology are essentially a problem of value choices: between imme-
diate benefits and long-range dislocations, between the interests of one
group and the interests of others, between individual welfare, or even
comfort, and the greatest good for the greatest number. They are, in
other words, political choices of great complexity.

This means, above all, that there are no “villains.” It is a habit of the
human mind to believe that somebody must be “responsible” when
something goes wrong. The underlying assumption of liberal optimism
has always been that, left to themselves, things will go right. They can
only go wrong if somebody does something culpable. Nowhere has this
facile oversimplification done more harm than in the discussion of tech-
nology. It is the great virtue of Mesthene’s essay that he brings out
clearly that the problem is not to find out “who is guilty.” The problem
is to find out at what point benefits, public or private, threaten to cost
more than they are worth, at what point the “trade-off” should take
place.

But having reached this central insight, Mesthene loses courage. Or
rather he takes refuge in the same self-delusions of traditional rhetoric
that his own analysis brilliantly explodes. Having demonstrated that the
impacts of technology force on us social and moral value choices, he falls
back into assigning responsibility to “economic structure” and especially
to “market forces.” Having demonstrated that the problems are political,
Mesthene proposes rule by the priest-expert of academia. Yet there is
not one tittle of evidence that the impacts of technology-in respect to
pollution, for instance, or insecticide poisoning, or urban decay-differ
one whit in the Soviet Union, where “market forces” are conspicuous by
their absence and where decisions are made by centralized expertise.

Mesthene is also hampered by his acceptance of that hoary chestnut,
the belief that business is the dominant institution of our society. That
was true a hundred years ago. But Mesthene’s own discussion-and every
one of the studies of the Harvard Project-makes it clear that the domi-
nant institution of our society is the university and that, in particular, it
is the dominant institution in respect to technology. Mesthene’s own
definition of technology as “knowledge applied to practical purposes”
leads to this conclusion. For knowledge and its application are the par-
ticular domain of the university. When knowledge becomes the central
factor of production, as it does in a technological society, the univer-
sity, rather than business, becomes the central technoeconomic institu-

523

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524 Peter F. Drucker

tion, and education the central investment as well as the central cost.
Mesthene’s arguments lead not to the suppression or even constraint of
“market forces” but to the suppression, or at least the serious limitation,
of the university.

But the greatest and indeed fatal weakness of Mesthene’s argument is
the implicit belief that the impacts of technology are foreseeable and in-
deed foreseen, and that it is lack of will or of decision-making machinery
that accounts for their becoming “problems.”

Wish it were so. But, in truth, the impacts of technology are almost
never capable of being anticipated very far in advance. And the “ex-
pert’s” predictions are no better than anyone else’s, and often worse. In
the early fifties the best experts predicted, after all, a total worldwide
market of no more than a hundred computers altogether but also “auto-
mation unemployment” of six, if not of ten, million people by 1970.
Their projections were completely valid, their samples scientific, and
their techniques rigorously quantitative. It was only their premises that
were wrong.

One reason why reliance on the “expert” in predicting the impacts of
technology is sheer hubris is that these impacts tend to be synergetic and
the result of several developments, each independent in its origins and
the outgrowth of a separate discipline with its own “experts.”

No one could possibly have foreseen-indeed no one did-that three
quite unrelated technological developments would come together in a
“population explosion”: the effective insecticides, especially DDT, as
they were developed during World War II; the antibiotics; and, per-
haps most important of the three, the sudden taking hold of public
health measures in tropical countries after a century of total futility de-
spite heroic efforts by an army of district commissioners and sanitation
officials. In retrospect, we know that these three developments, coming
together in one stream, ushered in an almost unprecedented drop in in-
fant mortality with the resulting danger of the population explosion.
But we know this only with 20/20 hindsight. And even if anyone in
1945 had been able to put the three together and foresee their impact,
would he then have stopped these developments and opted to keep mor-
tality rates high? I very much doubt it.

