Technological determinism  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Technological determinism 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 Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), an American sociologist. The most radical technological determinist in America in the twentieth century was most likely Clarence Ayres who was a follower of Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey. But also William Ogburn was known for his radical technological determinism.

Contents

Origin

The term is believed to have been coined by Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), an American. Veblen'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."

Explanation

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 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. Instead of considering technology as part of a larger spectrum of human activity, technological determinism sees technology as the basis for all human activity.

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"' (Raymond 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.

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."

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.

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 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 (Green, 2001). In effect, guns would only be classified as neutral if and only if society were none the wiser of their existence and functionality (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). This view is also referred to as technological instrumentalism.

Criticism

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-effect 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 subscribe to the belief of social determinism and postmodernism. 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. They believe technological change can have implications on the past, present and future. 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.

Notable Technological Determinists

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

Futurist Raymond Kurzweil's theories about a technological singularity follow a technologically deterministic view of history.

Some interpret Karl Marx as advocating technological determinism, with such statements as "The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist" (The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847), but others argue that Marx was not a determinist.

Subset of Technological Determinism

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.

See also





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Technological determinism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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