Digital Media and Culture Yearbook 2014/Chapter 1: Technological Determinism
Technological determinism in its most basic form is the idea that technology has a significant effect on society. The theory presents the idea that technology is the reason for developments in our society, influencing our lives at a number of levels. Determinists believe that technology influences society on different levels; industry, communication between individuals and even individuals themselves.
The definition of technological determinism can be regarded as the cultural implications of new media, by bringing into concern the history behind media theory and production and the way these frameworks develop social and cultural structures. With media technologies constantly developing and allowing for instant and convenient communication, theorists have argued that this has influenced social progressions. New media technologies have revolutionized everyday life to an extent where humans are able to create identity through social networking, consume media productions through television, computers and other means and also communicate from a local to a global scale.
By assessing theorists work such as Marshall McLuhan, who poses the idea that reforming media affects how humans distinguish and value the world around them and the differences between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ media, we can establish how technology is determined through the shaping and changes of cultural and social formations.
Technological determinism comes in two main variations, best described as hard and soft determinism.
- Hard or strong determinism argues that technology is the foremost or sole reason for the way society is structured and any development in our culture. Technology is seen as the “prime mover in history” (Chandler, 2000).
- Soft or weak determinism is a less extreme argument, more approved of by scholars. It sees technology as more of an enabler for societal change. Rather than viewing technology as the sole or primary reason for anything that happens in society, it takes into account other factors and argues that technology gives us opportunities for development but does not necessarily cause it.
Context and Origin
In history, technology is recognised as the ‘prime mover’ and according to technological determinists; it is the sole cause of change within society. With this, technology becomes seen as the most contributing factor when assessing the pattern of social organisation. Continuing from a technological determinist perspective, the argument remains that as technology has grown (from writing and print, to the television and the computer), society has changed alongside it. The most extremist technological determinists see the entire form of society as being determined by technology.
Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), an American sociologist and economist was believed to have originally coined the term Technical Determinism. His founding views led to a number of theorists expanding on the subject.
The first elaboration on technological determinism came from Karl Marx, who believed that technology and its changes are the main influence on social relations and social order, and that technology forms the base of society (Chandler 2000). His association with determinism comes from statements such as "The Handmill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist", although some argue that he was not, in fact, an advocate of technological determinism. Marx focusses on theories surrounding economic activity and its role as a productive force. The forces of production are 'technological processes once begun, require forms of organisation or commitments of political resources, regardless of their social desirability or previous social practices…Cultural and social change follows from technology’(Bimber, 1990:7).
Non Marxist Theorists
A number of Non-Marxist theorists have adopted a technological determinism stance including Sigfried Giedion, Lynn White Jr, Leslie White, Harold Innis and most notably, Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan (1911-1980) was the first theorist to recognise the changes related to technological determinism and how it would bring about a brand new society that was defined by networking and a greater connectivity.
Technological imperative, also known as the inevitability thesis, is the assumption that technology cannot be stopped in its development, and that technological progress is irreversible, unavoidable, and inevitable. Essentially, this theory assumes that because we are able to do something because of a particular technology, we ought to, must, or will do it. It is the theory that what can be done, will be done, whether or not it is moral, good, or productive for mankind.
This is important to technological determinism as it recognizes the influence of technology on action. It drives society to act on not only what they are able to do, but also push the boundaries and test limits because, as John von Neumann observed, man cannot resist the technological possibilities as they arise (Mumford 1971: 186). Progress must continue wherever progress is possible. With this, the theory acknowledges the shift from technology as a means to technology as an end. Critics of the theory, including Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich, argue that the theory of technological imperative cannot be fully accurate, as not all areas of available progress are being exploited. The main argument stems from the lack of drive to create renewable energy sources.
"Arnold Pacey suggests that the technological imperative is commonly taken to be 'the lure of always pushing toward the greatest feat of technical performance or complexity which is currently available' (Pacey 1983, p. 79). The mathematician John von Neumann wrote with some alarm that 'technological possibilities are irresistible to man.' (in Mumford 1971, p. 186). Jacques Soustelle declared of the atomic bomb that 'Since it was possible, it was necessary' (in Ellul 1964, p. 99). And fatalists might add that since we can now destroy the planet, in time we will. The technological imperative is a common assumption amongst commentators on 'new technologies'. They tell us, for instance, that the 'information technology revolution' is inevitably on its way and our task as users is to learn to cope with it" (Chandler 2000).
