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  • To The Editor
  • John F. M. McDermott

To The Editor:

It is gratifying that my forty-year-old essay “Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals” still has some currency. But it is badly characterized in Professor Cowan’s otherwise informative article.1 The central problem comes of her “McDermott was clearly a Marxist.” No, not at all then, and hardly more since! Of course, it is hard to do modern social science and escape Marx entirely. Possibly I led her astray with that opening about the “opiate of the intellectuals.” If so, she has taken sarcasm for Marxism.

I wrote the essay in exasperation. The Times had given a front-page splash to the Harvard Technology/Mesthene report but, later reading the report itself, I was stunned by its smugness and lack of content. Accordingly, my essay is more a polemic than a considered argument for a position. That may account for Professor Cowan’s finding “technological determinism and pessimism” and “artisanal nostalgia.” Or her writing “McDermott believed everyone in late-twentieth-century America was falling for the comforts of consumer technology.” Fact is, I too keenly dislike many of those same positions that Professor Cowan keenly dislikes. When I absolutely can’t avoid them I take swipes at them as rude as I think my editor will tolerate. But we should move on.

Entirely aside from my plaints above, my website ( confirms much of Professor Cowan’s view about the limitations of my own work those forty-odd years ago and of the technology essay in particular. Quoting myself here,

My “Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals” (1969) was much celebrated and remains in print. But from the beginning I understood it as if a narrow headlight on a dark road, good enough for what it revealed but giving no hint of what lay to left or right, nor even just beyond the beam. Too much of my other writing back then was of [End Page 525] that same, limited character—forays and interventions but with insufficient depth or breadth of understanding.”

There are elements of a technology paradigm in the essay (of that, more below) but the one that Professor Cowan credits me with engendering was one I could not then—nor still—support. Still, given the polemical cast of my essay she is perhaps not grievously off-base to escalate my “forays and interventions” into “invasions and occupations.”

On the other hand she errs in counterposing my views to those of Paul Goodman in his book and New York Review piece, for they both stress the role of social institutions in what sort of technologies are deployed, for what purposes, to whose advantage or disadvantage, and so on.2 In the essay I thought I identified an anti-democratic ideology being promulgated by spokespersons of those large institutions within which the most important contemporary technologies were innovated, deployed, socially defended, etc. and, I thought, to narrow, self-interested social and related advantages. That was the leading idea I was trying for when I wrote then, “Technology, in its concrete, empirical meaning, refers fundamentally to systems of rationalized control over large groups of men [sic!], events, and machines by small groups of technically skilled men operating through organizational hierarchy.”

I’ve had to modify that proposition over the years but it was my stepping-off point for studies in the development and social influences of the modern corporation as the social site of most of the most important technologies. Here I must credit the work of, especially, Peter Drucker (a former president of SHOT) and of Alfred D. Chandler and, not less, the reminiscences of GM’s Alfred P. Sloan.3

I came to understand that the distinctive development of these great organizations was in good part a response to the emergence of truly social-scale technologies in the last quarter of the nineteenth century (primarily in steelmaking, chemicals, and electricity). One also has to bring into the account the contemporaneous surge of Social Democracy along with the return of technology-related great-power rivalry and navalist thinking, including a new burst of colony-grabbing, after the Franco-Prussian war.4

Stressing here only the technology...


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