Notes for Robert L. Heilbroner “Do Machines Make History?”

Key concepts: technological determinism.


Related theorists: .


Effect of technology in determining the socioeconomic order is the question of whether machines make history, allowing empirical tests of the idea of technological determinism.

(29) The question we are interested in, then, concerns the effect of technology in determining the nature of the socioeconomic order. In its simplest terms the question is: did medieval technology bring about feudalism? Is industrial technology the necessary and sufficient condition for capitalism? Or, by extension, will the technology of the computer and the atom constitute the ineluctable cause of a new social order?
(29) can we explain why technology evolves in the sequence it does?
(29) Precisely how does the mode of production affect the superstructure of social relationships?
(29) These questions will enable us to test the empirical content—or at least to see if there
is an empirical content—in the idea of technological determinism.


Technological congruence, which Callon calls actor networks, explains sequencing due to slow accumulation of capital, infrastructures, and social practices; seems to be rule or ideology built into computer game Civilization.

(32) The necessary requirement of technological congruence gives us an additional cause of sequencing. For the ability of many industries to cooperating in producing the equipment needed for a “higher” stage of technology depends not alone on knowledge or sheer skill but on the division of labor and the specialization of industry. And this in turn hinges to a considerable degree on the sheer size of the stock of capital from which springs the gradual diversification of industrial function, becomes an independent regulator of the reach of technical capability.


Society of computer leads to increased technocratic bureaucracy in either capitalism or communist form.

(35) We cannot say whether the society of the computer will give us the latter-day capitalist or the commissar, but it seems beyond question that it will give us the technician and the bureaucrat.


Combination of high capitalism and low socialism in a certain historical epoch seems to produce sense of technological determinism to the powerless, although low socialism should be interpreted as low regulation; the future will be more organized and deliberately controlled.

(38-39) Technological determinism is thus peculiarly a problem of a certain historical epoch—specifically that of high capitalism and low socialism—in which the forces of technical change have been unleashed, but when the agencies for the control or guidance of technology are still rudimentary.
(39) From what we can foretell about the direction of this technological advance and the structural alterations it implies, the pressures in the future will be toward a society marked by a much greater degree of organization and deliberate control.




Heilbroner, Robert L. “Do Machines Make History?” Technology and Culture: An Anthology. Eds. Melvin Kranzberg and William H. Davenport. New York: New American Library, 1972. 28-40. Print.