Technological Determinism

 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.”

References

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.”

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5 Comments

  1. This is very well done and with exemplary clarity on laying out the idea(s) of tech determinism.

    One of the most interesting (and vexing) points about the whole concept boils down to, as you put it, “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.”

    At some level of refraction, the existence of technological determinism is certainly unquestionable. I think what makes the idea vital *now* as opposed to with analog technologies, is the question of how much agency and/or uncontrollable effects technology has or doesn’t have, something that isn’t easily answered in any case, but certainly not with the constant stream of anecodotal evidence being touted as research and research that is poorly constructed or too small to be meaningful.

  2. Very true. I really liked the New Yorker article by Lepore for that reason. Her discussion put technological determinism in historical perspective and points out that sometimes our perspective on emerging technology is hindered because we all we can see is what we can see. In her words,”But what if x isn’t all that triggers y, or even what mostly does; what if it just looks that way, because we are living y?” Part of me thinks that people living in other eras of technological advancement probably felt the same way about electricity, or industrialization, or automobiles, as we do about the internet (i.e., that it is an uncontrollable force that leaves society with no agency). It’s definitely a topic worth thinking about!

  3. I’m glad that you outlined the various levels of technological determinism, as with all theories and movements there are extremists and minimalist until one group breaks off and comes up and supports something new. You also provided a nice summary of reference material of which I’ll be going back through to review.

    You say, “According to technological determinism, as new technologies are introduced, our environment changes and consequently society is re-shaped.” which is interesting that at some point, there was a reason for the technology, someone had an idea and a purpose. I guess what I find interesting about most technologies, is how that technology may be used in an unexpected way, an unintentional consequence of people’s innovation and creativity.

    1. It is interesting that technology can be used in unexpected ways or have unintentional effects. Strict technological determinists even go so far as to say that humans “discover” technology rather than “create” it — in other words, they’d probably go a step further than your observation and claim that nearly all of technology’s consequences are unintended (since humans don’t really have control over technology).

  4. And (beware, here be dragons) now we see a trajectory that leads to interesting philosophical rabbit holes regarding meaning (who creates it), idealism (in the literal sense, as in Platonism), and basically postmodern theory about agency and definition among many, many other things.

    Which isn’t to say that one should dive into that (in fact, as a survivor, I don’t recommend it at all), but to note that there not only aren’t easy answers to many of the questions here, but perhaps not answers at all. So we take and try to balance and reconcile the best answers, frameworks, models and approaches we can)…

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