Further, the impacts of technology are often quite indirect, and by-
products rather than main products. The urban ghetto of our northern
cities rightly occupies a prominent place in the studies of the Harvard
University Program on Technology and Society. If we trace its origins
-that is, if we ask what caused the massive migration of rural Negroes
from the Deep South to the slums of the North-we are usually told
“new technology” which “tractored off” the sharecropper. But this is

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Is Technology Predictable?

nonsense. The tractor had been around for a hundred years without
having much impact on the sharecropper, and the rest of the technology
would have been developed fifty years earlier-all the ingredients were
known and in use-had there been an economic incentive to do so, that
is, a market. What really happened is that the farm programs of the
New Deal for the first time made the American farmer a good credit
risk who could get bank loans against the security of the government
payment, especially the payment for not planting crops. This, in turn,
enabled the farmer to buy equipment-equipment that in most cases had
been available for many years. The Negro sharecropper had all along
been a frightfully expensive way to farm. On cotton land he works only
about three weeks a year, while he has to be maintained, however
wretchedly, for 365 days. Before the farmer had access to credit, he
could not, however, replace this exceedingly expensive human labor
with much less expensive and much more productive machinery-even
though the technology had been known for a very long time. But then,
the sharecropper was “tractored off.” (On tobacco land, by the way,
where the sharecropper works some four months of the year, rather
than three weeks as he does on cotton land, there has been almost no
“tractoring off”-the sharecropper on tobacco land is fairly productive
labor.) Could anyone have foreseen this complex chain of events when
the New Deal started its farm program? Indeed, none of the “experts”
foresaw it as late as the forties. There is no hint of it in the most authori-

tative book on the American Negro problem, Gunnar Myrdal’s An
American Dilemma, which appeared in 1944.

Finally the impacts of technology tend to be threshold phenomena;
until they reach a certain level, there is no impact at all. Pollution is, of
course, the obvious example. It is a fairly old and rather well-proven
theorem that new threshold phenomena cannot be predicted. They are
noticeable only after the threshold has been passed. From the bottom of
the pitcher one cannot predict when it will overflow-indeed not even
that it will overflow.

In the few cases where we have been able to foresee the impacts of a
new technology, we have actually made decisions ahead of time. That
the atomic bomb was more than just another weapon in the arsenal was
realized by everyone concerned the day the first one was exploded
twenty-five years ago. We have not succeeded in putting the genie back
in the bottle-and we may be destroyed by it. But we immediately began
attempts to control this new technology and to limit its application to
peaceful uses. Indeed, we immediately created a new “expert” and put
him in control. We have not succeeded in mastering the problem; the

525

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526 Peter F. Drucker

“expert” has encountered the same problems of “trade-offs” as the non-
expert. But we have so far succeeded in containing the impacts.

The problem of the impacts of technology is, in other words, a great
deal subtler than Mesthene makes it appear.

* * *

The reason for Mesthene’s failure to live up to his own insights lies, I
fear, in his disregard of history, and especially of the history of technol-
ogy. No historian of technology is on his team or even on his advisory
council. This reflects, of course, the prevailing myth that technology is
a modern invention and that, therefore, man never had to face problems

of technological impact before. Granted that our situation is unique
both in that the whole earth today lives in the same common technologi-
cal civilization, and that the impacts of technology threaten us today
with total extinction of the human race. Still, despite all advances in
military technology, the Mongols, armed only with bow and arrow,
managed to kill a much larger proportion of mankind over much larger
areas than Hitler, Stalin, and all weapons of World War II together have
managed to slaughter in our day.
And technological changes of hurricane strength have been known,

and well known, in earlier days. The dislocations which water-driven
machinery and hand-powered tools brought about in the England of the
18th century, and very shortly thereafter in France and Belgium, were
fully as severe as anything we now see in the urban ghetto, and hap-
pened just as fast. This dislocation, only 200 years ago-that is, practi-
cally yesterday-was indeed treated with Mesthene’s prescription. Mer-
cantilism on the European continent in the late 17th and early 18th cen-
turies was largely an attempt to control the impacts of technology by
centralized decision making by the expert. There has hardly ever been a
more enlightened, better educated, and more dedicated group than the
French intendants of the ancien regime-every one of them the kind of
enlightened Liberal that Harvard would be proud to claim as its own.
They had a plenitude of decision-making power and brooked no such
nonsense as individual decision makers, let alone “market forces.” Yet
their effect was catastrophic. The English Midlands are bad enough, but
they are idylls compared with the human misery and social anomie
which the prototype of Mesthene’s expert decision maker, the enlight-
ened despot of the 18th century, produced in the Franco-Belgian bori-
nage or in the textile district around Lille and Arras. The one thing that
the enlightened experts achieved with their centralized decision making
“in the public interest” was to deny France the benefits from the new
technologies. The dislocations and sufferings they imposed in more than