According to McLuhan, the media dictates the message - an argument that becomes extremely relevant when according to technological imperative, society is unable to resist the development of technology and so also the continual development of media platforms.
Social Media Influence
The concept of Always-On stems from the idea that society is now "tethered" to technology, and that humans are always networked and connected in some way, even if they are not physically on any devices. This relates to technological determinism as the theory proposes that society and social relations are determined by technology, and thus also our on-line relationships and cultural tendencies.
Technological determinism underpins the theory of an ‘Always-on Culture’, arguing that social networking platforms have revolutionised the way society communicates. It creates a new platform of communication, exclusive of face to face interaction. It can be a means to strengthen real life relationships or make solely online ones. It allows for communication in different social circles at the same time and with people across the globe. This, according to technological determinism has shaped the way people communicate within society.
Technological determinists would also argue that technology has an impact on our on-line identity, as the specifications of the medium help to dictate what kind of identity we are able to create. In a sense, technology creates parameters into which we must fit our identity - be it through profile pictures, privacy settings, status updates and even friends lists. With the development and increased popularity of social networking platforms, 'online identity' has become an increasingly prevalent area of discussion. These social media sites have created a new online community with sometimes different cultural tendencies to the 'real world'. People are given the opportunity to present an image of themselves to society via the 'virtual world' which may or may not align with their 'real world' identity. According to technological determinism, social media has created a platform for society to create separate identities in the 'virtual world' and thus give people multiple personas who could not have without the aid of this technology.
Science, History and Technology
Technology has revolutionised throughout history with the adaptation of science. There is a distinct view that technology is applied to science; science creates new explanations, models and predictions about the world which is then applied to practice with technological innovation. Throughout history science has reflected its theories into technology thus forming an in sync correspondence between changes within technology and changes within the world.
New science comes from old science; new technology from old, from recent developments in media technologies such as mobile phones, the internet, wireless computers such as iPads and laptops and special effects these have resulted in the modification of older technology by improving electronic devices and battery power (Collins & Evans, 2006:10).
Gutenberg's Printing Press
According to McLuhan's theory, the printing press is an example of how technology can change society. The printing press increased the speed of production for the written word, which in turn allowed the reproduction of the written word. This lead to the standardisation of vernacular languages and universal literacy. Thus, the experience of the world is transformed by the standardization of a common language, through the development of a new technology.
Marshall McLuhan's work is often viewed as a founding part of the study of media theory, and is often seen as a key component in technological determinism.
Extensions of the Human Body
This is the assertion by McLuhan that technology are tools that extend the human body and more accurately, extend or amplify the abilities of the visual and aural senses. Examples of this would be the television extending the visual senses or the telephone extending the aural (Brey,2000). McLuhan goes on to say that technology in fact changes the way we act in society and that nowadays people “wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide” (McLuhan, 1966 p.64). Although at first this may seem an obscure and nonsensical view, it can be comprehended in that much of the technology we use for interacting and viewing the world start at our fingertips and with the technology that we consume.
McLuhan’s assertion that the medium is the message is perhaps now becoming a more likely theory than was first thought. He asserted that technology is like a bodily extension just like the “wheel is an extension of the foot” and “a hammer is an extension of the arm” (Lister et al, 2003: p.78) and the recent announcements by Google, Intel, and Facebook that they were all investing heavily in wearable technology is testimony to McLuhan’s theory (BBC, 2014a). Facebook recently bought virtual reality technology firm Oculus VR for £1.2bn and Mark Zuckerberg claimed that “virtual reality will be the next social communications platform” (The Guardian, 2014). Furthermore, his statement that this wearable technology could “change the way we work, play and communicate” (BBC, 2014b) directly supports McLuhan’s stance.
The Global Village
This is a term coined by McLuhan in reference to what he calls the Electronic culture that arises with the increased use of televisions and computers. A way of understanding this is that the improvement in technology has allowed for much quicker communication. In theory this allows for the entire world to be compressed into a Global Village where everyone can quickly communicate with each other, whereas in practice this has manifested itself through the internet allowing for an individual to have a much larger number of near constant social connections. A very recent example of this would be the case of popular social media site Facebook in which an average adult user is said to have 338 friends, which clearly shows the breaking down of distance and ease of communication that McLuhan conveys in his idea of the global village(Singha, 2014). This can be also be further established by looking at the number of people that use the most common social networking sites, 1.23 billion monthly active users on Facebook and over 1 billion unique YouTube user visits per month. This puts people in potential contact with more people than they could meet or speak to in their lifetime and again strengthens the idea of the global village. Another idea of this is that through the quick access and speed of response that comes with this type of technology we are able to react to global issues far faster than previously. Therefore, issues that may have once not have been of concern can be addressed by a much bigger crowd. This follows the same underlying concept of increasing technology reducing distances and effectively making the world a smaller more accessible place. McLuhan also suggests that the people who live in this electronic culture, or global village gain all the benefits and downfalls of new technologies and so whereas distances are no longer a problem for communication, technology barriers and development or lack of it can still provide issues (Smith,M and Marx,L. 1994).
