Technological Determinism

Technological determinism [dih-tur-muh-niz-uhm] is a reductionist theory that presumes that a society’s technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values. The term is believed to have been coined by American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929). The most radical technological determinist in the United States in the twentieth century was most likely economist Clarence Ayres who was a follower of Veblen and American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey. Sociologist William Ogburn was also known for espousing theories of radical technological determinism.

Veblen’s contemporary, popular historian Charles A. Beard, said of the concept: ‘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.’

Most interpretations of technological determinism share two general ideas: 1) that the development of technology itself follows a predictable, traceable path largely beyond cultural or political influence; and 2) that technology in turn has ‘effects’ on societies that are inherent, rather than socially conditioned or produced because that society organizes itself to support and further develop a technology once it has been introduced. Strict adherents to technological determinism do not believe the influence of technology differs based on how much a technology is or can be used. Rather than classify technology as a part of a larger spectrum of human activity, technological determinism sees technology as the basis for all human activity.

According to Rosalind Williams, Professor of the History of Science and Technology at MIT: ‘Technology determines history.’ According to author Michael L. Smith technological determinism is, ‘… the belief that social progress is driven by technological innovation, which in turn follows an ‘inevitable’ course.’ This ‘idea of progress’ or ‘doctrine of progress’ is centralized around the idea that social problems can be solved by technological advancement, and this is the way that society moves forward. Australian communications professor Lelia Green argues: ”You can’t stop progress,’ implying that we are unable to control technology.’

Technological determinism has been defined as an approach that identifies technology, or technological advances, as the central causal element in processes of social change. 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.

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,’ 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 from an oral culture to a literate culture but also introduced a capitalist society where there was clear class distinction and individualism.

As cultural critic and media theorist Neil 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.’

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 an 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 (Autonomous Technology). 20th century French philosopher and social theorist Jacques Ellul could be said to be a hard determinist and proponent of ‘autonomous technique’ (technology). In his 1954 work ‘The Technological Society,’ Ellul essentially posits that technology, by virtue of its power through efficiency, determines which social aspects are best suited for its own development through a process of natural selection. A social system’s values, mores, philosophy etc. that are most conducive to the advancement of technology allow that social system to enhance its power and spread at the expense of those social systems whose values, mores, philosophy etc. are less promoting of technology. Theodore J. Kaczynski (the Unabomber) is essentially a hard determinist. According to Kaczynski, ‘objective’ material factors in the human environment are the principle determining factors in the evolution of social systems. Whereas geography, climate, and other ‘natural’ factors largely determined the parameters of social conditions for most of human history, technology has recently become the dominant objective factor (largely due to forces unleashed by the industrial revolution) and it has been the principle objective and determining factor.

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 maintain that we have a chance to make decisions regarding the outcomes of a situation. 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.

Proponents of technological instrumentalism consider technology as neither good nor bad and argue that what matters are the ways in which we use technology. This point is illustrated by the anti-gun control slogan: ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’ However, technological determinists believe that technology is neutral only if it’s never been used before, or if no one knows what it is going to be used for. In what is often considered a definitive reflection on the topic, historian Melvin Kranzberg famously wrote in the first of his six laws of technology: ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.’

Skepticism 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. 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 emphasized more nuanced views that resist easy causal formulations. They emphasize that, ‘The relationship between technology and society cannot be reduced to a simplistic cause-and-effect formula. It is, rather, an ‘intertwining,’ whereby technology does not determine but, ‘…operates, and are operated upon in a complex social field.’

In his article, ‘Subversive Rationalization: Technology, Power and Democracy with Technology,’ Canadian philosopher of 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. The first is the thesis of unilinear progress (the belief that technological progress follows a direct and predictable path from lower to higher levels of complexity and that each stage along this path is necessary for progress to occur). The second is the thesis of determination by the base (which holds that in a society where a technology had been introduced, that society must organize itself or adapt to the technology).

In his argument against the former thesis Feenberg says that constructivist (non-objectivist) studies of technology will lead us to realize that there is not a set path by which development of technologies occur but rather an emerging of similar technologies at the same time leading to a multiple of choices (multiple discovery). These choices are made based upon certain social factors and upon examining them we will see that they are not deterministic in nature. Arguing against the latter thesis, Feenberg calls to our attention social reforms that have been mandated by governments mainly in regards to the protection of its citizens and laborers. Most of the time these mandates are widely accepted after being passed through the governing body. At which point technology and industry will reform and re-evolve to meet the new standards in a way that has greater efficiency than it did so previously.

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.’

Another conflicting idea is that of ‘technological somnambulism,’ a term coined by professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Langdon 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. However, it requires society to adopt sociologist Ralph Schroeder’s claim that, ‘users don’t just passively consume technology, but actively transform it.’

Also in opposition to technological determinism are those who subscribe to the belief of social determinism (the theory that social interactions and constructs alone determine individual behavior) and postmodernism (the rejection of objective truth and universal social progress). Social determinists believe that social circumstances alone select which technologies are adopted, with the result that no technology can be considered ‘inevitable’ solely on its own merits. 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. 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 evolve over time, and how their ‘invention’ is mediated and controlled by society and societal factors which suppress the radical potential of a given technology.

Media determinism, a subset of technological determinism, is a philosophical and sociological position which posits the power of the media to impact society. As a theory of change, it is seen as a cause and effect relationship. New media technologies bring about change in society. Much like the ‘magic bullet’ theories of mass communication, media determinism provides a somewhat simplistic explanation for very complicated scenarios. Cause and effect relationships are reduced to their most basic premise, and explained as such. Techno-centrist theories make everything explainable in light of the media’s relation to technological developments. Two leading media determinists are the Canadian scholars Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. On the other hand, scholar Raymond Williams critiques media determinism and believes social movements define technological and media processes instead.

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