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Is Technology Predictable?

full measure. They failed precisely becauses they lacked flexibility,
adaptability, capacity for fast unplanned response, that is, because they
were both centralized and experts. They acted, indeed, on their fore-
sight, but-as is almost inevitable in a period of technological change-
the things they did foresee did not happen, and the things that happened
they did not foresee. They indeed used what Mesthene calls for, that
is, a “systematic decision-making process.” But there is nothing more dan-
gerous than such a process when it starts out with the wrong premises.
We may well need new decision makers and new decision-making proc-
esses. But before we can entrust decisions to them, we need, above all, an

understanding of the dynamics of technology. And the beginning of
such an understanding must surely come from history and must be based
on its lessons of the difficulty of foreseeing what the impacts of any
technological development are likely to be and, especially, when they
will become “too much of a good thing.”

As an attempt to understand technology rather than to praise or con-
demn it, Mesthene’s essay deserves high praise and our gratitude. But one
of its main lessons is how the job must not be done. It must not be done
in neglect of history and with the tacit assumption that technology is
something we just now invented. It can only be done with a full recog-
nition that technological development is a fundamental human activity
that has been with us since man first became man. Mesthene’s essay
demonstrates, by its omissions, that we have to study history if we want
to understand the present. I only hope that it will not also come to
demonstrate the truth of Santayana’s dictum that those who do not re-
member history are condemned to repeat it.

527

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  • Contents
    • image 1
    • image 2
    • image 3
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    • image 6
  • Issue Table of Contents
    • Technology and Culture, Vol. 10, No. 4, Oct., 1969
      • Volume Information [pp. 631 – 644]
      • Front Matter
      • Symposium: The Role of Technology in Society
        • Some General Implications of the Research of the Harvard University Program on Technology and Society [pp. 489 – 513]
        • Comment: The Anticipation of Change [pp. 514 – 521]
        • Comment: Is Technology Predictable? [pp. 522 – 527]
        • Comment: The Role of Technology in Society and the Need for Historical Perspective [pp. 528 – 534]
        • A Comment on the Comments [pp. 535 – 536]
      • Setting Out the Keystones of Pointed Arches: A Note on Medieval “Baugeometrie” [pp. 537 – 548]
      • The Georgetown Canal Incline [pp. 549 – 560]
      • Research Notes
        • The Male Weavers at Pompeii [pp. 561 – 566]
      • The Cover Design
        • Christopher Colles’s Steam Engine for the New York Water Works, 1775 [pp. 567 – 569]
      • Exhibit Reviews
        • Industrial Textile Machinery: Five North American Museums [pp. 570 – 586]
      • Review Articles
        • Five Years of “Industrial Archaeology” [pp. 587 – 592]
        • On the “Genesis of Modern Management” [pp. 593 – 602]
      • Book Reviews
        • untitled [pp. 603 – 604]
        • untitled [pp. 604 – 605]
        • untitled [p. 606]
        • untitled [p. 607]
        • untitled [pp. 607 – 608]
        • untitled [pp. 608 – 610]
        • untitled [pp. 610 – 613]
        • untitled [pp. 614 – 615]
        • untitled [pp. 615 – 616]
        • untitled [pp. 616 – 617]
        • untitled [pp. 618 – 620]
        • untitled [pp. 620 – 622]
        • untitled [pp. 622 – 623]
        • untitled [pp. 623 – 624]
      • Notes and Announcements [pp. 625 – 630]
      • Back Matter

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