Hot and Cool Media
A way in which Mcluhan categorises different forms of media is through a temperature type scale in which there are both hot and cool types of media. As with much of McLuhan's writings this is not an initially intuitive process. A media type is considered hot if it heavily utilises and immerses one sense in particular. An example of this may be the comparison of a photograph which gives a large and detailed amount of visual information and hence a hot media form, to a sketched cartoon which gives a minimal amount of information visually (Van Koten, 2009). Furthermore McLuhan suggests that it is cool media that involves a higher amount of interpretation from the consumer than hotter forms of media. This can again be thought of as a photo presenting visual information more clearly where as a drawing may need to be interpreted in terms of shapes and colours and a have a meaning which may be more contentious drawn less easily from this information. Below is a table which contrast various types of hot media with their cooler media counterparts (Van Koten, 2009). There is a large amount of contention about the usefulness of the hot and cool media scale due a number of issues that are described in the Criticism section below.
|Hot Media||Cool Media|
|Low Participation||High Participation|
|Written word||Spoken Word|
Similar to McLuhan’s idea of hot and cool media is the notion of 'light on' and 'light through' media. ‘Light on’ media is where the light source bounces off a surface or object before hitting the viewers’ eyes. Therefore the light is projected onto a screen (Van Koten, 2009). ‘Light through’ media is where the light source is positioned in front of audience; therefore making the audience the screen by projecting light onto them (Van Koten, 2009). In likeness to hot and cool media, ‘light on’ would be described as hot because it is “all revealing” where ‘light through’ is less revealing, more “mysterious” so therefore cool (Van Koten, 2009, p.91). An example of ‘light on’ media is cinema, where the light comes from behind the audience onto the screen, with no chance of participation; where an example of ‘light through’ media is television with the light projecting from the TV onto the viewers, giving more room for interpretation and interaction.
Ray Kurzweil, a futurist specified in speech recognition technology and the future of technology such as robotics and biotechnology, is notable as a technological determinist with his assessment of the history of technology and its rate of progress.
By establishing technology as a determinist force he states that ‘once life takes hold on a planet, we can consider the emergence of technology is inevitable' (Kurzweil, 1999:30). Kurzweil assumes that the rate of progress of technology is at such a high speed that technological intelligence will surpass human intelligence within a few decades (Kurzweil, 2004:382). He argues that the future holds technological change so fast human nature will take longer to adapt to these changes and the rapid pace of innovation.
Kurzweil explains that technology is a means of evolution, in that ‘technology picks right up with the exponentially quickening pace of evolution’(Kurzweil, 1999:30). Technology has a positive effect on human individuals and society as it allows them to change themselves by bettering their cognitive abilities and health by adapting to technological advancements. For Kurzweil, exponential growth is the leading factor in technology where Moore’s Law is of strong importance.
Criticism and Debate
Technology through significant media forces has reshaped the way in which humans behave, the structure of human societies and even language. Media even has the power to change governments (Collins & Evans, 2006:50). Theorists have formed contradictory ideas that raise debates over the development of technology as being a direct source of social change.
Cultural determinism is the idea that the society and culture surrounding us helps determine who we are. Essentially, the environment has more of an influence on something than inherited traits. This opposes the idea of technological determinism as it then assumes that society is not influenced by technology, but rather that society influences technology to fulfill its needs and social tendencies that already exist. The main cultural determinist is Raymond Williams.
