Technological determinism

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Technological determinism is a reductionist approach to the relationship between social and technological development. Often associated with Marx's assertion that "The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist" ('The Poverty of Philosophy', 1847), it proposes that a society's technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values.

Most interpretations of technological determinism share two general ideas:

  • that the development of technology itself follows a predictable, traceable path largely beyond cultural or political influence, and
  • that technology in turn has "effects" on societies that are inherent, rather than socially conditioned or that the society organizes itself in such a way to support and further develop a technology once it has been introduced.


[edit] Origins of technological determinism

The term is believed to have been coined by Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), an American sociologist. Veblin's contemporary, popular historian Charles Beard, provided this apt determinist image, "Technology marches in seven-league boots from one ruthless, revolutionary conquest to another, tearing down old factories and industries, flinging up new processes with terrifying rapidity."

[edit] The nature of technological determinism

Technological determinism has been summarized as 'The belief in technology as a key governing force in society ...' (Merritt Roe Smith). 'The idea that technological development determines social change ...' (Bruce Bimber). It changes the way people think and how they interact with others and can be described as '...a three-word logical proposition: "Technology determines history"' (Rosalind Williams) . It is, '... the belief that social progress is driven by technological innovation, which in turn follows an "inevitable" course.' (Michael L. Smith). This 'idea of progress' or 'doctrine of progress' is centralised around the idea that social problems can be solved by technological advancement, and this is the way that society moves forward. Technological determinists believe that "'You can't stop progress', implying that we are unable to control technology" (Lelia Green). This suggests that we are somewhat powerless and society allows technology to drive social changes because, "societies fail to be aware of the alternatives to the values embedded in it [technology]" (Merritt Roe Smith).

Technological determinism has been defined as an approach that identifies technology, or technological advances, as the central causal element in processes of social change (Croteau and Hoynes). As a technology is stabilized, its design tends to dictate users' behaviors, consequently diminishing human agency. This stance however ignores the social and cultural circumstances in which the technology was developed. Sociologist Claude Fischer (1992) characterized the most prominent forms of technological determinism as "billiard ball" approaches, in which technology is seen as an external force introduced into a social situation, producing a series of ricochet effects.[1]

Rather than acknowledging that a society or culture interacts with and even shapes the technologies that are used, a technological determinist view holds that "the uses made of technology are largely determined by the structure of the technology itself, that is, that its functions follow from its form" (Neil Postman). However, this is not to be confused with the inevitability thesis (Daniel Chandler), which states that once a technology is introduced into a culture that what follows is the inevitable development of that technology.

For example, we could examine why Romance Novels have become so dominant in our society compared to other forms of novels like the Detective or Western novel. We might say that it was because of the invention of the perfect binding system developed by publishers. This was where glue was used instead of the time-consuming and very costly process of binding books by sewing in separate signatures. This meant that these books could be mass-produced for the wider public. We would not be able to have mass literary without mass production. This example is closely related to Marshall McLuhan's belief that print helped produce the nation state. This moved society on from an oral culture to a literate culture but also introduced a capitalist society where there was clear class distinction and individualism. As Postman maintains

“the printing press, the computer, and television are not therefore simply machines which convey information. They are metaphors through which we conceptualize reality in one way or another. They will classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, argue a case for what it is like. Through these media metaphors, we do not see the world as it is. We see it as our coding systems are. Such is the power of the form of information”.[2]

[edit] Hard and soft determinism

In examining determinism Hard determinism can be contrasted with Soft Determinism. A compatibilist says that it is possible for free will and determinism to exist in the world together while a incompatibilist would say that they can not and there must be one or the other. Those who support determinism can be further divided.

Hard determinists would view technology as developing independent from social concerns. They would say that technology creates a set of powerful forces acting to regulate our social activity and its meaning. According to this view of determinism we organize ourselves to meet the needs of technology and the outcome of this organization is beyond our control or we do not have the freedom to make a choice regarding the outcome.

