Technological determinism is a reductionist theory that claims that technology shapes society. According to this theory, technology inevitably enhances on a traceable path that can be followed and correlated with the enhancement of society. Determinism refers to a relationship between two things that involves a “predetermined result” (Papageorgiou, T.) Technology is defined as the use of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. Therefore, the term technological determinism refers to a relationship between technology and society where society is predetermined to be shaped by the ways in which it uses scientific knowledge for practical purposes. This theory is credited to Thorstein Veblin who believed in a strong causal tie between technology and every society. He proposed that technology independently determines the values and culture of a society (Papageorgiou, T.)
Karl Marx is viewed as a believer in technological determinism. He believed that means of production are the basis of society. In The Poverty of Philosophy, he states that “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist” (1847, 49.) In this case, the means of production are the hand-mill and steam mill. He attributes the characteristics of these eras to the means of production that were used during them. Another supporter of the technological determinism theory is Marshall McLuhan. In his work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he discusses how the “medium is the message.” This phrase means that whatever the message of society is at any given period of time, it came about as a result of the new medium exists at that time. McLuhan says that “the personal and social consequences of any medium…result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (1980, 1.)
However, many oppose this theory, believing that technology does not have this much of an effect on a society. Technology is able to accompany other influences in society, but it is not the one determinant factor in society. This theory centers the argument to a cause and effect relationship when many other factors play into a result than just one. In The Tragedy of Technology, Stephen Hill argues that technology is not the sole proponent of social change but that change “is a product of the particular alignment between the technological possibilities and the society and culture that exists” (1988.)
Madner (2009) discusses certain critiques and questions to take into consideration when discussing technological determinism, particularly during the print era. For example, he brings to attention the possibility that there may be different visions of print and history that do not correlate with its “determinist assumptions.” This idea can be applied to all kinds of technology, not just print. A piece of technology can produce effects in a society that do not correspond with what it was assumed to do. An example of this is cell phones. Their determined purpose was to be able to call someone over a distance. It was not determined that they would develop all of the abilities that a computer has. They are able to call someone, but they now contain access to the Internet and many apps that can do a multitude of things.
Hill, S. (1988). The tragedy of technology: human liberation versus domination in the late twentieth century. London: Pluto.
Mader, R. (2009). Print Culture Studies and Technological Determinism. College Literature,36(2), 131-140. doi:10.1353/lit.0.0047
Marx, K. (2012). The poverty of philosophy. Place of publication not identified: Digireads.com Publishing.
McLuhan, M. (1980). Understanding media the extensions of man. Toronto: CNIB.
Papageorgiou, T., & Michaelides, P. G. (2013). Joseph Schumpeter and Thorstein Veblen on technological determinism, individualism and institutions. The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought,23(1), 1-30. doi:10.1080/09672567.2013.792378
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Written by Sydney Armitage, 2017.