Raymond Williams ‘insists that the future of our media will depend on our capacity to make informed judgements and decisions about that future.’ Our world, society and history are continually altered by whatever new technology comes along: the steam engine, the automobile, the atomic bomb. (Williams, 2003:1). Technology such as television is often argued that it has effects on social behaviour and cultural and psychological conditions. However these effects are the result of the technology being the cause. The notions of a cause and effect between a technology and society, a technology and a culture and a technology and a psychology are quite complex to apply answers and theories to. Williams, however goes on to analyse specifically television as a technology that results in cultural pattern shifts. Williams states that television has altered our world. In this sense it has been created ‘as a result of scientific and technical research’ yet television has been used in many other forms, these are simply the effects of its creation:
- As a tool for social communication to construct social relationships.
- It provides us with certain perceptions of reality within the world
- It provides a strong mode of communication through news and entertainment
- Through television advertising is made possible to promote goods to society
- It follows a set of systems to what society wants from television by attending to opinions and styles of behaviour from what is produced.
Arguably the development of television and overall technology cannot be assumed to purposefully direct society into conforming to change. Technology should be considered as a typical invention of which is accidental in its proceedings (Williams, 2003:5). Television is therefore a technology which without it humans would still have been influenced or entertained by other means.
Technological Determinism is only one force among others; 'social forces shape technology and technology shapes society, and societies can, and frequently do, make rules that determine which technologies are used and what use can be made of them' (Collins & Evans, 2007:51).
There is an argument concerning whether determinism is in-fact too determined. This theory suggests that determinism that is seen to focus on technology to recognise how we act or think can ignore how we in-fact reach this point. Ong (1982) understands that writing has transformed us, however we are gradually holding less and less control over this. Ong (1982:77) presents ideas about writing and how writing has transformed human consciousness. Ong (1982) takes this further and states that as a result this gives this form of technology a sense of autonomy. This leads to the belief that it is difficult to understand the possible social changes that have to occur in technology as it acts on its own to decipher which caused or resulted in the other to occur.
Further criticism of Technological Determinism is found in the idea that the theory is written in a broad sense. McLuhan also fails to mention how technologies are constructed yet implicitly speaks of the way in which humans interact with technology. McLuhan also fails to acknowledge the idea of ‘technological innovation’ this is despite the fact that this technologies are created through the human interplay with various technologies that McLuhan holds in high regard (Cana 2003).
Problems with McLuhan's "the medium is the message"
It could be argued that it is more beneficial to state that "the medium is also the message" as opposed to "the medium is the message". This is believed because the nature of the medium in itself is informative and it is hard to claim that the content is independent of the medium. It is difficult to suggest that the content is not shaped by the medium. Also, content that is generated by technology such as language, print, TV and internet justify it's usability and this content can also work to fuel new technological innovations (Cana 2003).
Problems with Hot and Cool Media
As McLuhan has the tendency of doing in his writing, the Hot and Cool media temperature scale comes with a number of criticisms due to the somewhat vague nature in which it is described. Firstly, there is no actual way of measuring the temperature of a media form and so no way of being able to determine if one type of media is hotter or cooler than another. This means that it is a subjective scale and that any consensus comes down to the opinions of the people using it, therefore leaving it prone to bias and making it somewhat less useful. To add to this, the scale can only be used when comparing two media forms that have somewhat similar aims or place emphasis on the same senses such as the radio and telephone(Van Koten, 2009). As much of McLuhan's work is not particularly recent it also does not include or take into consideration many recent updates in technology. Examples of this would be the improvement of televisions with high definition capabilities and video calling technology available commonly on smart phones. Therefore it can in many cases be discarded as a flawed method of gauging media.
Cool Media: is known to be of low definition, this is so because the level of information being given to the reader is small. In comparison to hot media, cool media requires greater levels of participation from audiences. Examples of cool media include: telephones, cartoons, television.
Culture: the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.
Hot Media: is described as something that is of ‘high definition’ and are low in participation as they do not require much assistance from audiences to be filled or completed. The idea of high definition photographs can be used to this extent. Other examples of hot media include: radio, print and movies.
non-Marxist: a non-Marxist can be defined as a socialist who disagrees with the idea of communism and works towards and wishes for a society to exist where the workers within society have the over-riding say in their lives.
Social Media: is the various websites and applications that allow for users to communicate and share experiences to the public and in private, allowing for them to participate in social networking.
Technology: in broad terms, technology is an entity used to solve real-world problems
Technological Innovation: has been described as the innovation of a new product that provides substanstial improvements on previous products. Technological innovation is crucial to the success of products and they can be protected by Intellectual Property.
The medium is in the message: this is an idea of Marshall McLuhan and he suggests that the medium form in a way embeds itself into the message. The result is that messages are influenced through the medium.
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