Skip to content

Some Social Implications of Modern Technology :: By Herbert Marcuse

Thoughts :: What hold do technologies have on our current society?

The policing of selves became trusted to computational evaluation since the human-driven evaluation, psychiatry, was cast into un-trust because of a study done by David Rosenhan.

Society took its position to police outsiders early on in our development; crazy people where put on boats and shipped of too sea. No one wanted to catch the crazy bug.

The modern day version of the ship is the psychiatrist. We now understand ‘crazy’ isn’t a bug that can be caught, but a mental disorder. People with mental illnesses like schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis, bi-polar disorder, and so on, got confined to a psychiatric hospitals and fed brain-changing pills (pills: a technology).

In 1973 David Rosenhan conducted an experiment to test the legitimacy of these psychiatric hospitals. 12 ‘pseudopatients’ went to different hospitals and all said they heard the word “thud” in their head. All twelve of the pseudopatients were accepted into the hospitals; 11 with schizophrenia and 1 with manic depressive psychosis. They all acted completely normal once inside the hospitals, and said they didn’t hear anything; that the “thud” sound had gone away. They were all kept there; the shortest for 7 days, the longest for 52.The average stay was 19 days. They all had to take their pills and pretend to get better before they were dismissed. Non were identified as imposers by the staff, although the some patients of the hospital identified them as such.

Once this study was published, distrust was felt towards psychiatrists. They were no longer seen as some elite agent with the learned to ability to diagnose other people. New methods of psychological evaluation were put in place.

This new system could not rely on the patients symptoms being broken down and interpreted by other people. The people who were supposed to do that, psychiatrists, apparently couldn’t; a new system had to be devised.

Psychiatrists began using checklists of symptoms to interpret patients instead of attempting to interpret patients behavior. Patients were asked questions and boxes where dashed or left blank. This essentially created a ‘yes or no’, binary interpretation of an individuals. The relation of man to the concept of self, to who you are, has been mechanized.

Marcuse, in “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology” talks about individuality succumbing to the mechanical apparatus man interacts with on a daily basis. We have to abide by the protocols of the mechanical apparatus to get things done. These external authorities (technology/machines) have worked there way into our lives in a frighteningly fundamental way. Marcuse talks about the inability to get lost when driving a car due to signage and roads being paved through the country side, dictating our direction and destination. We now have GPS-driven navigation. Being lost is a dead art.

Marcuse states “…individual rationality has been transformed into technological rationality.” … “This rationality establishes standards of judgement and fosters attitudes which make men ready to accept and even to introcept the dictates of the apparatus.”

Society has handed the baton of self-analysis to mechanic protocols, making ourselves ‘Happyness Machines’; we predict our erroneous aspects of self using technologically crafted check-lists and then use this diagnosis to regulate our brain-states with drugs like Prozac. (Adam Curtis – The Trap, Part 2 “The Lonely Robot” ).

Marcus goes on to say “Lewis Mumford characterizes man in the machine age as an ‘objective personality’, one who has learned to transfer all subjective spontaneity to the machinery which he servers, to subordinate his life to the ‘matter-of-factness’ of a world in which the machine is the factor and he the fulcrum.”

By creating these symptom-based checklists society has created a standardized framework for human performance. The measurement of what ‘self’ should be has become externalized. “…today the apparatus to which the individual is to adjust and adopt himself is so rational that individual protest and liberation appear not only as hopeless but as utterly irrational.” (p145) Anyone that does not squeeze into this framework, this narrow perception of ‘well-adjusted-person’ (that society has policed itself into believing is real), is drugged up. Thought patterns are being standardized. Marcuse goes on to say “…man has learned to adjust his behavior to the other fellow’s down to the most minute detail.” In the 1940’s this meant a fairly superficial reaction to your immediate environment. People changed their attire, attitudes, and habits in an attempt to fit their social surroundings. Now brain patterns are being altered to guarantee every human fits into the ‘square’. We don’t want any circles or stars.

I just want to point out i’m not lambasting all brain-drug regulations as they do have a very real and very important place in the treatment of those with serious conditions. We’re just overdoing it, and killing certain personality types because of it.

There is one story that places this refinement of personality types into a very comprehensible lens. Ken Robinson talks about it in a TED talk titled Schools Kill Creativity.

Briefly overview: A female student can’t sit still at school so her mother got called in. The councilor, mother, and student talk in his office for a while. The councilor asks the students mother if they can talk outside the room for a bit, leaving the student alone in his office. While they’re leaving the councilor puts the radio on. The councilor tells the students mother to pear through the blinds, and they both watch as the girl dances alone in the room to whatever music is playing. The councilor says “She’s a dancer.. send her to a dancing academy or something.” That girl went on to choreograph Phantom of the Opera and Cats. If this councilor had abided by a mechanic-checklist of protocols, this girl would have been given brain-focusing-pills and the beautiful bits of art she choreographed would not have been made.

This is what individuality is: Thinking for yourself. Making decisions based on brains, not on checklists.


  1. Mattie wrote:

    I agree that some people do everything they can to fit in the system, or make others fit in the system because sometimes it’s easier that way (almost a “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude). However, I think there will always be leaders and followers whether or not they are against the system or not, and while the “leaders” might be thinking for themselves (hence becoming more individualistic), some of the “followers” will just be trading one system for another or one person’s beliefs for another. It’s hard to force someone to think for themselves because they might just be wanting to take the path of least resistance, and unfortunately more often than not, that means staying a part of the system, doing what you’re told, and looking down on others that aren’t following the rules.

    With that being said, it doesn’t hurt to keep trying. 🙂

    Tiny side note: your comments section was a little hard to find. I’m just sayin’. 🙂

    Thursday, September 2, 2010 at 4:06 am | Permalink
  2. Kknight wrote:

    Very interesting connection of psychology to Marcuse, Alex. I especially like the example you cite from Robinson’s talk. This seems illustrative of Marcuse’s argument that technological rationality eventually affects all aspects of the social sphere, not just the workplace.

    (Be sure to proofread your posts!)

    Friday, September 3, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  3. test wrote:


    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 6:13 am | Permalink