What is technological determinism?
Simply stated, technological determinism is the belief that, “A society’s technology shapes—determines—its social and cultural institutions” (Kte’pi, 2011, p. 404). It is generally accepted that being in a certain environment will change us, because we will adapt to that specific environment. According to technological determinism, as new technologies are introduced, our environment changes and consequently society is re-shaped. Threads of technological determinism can be identified in the historical and contemporary rhetoric on technological trends: for example, people used to fear that if books and literacy were widespread, people’s memories would be ruined. Now, we fear that texting will ruin young people’s ability to actually have a conversation.
Different perspectives on technological determinism
Strict or “hard” technological determinists believe that technology is not organized around society; rather, technology dictates the direction and construction of society (Kte’pi, 2011, p. 405). According to hard determinists, humans are essentially “tool-making animals,” and technology is the main or only force behind social change (Sullivan, 2009, p. 511). Soft determinists posit that technology is only one important factor among many in social change, so this perspective gives humans more influence and agency over how technology will impact society (Kte’pi, 2011, p. 405). A third perspective, anti-technological determinism, claims that technology is “neutral,” and the effects of technology are primarily or completely a result of social context (Adler, 2008, p. 1537). In this perspective, social forces can shape the development or implementation of technology.
Technological determinism and ED 654
According to technological determinist Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message” (Sullivan, 2009, p. 511). In other words, the technologies we use influence how we perceive situations and information. While still a contentious and fluid topic, digital citizenship explores how we should personally engage with technology. Consequently, in this class, we will look at how “the medium” influences “the message,” which is clearly a concern of technological determinists. Too, since technological determinism is a philosophy that discusses to what extent technology changes society, technological determinists would probably argue that the fact that we have a whole class about digital citizenship supports the validity of their philosophy. Technology drives social change; in fact, technology has changed citizenship and society so much that we now have an entire course on something we call “digital citizenship.”
Adler, P. S. (2008). Technological determinism. In International Encyclopedia of Organization Studies. (p. 1537-1539). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. Eds. Clegg, S. R. and Bailey, J.R.
Kte’pi, B. (2011). Technological determinism. In Green Technology: An A-to-Z Guide. (pp. 404-405). D. Mulvaney, Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Sullivan, L. E., Ed. (2009). Technological determinism. In The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. (p. 511). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
For Further Study on Technological Determinism
Kelly, K. (2005, Feb.). What does technology want? TED Talk. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/kevin_kelly_on_how_technology_evolves?language=en
WIRED Executive Editor Kevin Kelly answers the question, “What does technology want?” in a 15-minute TED Talk. Kelly argues that technology is becoming more specialized and diverse as it develops, and it speeds up how we look for ideas. He also explains that it is difficult to get rid of technology once it has been introduced; it takes on a life of its own. In true technological determinist fashion, Kelly states that, “Our humanity is actually defined by technology. All the things that we think we really like about humanity is being driven by technology.”
BBC Radio 4. (2015, Jan. 27). The medium is the message. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ko6J9v1C9zE
This short, informative YouTube video describes one of the slogans of technological determinism: “The medium is the message” (coined by Marshall McLuhan). According to this video, the “technology that transfers the message changes us and changes society, the individual, the family, work, leisure, and more.”
Lepore, J. (2008, May 12). On our own devices. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/12/our-own-devices
This in-depth article written by a Harvard professor of history reviews a book by Maury Klein called The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America. According to Klein, technology is primarily what drove social change from the 19th to 20th century. Conversely, Lepore takes a “soft” determinist position, arguing that, while technology has enormous influence, it is not the only factor driving social change. Lepore concludes, “Technology can be sublime, but machines aren’t something that happens to us; they’re something we make…you can teach them manners before they get to be bigger than you.”
Curious Catherine. (2011, Feb. 6). Technological determinism—or not. Retrieved from http://www.curiouscatherine.info/2011/02/06/technological-determinism-or-not/
This blog post by a PhD student studying digital and social change asks some intriguing questions regarding technological determinism. Particularly, she encourages us to explore the “reverse.” She asks her readers to consider what would happen if a particular technology was removed. What would be the lingering societal changes? Would we feel a need to replace the technology? Or, will the effect already be beyond the reach of the technology?
Davis, J. (2015, Feb. 16). Theorizing affordances. The Society Pages. Retrieved from https://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2015/02/16/theorizing-affordances/
This author puts forward a soft determinist position, arguing that, while technology shapes society and the people who use those technologies, humans still have control over technology. She also introduces the concept of “affordances,” which are the specifications of a certain technology that can guide the use of that technology. For example, she describes the difference between a rope vs. privacy fence—both afford the same message (“stay out”) but do so with a different tone. Technology can request, demand, allow, or encourage certain actions/things from us, and consequently influence social change in different ways.
Chomsky, N. (2014, May 2). Technological determinism. CSPAN. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2a7Laa5sB2w
This short CSPAN video features preeminent American scholar Noam Chomsky discussing the topic of technological determinism. Chomsky is critical of technological determinism, and cautions his audience to be skeptical whenever a view is put forth that makes them passive and resigned. He points out that the same technology that can liberate can also control, and so we cannot draw clear connections between technology and specific social changes.
Feller, G. (2015, Sept. 25). Future technology: a force for good or a source of fear? Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/education/festival-of-the-imagination/11890618/future-of-technology-and-humans.html
Cyber-security expert Colin Williams is interviewed in this UK article. Interestingly, Williams introduces the concept of “fear” into technological determinism. He argues that one of the reasons people fear technology and focus on its destructive potential is because they believe they cannot stop or control the social changes that come with new technologies. He encourages us to look for the enlightening and engaging potential of technology, rather than being “obsessed with the concept of subordination—that we might lose the ability to control these machines.”