Soft Determinism, as the name suggests, is a more passive view of the way technology interacts with socio-political situations. Soft determinists still subscribe to the fact that technology is the guiding force in our evolution, but would maintain that we have a chance to make decisions regarding the outcomes of a situation. This is not to say that free will exists but it is the possibility for us to roll the dice and see what the outcome is. A slightly different variant of soft determinism is the 1922 technology-driven theory of social change proposed by William Fielding Ogburn, in which society must adjust to the consequences of major inventions, but often does so only after a period of cultural lag.

[edit] Technology as neutral

Individuals who consider technology as neutral see technology as neither good nor bad and what matters are the ways in which we use technology. An example of a neutral viewpoint is, ‘guns are neutral and its up to how we use them whether it would be ‘good or bad’ (Green, 2001). Mackenzie and Wajcman [3] believe that technology is only neutral if it's never been used before, or if no one knows what it is going to be used for (Green, 2001). In effect, guns would only be classified as neutral if and only if society were none the wiser of their existence and functionalities (Green, 2001). Obviously, such a society is non-existent and once becoming knowledgeable about technology, the society is drawn into a social progression where nothing is ‘neutral about society’ (Green). According to Lelia Green, if one believes technology is neutral, one would disregard the cultural and social conditions that technology was produced (Green, 2001).

[edit] Criticisms of technological determinism

Scepticism about technological determinism emerged alongside increased pessimism about techno-science in the mid-20th century, in particular around the use of nuclear energy in the production of nuclear weapons, Nazi human experimentation during World War II, and the problems of economic development in the third world (also known as the global south). As a direct consequence, desire for greater control of the course of development of technology gave rise to disenchantment with the model of technological determinism in academia.

Modern theorists of technology and society no longer consider technological determinism to be a very accurate view of the way in which we interact with technology, even though determinist assumptions and language fairly saturate the writings of many boosters of technology, the business pages of many popular magazines, and much reporting on technology. Instead, research in science and technology studies, social construction of technology and related fields have emphasised more nuanced views that resist easy causal formulations. They emphasise that “The relationship between technology and society cannot be reduced to a simplistic cause-and-affect formula. It is, rather, an ‘intertwining’”, whereby technology does not determine but "...operates, and are operated upon in a complex social field" (Murphie and Potts).

In his article "Subversive Rationalization: Technology, Power and Democracy with Technology," Andrew Feenberg argues that technological determinism is not a very well founded concept by illustrating that two of the founding theses of determinism are easily questionable and in doing so calls for what he calls democratic rationalization (Feenberg 210-212).

Prominent opposition to technologically determinist thinking has emerged within work on the social construction of technology(SCOT). SCOT research, such as that of Mackenzie and Wajcman (1997) argues that the path of innovation and its social consequences are strongly, if not entirely shaped by society itself through the influence of culture, politics, economic arrangements, regulatory mechanisms and the like. In its strongest form, verging on social determinism, “What matters is not the technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded” (Langdon Winner).

In his influential but contested (see Woolgar and Cooper, 1999) article “Do Artifacts Have Politics?,” Langdon Winner illustrates a form of technological determinism by elaborating instances in which artifacts can have politics.

Although "The deterministic model of technology is widely propagated in society" (Sarah Miller), it has also been widely questioned by scholars. Lelia Green explains that, "When technology was perceived as being outside society, it made sense to talk about technology as neutral". Yet, this idea fails to take into account that culture is not fixed and society is dynamic. When "Technology is implicated in social processes, there is nothing neutral about society" (Lelia Green). This confirms one of the major problems with "technological determinism and the resulting denial of human responsibility for change. There is a loss of human involvement that shape technology and society" (Sarah Miller).

Another conflicting idea is that of technological somnambulism a term coined by Winner in his essay "technology as forms of life". Winner wonders whether or not we are simply sleepwalking through our existence with little concern or knowledge as to how we truly interact with technology. In this view it is still possible for us to wake up and once again take control of the direction in which we are traveling (Winner 104). However, it requires society to adopt Ralph Schroeder's claim that, "users don’t just passively consume technology, but actively transform it”.

