Technological determinism is a reductionist theory that aims to provide a causative link between technology and a society’s nature. It tries to explain as to whom or what could have a controlling power in human affairs. The theory questions the degree to which human thought or action is influenced by technological factors.
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The term ‘technological determinism’ was coined by Thorstein Veblen and this theory revolves around the proposition that technology in any given society defines its nature. Technology is viewed as the driving force of culture in a society and it determines its course of history.
Karl Marx believed that technological progress lead to newer ways of production in a society and this ultimately influenced the cultural, political and economic aspects of a society, thereby inevitably changing society itself. He explained this statement with the example of how a feudal society that used a hand mill slowly changed into an industrial capitalist society with the introduction of the steam mill.
Langdon Winner provided two hypotheses for this theory:
- The technology of a given society is a fundamental influencer of the various ways in which a society exists
- Changes in technology are the primary and most important source that leads to change in the society
An offshoot of the above hypotheses which is not as extreme is the belief that technology influences the various choices that we make and therefore a changed society can be traced back to changed technologies.
Technological determinism manifests itself at various levels initially it starts with the introduction of newer technologies introduces various changes and at times these changes can also lead to a loss of existing knowledge as well. For example, the introduction of newer agricultural tools and methods has seen the gradual loss of knowledge of traditional means of farming. Therefore technology is also influencing the level of knowledge in a society.
Examples of Technological determinism
History shows us numerous examples to explain why technology is considered to be determining the society that we live in. The invention of the gun changed how disputes were sorted out and changed the face of combat. A gun required minimum effort and skill to be used successfully and could be used from a safe distance. This when compared to how earlier wars were fought with swords and archery lead to a radical change in the weapons used in war. Today with the discovery of nuclear energy, future wars will be fought with nuclear arsenal. Each new discovery causes a transition to a different society. The discovery of steam power let to the development of the industrial society and the introduction of computers has led to the dawn of the information age.
Winner believed that changes in technology sometimes had unintended or unexpected results and effects as well. Winner called this phenomenon as ‘technological drift’ where people start drifting more and more among a sea of unpredictable and uncertain consequences. According to Winner, technology is not the slave of the human being but rather humans are slaves to technology as they are forced to adapt to the technological environment that surrounds them.
Forms of Technological Determinism
An alternative weaker view of technological determinism says that technology is serving a mediating function because despite it leading to changes in culture, it is actually controlled by human beings. When control of technology slowly reduces from being in the hands of few human beings, it passes completely into the control of technology itself. This view of humans having no control is referred to as ‘autonomous technological determinism.’
Technological Determinism and Media
New media are not only an addition to existing media, they are also new technologies and therefore do have a deterministic factor as well. Marshall McLuhan made a famous statement that “the medium is the message.” This means that the medium used to communicate influences the mind of the receiver. The introduction of news print, television and the internet have all shown how technological advances have an impact on the society in which we live in.
Criticism of Technological Determinism
A critique of technological determinism is that technology never forces itself on members of the society. Man creates technology and chooses to use them. He invents television and chooses to view it. There is no imposition on the part of the technology to be used rather technology requires people to participate or involve themselves at some point or another to use a car or a microwave. The choice of using technology and experiencing its effects therefore lies in the hand of a human being.