IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - March 2018 - 48

and technology, he reached wide audiences over the following four decades.
Weinberg did not invent the idea of technology as a
cure-all, but he gave it a memorable name: the "technological fix." This article unwraps his package, identifies
the origins of its claims and assumptions, and explores
the implications for present-day technologists and society. I will argue that, despite its radical tone, Weinberg's
message echoed and clarified the views of predecessors and contemporaries, and the expectations of growing audiences. His proselytizing embedded the idea in
modern culture as an enduring and seldom-questioned
article of faith: technological innovation could confidently resolve any social issue.
Weinberg's rhetorical question was a call-to-arms for
engineers, technologists, and designers, particularly
those who saw themselves as having a responsibility to
improve society and human welfare. It was also aimed
at institutions, offering goals and methods for government think-tanks and motivating corporate missionstatements (e.g., [3]).
The notion of the technological fix also proved to be
a good fit to consumer culture. Our attraction to technological solutions to improve daily life is a key feature of
contemporary lifestyles. This allure carries with it a constellation of other beliefs and values, such as confidence in reliable innovation and progress, trust in the
impact and effectiveness of new technologies, and reliance on technical experts as general problem-solvers.
This faith can nevertheless be myopic. It may, for
example, discourage adequate assessment of sideeffects - both technical and social - and close
examination of political and ethical implications of
engineering solutions. Societal confidence in technological problem-solving consequently deserves critical and
balanced attention.

Faith in Fixes
Adoption of technological approaches to solve social,
political and cultural problems has been a longstanding

Usage

A

1920

B
C
1940

1960

1980

2000

Figure 2. Modern problem-solving rhetoric: Usage of the
terms: A - "technological solution," B - "technological fix," and
C - "technical fix," according to Google n-gram analysis.

48

human strategy, but is a particular feature of modern
culture. The context of rapid innovation has generated
widespread appreciation of the potential of technologies
to improve modern life and society. The resonances in
modern culture can be discerned in the ways that popular media depicted the future, and in how contemporary
problems have increasingly been framed and addressed
in narrow technological terms.
While the notion of the technological fix is straightforward to explain, tracing its circulation in culture is
more difficult. One way to track the currency of a concept is via phrase-usage statistics. The invention and
popularity of new terms can reveal new topics and discourse. The Google N-Gram Viewer is a useful tool that
analyzes a large range of published texts to determine
frequency of usage over time for several languages and
dialects [4], [5].
In American English, the phrase technological fix
emerges during the 1960s and proves more enduring
and popular than the less precise term technical fix
(Figure 2).
We can track this across languages. In German,
the term technological fix has had limited usage as
an untranslated English import, and is much less
common than the generic phrase technische Lösung
("technical solution"), which gained ground from the
1840s. In French, too, there is no direct equivalent, but
the phrase solution technique broadly parallels German
and English usage over a similar time period. And in
British English, the terms technological fix and technical fix appear at about the same time as American
usage, but grow more slowly in popularity. Usage thus
hints that there are distinct cultural contexts and
meanings for these seemingly similar terms. Its varying currency suggests that the term technological
fix became a cultural export popularized by Alvin
Weinberg's writings on the topic, but related to earlier discourse about technology-inspired solutions to
human problems.
Such data suggest rising precision in writing about
technology as a generic solution-provider, particularly
after the Second World War. But while the modern popularization and consolidation of the more specific notion
of the "technological fix" can be traced substantially to
the writings of Alvin Weinberg, the idea was promoted
earlier in more radical form.

The Voices of Technocracy
Journalists after the First World War christened modern culture "the Machine Age," a period that vaunted
the mechanization of cities and agriculture, industrial
efficiency, "scientific management," and most of all,
engineering solutions to modern problems [6], [7].
Social progress became associated with applied

IEEE Technology and Society Magazine

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march 2018



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