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Technological Determinism, while not an official theory, is a concept that purports that not only is technology development on an inevitable path of progress--independent of society--but additionally states that these advancements have a major effect on the shape of society. It is an essentialist position that finds there are inherent qualities of specific technolgies which bring about definite outcomes in society.

Often technological determinism is accused of abdicating responsibility for the scientists who develop technologies, as if these advances were inevitable and predetermined. It also proposes that technologies specifically bring about definite social and societal outcomes. For example, that the printing press brought about a sea-change in society by its inherent characteristics; rather than seeing the printing press coming out of or developed as a results of a wave of social change.

Arguments against

Social contructivists see it from the exact opposite: that social contexts give meaning to technologies. A popular debate between TechnologicalDeterminism and SocialConstructivism? is guns and roses. As social constructivists, Grint and Woolgar defended their seemingly relativist position against determinism, when a critic (Kling) accused social constructivism of saying a gun didn't have the power to kill someone. See, Grint & Woolgar. The machine at work. Technology, work and organization. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997 (see "what's social about being shot?")

The SocialConstructionOfScience makes a better argument about the history of science and technology (renamed technoscience in that jargon) because it takes into consideration the actions that transition between stable points in the history--the controversies--rather than focusing on only what has been decided, settled, and stabilized like determinist stances. Determinism then appears as only a simplified history, building links between the easy and obvious parts of history rather than accounting for the large parts of real history (history in the making) that get forgotten and left behind once no longer relevant to explain the future. That last sentence seems almost tautological, but that's because it is an accurate description of the methodology of determinism, and why it is mythologizing (focuses only on the successes) rather than accounting (which would require focusing on the process).

Example against determinism

A good example against determinism was put forward by Ian Hutchby (Conversation and Technology, 2001) who looked to the concept of affordances (see: WhatIsAffordance?) For example, the telephone originally was not meant for one on one communication, but the form of telephone communication afforded intimate person-to-person communication. ConversationalAnalysis? reveals that the telephone does not bring about unique or isolated social interactions--it merely shapes existing social mores and rituals by the limitations or affordances of the form. Looking to the work of Goffman, Hutchby explained that certain self presentation rituals and norms could be observed in telephone conversations.


"The term 'deterministic' tends to be a negative one for many social scientists, and modern sociologists in particular often use the word as a term of abuse." [Technological or Media Determinism Daniel Chandler]

There are possibly no researchers of society, science, and technology studies who would say they subscribe to the ideas of TechnologicalDeterminism. Rather this term is used as an accusation--as if the language of TechnologicalDeterminism creeps into our discussions when we are not careful. Notably, Marshall McLuhan?'s ideas are seen as technological determinist. He observed changes in society, and ascribed these to the changes in communication media.

"McLuhan? saw changes in the dominant medium of communication as the main determinant of major changes in society, culture and the individual. For instance, print created individualism, privacy, specialization, detachment, mass production, nationalism, militarism, the dissociation of sensibility (a split between head and heart), and so on." [Determinist Language]

Popular science books about the futures of technology and society, like AlvinToffler?'s work, are full of such elaborations.

In contrast, the anti-essentialists



Comparing different online community techologies (like chat, forum, wiki) it seems obvious that technology shapes interactions and decides about possible experiences and products of online communities. While one can use a wiki for slomo chat, it's even impossible to collaboratively write a book using a chat system. From experience we know that people are more important than the tools. An office doesn't create a company, a wiki system doesn't create a community. People have to use the tools acoording to their inherent potentials and laws. I'd say technology shapes 80% of what can be done. People shape 80% of what is actually done within the framework of technology or reality. Maybe 20% is construction unbound to reality, just as e. g. a unrealistic vision or hope may drive you forward (and so becomes effective). But if one chooses to disentangle too much from reality towards a constructivist view (communists neglecting market mechanisms, politicians marketing the success of their decisions in favour of heeding feedback), one is bound to fail (you do not fail if you are in entertainment or in the new area of entertaining science). Some of the most difficult persons in OCs are extreme constructivists (RA: "I'm 99.9% right in my judgements" EG: "your senses harvest the sowings of your convictions"). On the other hand: a strict TechnologicalDeterminism seems equally unbalanced, because this would imply a predictability of human behaviour within technological constraints that we simply can't observe. Social "water" runs in a technological "canyon": where it can and how it wants, highly dynamic and unpredictable in detail, (only) slowly shaping it over time. A constructivist is like a water drop talking to a canyon wall "I can shape you" - no, he can't. A determinist is like a canyon wall talking to the river "you will always run my way" - no, it won't. -- HelmutLeitner

Marx' historic materialism takes a similar stance on history, arguing that the development of the superstructure (culture, society, politics) is determined solely by the development of the basic (production capacity). He explains how technological changes led to the replacement of the primitive communal society with slave-ownership society, with feudal society, with capitalist society and will eventually led to its replacement with communist society (today we can also foresee its eventual replacement with posthuman non-society).

It seems that Marx's historic materialism is not so simplistic as to assert that the shape of society is determined soley by production capacity. He acknowledges the effect of culture, but offers historical materialism as a lens through which to take another look at history.

Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel seems to reinforce Marx's idea that material circumstances have had a lot more to do with shaping history than many would like to believe. -- PaulGaskin


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