In opposition to technological determinism are those who suscribe to the belief of social determinism and postmodernism. Where social determinists believe that social circumstance determine which technologies are adopted and that no technology can be considered "inevitable." Technology and culture are not neutral and when knowledge comes into the equation, technology becomes implicated in social processes. The knowledge of how to create and enhance technology, and of how to use technology is socially bound knowledge. Postmodernists take another view, suggesting that what is right or wrong is dependent on circumstance. They believe technological change can have implications on the past, present and future.[4] While they believe technological change is influenced by changes in government policy, society and culture, they consider the notion of change to be a paradox, since change is constant.

Media and cultural studies theorist Brian Winston, in response to technological determinism, developed a model for the emergence of new technologies which is centered on the Law of the suppression of radical potential. In two of his books - Technologies of Seeing: Photography, Cinematography and Television (1997) and Media Technology and Society (1998) - Winston applied this model to show how technologies evolves over time, and how their 'invention' is mediated and controlled by society and societal factors which suppress the radical potential of a given technology.

[edit] Notable Technological Determinists

Thomas L. Friedman, American journalist, columnist and author, admits to being a technological determinist in his book The World is Flat.

[edit] See also

[edit] Bibliography

  • Cowan, Ruth Schwarz. More Work for Mother:. 
  • Croteau, David; Hoynes, William (2003). Media Society: Industries, Images and Audiences ((third edition) ed.). Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press. pp. 305–307. 
  • Ellul, Jacques (1964). The Technological Society. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 
  • Green, Lelia. Technoculture. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin. pp. 1–20. 
  • Miller, Sarah (January 1997). "Futures Work - Recognising the Social Determinants of Change". Social Alternatives (vol.1, No.1 ed.). pp. 57–58. 
  • Murphie, Andrew; and Potts, John (2003). "1". 'Culture and Technology'. London: Palgrave. p. 21. 
  • Noble, David F. (1984). Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation. Oxford University Press: New York. 
  • Postman, Neil (1992). Technopoly. Vintage: New York. pp. 3–20. 
  • Smith, Merritt Roe; and Leo Marx, eds. (1994). Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge: MIT Press. 
  • Staudenmaier, S.J., John M. (1985). "The Debate over Technological Determinism". Technology's Storytellers: Reweaving the Human Fabric. Cambridge: The Society for the History of Technology and the MIT Press. pp. 134–148. 
  • Winner, Langdon (1977). Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge: MIT Press. 
  • Winner, Langdon (1986). "Do Artefacts Have Politics?". 'The Whale and the Reactor'. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 26. 
  • Winner, Langdon. "Technology as Forms of Life". Readings in the Philosophy of Technology. David M. Kaplan. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. 103-113
  • Woolgar, Steve and Cooper, Geoff (1999). "Do artefacts have ambivalence? Moses' bridges, Winner's bridges and other urban legends in S&TS". Social Studies of Science 29 (3), 433-449.
  • Furbank, P.N. “The Myth of Determinism.” Raritan. [City] Fall 2006: 79-87. EBSCOhost. Monroe Community College Library, Rochester, NY. 2 April 2007.
  • Feenberg, Andrew. "Democratic Rationalization". Readings in the Philosophy of Technology. David M. Kaplan. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. 209-225
  • Chandler, Daniel. Technological or Media Determinism. 1995. 18 September 1995. <>

[edit] Footnotes

  • [as cited in Croteau, D. and Hoynes, M. (2003) Media Society: Industries, Images and Audiences (third edition), Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks pp.305-306]

[edit] References

  1. ^ Croteau and Hoynes, 2003
  2. ^ Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979), p. 39)
  3. ^ (1997)
  4. ^ Green, Linda 2001, Technoculture, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest pp.15

[edit] External links

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