Ever heard of Melvin Kranzberg?
Kranzberg (1917–1995) was a professor of history of technology at Georgia Tech. Kranzberg is best known for his Six Laws of Technology:
- Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral
- Invention is the mother of necessity
- Technology comes in packages, big and small
- Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions
- All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant
- Technology is a very human activity — and so is the history of technology
Whilst created back in 1986, Kranzberg’ six laws of technology still very much hold true today. I’ll elaborate on some of these laws and highlight their relevance in the context of technology and product development:
Law 1 — Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral
Technology is part of a broader system and is connected to other — non-technical- systems. As a consequence, the impact of technology goes far beyond the immediate purpose of a technical product. Technology has an impact — direct or indirect — on the environment, people and our economy. This impact is likely to differ, depending on the product and the specific context that it applies to.
Law 2 — Invention is the mother of necessity
The point of this law is to stress that technical invention often requires other technical development to fully realise its potential. Think, for example, about the advance of mobile phones and its impact on technologies such as data storage and battery power.
Law 3 — Technology comes in packages, big and small
Technology doesn’t come in a set shape or size. Technology often consists of lots of different but connected systems and involves a variety of processes and components.
Law 4 — Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions
Again, this is about system thinking and technology being connected to social systems. Even when we think something is a purely technical decision, it often isn’t. Often social factors like people, legal, politics or financial will trump technology.
Law 5 — All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant
Often when we study history, the technical aspect doesn’t get covered. Kranzberg pleads that when studying history, we should also look at the technological element. We can thus better understand the backdrop of technical innovations.
Law 6 — Technology is a very human activity — and so is the history of technology
Technology — its creation and usage — is driven by humans. Kranzberg’s sixth and final law stresses the human involvement in technology.
Main learning point: For me the power and relevance of Kranzberg’s Six Laws of Technology is in their links to systems thinking, history and human activity. One can look at any technology, whether it’s the mobile phone or generative AI and see how Kranzberg’s Six Laws apply.
Related links for further learning: