Technological determinism is a theoretical and methodological set according to which the level of development of science, technology, information and technology of big scale production defines social and economical development as a whole. It is also defined as any large scale technological measurement that leads to any social change.
The main role in social and economical developments belongs to technology according to this concept. This definition appeared about a hundred years ago after great success in science and technology developments and their growing effectiveness in mass usage and production.
The term ‘Technological Determinism’ was first coined by Thorstein Veblen, an American economist and sociologist who lived from 1857 to 1929. Broken down into its constituents, “technology” means the practical application of science to commerce or industry, whilst “determinism” refers to a philosophical doctrine holding that all events are inevitable consequences of antecedent sufficient causes; often understood as denying the possibility of free will.
Theories related to determinism, for example: linguistic, genetic, biological and environmental determinism, have been around for a few centuries. But it was until the Industrial Revolution that scholars and sociologists started noticing the implications of technology on society. Technological Determinism has been often dismissed in the past, but in the society of the present, it has a gained newfound accreditation with the introduction of modern technology.
In 1950, the great Canadian economic historian, Harold Innis, wrote a book titled “Empire and Communications”. Innis noted that “the subject of communications… occupies a crucial position in the organization and administration of government and in turn of empires and western civilization” Beneath his discourse on various world chapters, Innis concealed the basics of a model showing how different communications technologies have affected cultures.
In another of his famous works, “Bias of Communication”, Innis writes that each civilization that has developed across history takes its form from a “bias" created by the prevalence of a type of communication.
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) served on the faculty at Toronto with Harold Innis, and acknowledged Innis's contribution to his theory, but the two had little direct contact. McLuhan believed that the new electronic media have radically altered the way people think, feel, and act. He is probably best known for his phrase which he turned into the book title, “The Medium is the Massage” (now more widely quoted as the medium is the message).
His notion is that the message is greatly impacted by the system in which the message is delivered. What we say is of much lesser importance than how we choose to deliver it. His belief in technological determinism is obvious by his phrase, “we shape our tools and they in turn shape us".
It is Innis and especially Marshall who gave credence to the concept of technological determinism. It is perhaps the evolution of technology after the invention of the telegraph which is especially fitting to the argument of technological determinism. The 20th century had impacts on the societal structure with every new technological advancement that took place. The inventions of the telephone, followed by the radio, then the television, have made uncountable changes in the ways society interact. The rate at which technology evolved in the last century had far exceeded that of any century before it, and just as accordingly, the rate at which the society had changed in the last century was unprecedented.
Messages were distributed farther, faster, and with less effort. News was packaged differently, and had a new emphasis, as did popular entertainment. These developments were paralleled and influenced by a century-long transition to a predominantly industrial economy, with its accompanying urbanization. One result was the emergence of “mass society”. This same period also saw the bicycle, automobile, and airplane emerge as significant modes of transportation. The sense of space they fostered, coupled with the increased speed of railway and steamship travel, led to World Standard Time via the creation of time zones, further shifting cultural identification away from the immediate and local.
The above is the basis for the technological determinism argument. Its basis is in the belief that technology is at the root of our social change. When technology advances, society follows in its shadow.
Technological determinism is a controversial concept. There are those who agree with it, and those who strongly oppose it as well. Even amongst those who agree with it, their views on the concept vary greatly.
It is true that technological determinism is a dominant force that shapes and changes society. It can either be seen as a threat to our own free will, or it can be seen as a guiding tool that leads us to more effective ways of communicating. It is a force that cannot be overlooked.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to justify the insistence that technology or media is the fundamental factor which propels society. But it must be admitted that the evolvement of technology has widespread consequences which cannot be denied. Any technological change which is large enough is likely to produce some social change.
Technology is just one of the many mediating factors in human behavior and social change. In the face of the evidence which can be drawn from the past century, I am compelled to believe in the theory of technological determinism. But as mentioned, there are different modes of determinism for this theory, and it is the “Soft technological determinism” which makes the most sense to me. It is less extreme and allows the possibilities of other factors to determine the trend of the future. It is my belief that after technology has permeated every section of our society, other factors will play a much bigger role than technology in the influence of our society.
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