Technological Determinism Research Paper

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‘Technological determinism’ refers to a pervasive, yet controversial, theory about the relationship between technology and society. Although the term has had a variety of meanings, two related claims have been central to discussions of this topic: (a) the development of technology proceeds in an autonomous manner, determined by an internal logic independent of social influence; and (b) technological change determines social change in a prescribed manner (Staudenmaier 1985, Misa 1988, Bimber 1994). The claims address two major questions about technology: how and why is technology developed and what is the relationship between technological change and social change? Arguments against the first claim have been a staple of research in the history and sociology of technology since the 1960s. The second claim has been at the center of debates about Karl Marx’s theory of history since the early twentieth century. Weaker versions of technological determinism, sometimes called ‘soft determinism,’ maintain that technology is a major cause, but not the sole determinant, of social change.

1. History Of The Concept

It is important to distinguish between widely held beliefs that an autonomous technology is the primary cause of social change and the use of the term ‘technological determinism.’ In the United States, the Enlightenment doctrine that improvements in the mechanic and industrial arts fostered social progress was replaced over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by a more technocratic concept of progress, in which improvements in technical and economic efficiency became ends in themselves, instead of the means for creating desired social ends. Through the writings of the economist and social theorist Thorstein Veblen and others, the word ‘technology’ gradually displaced phrases like ‘mechanic arts’ in scholarly and then popular discourse in the twentieth century. In this period, the older meaning of ‘technology’ as systematic knowledge of crafts and industry was joined to the anthropological one of the artifacts and related practices of a culture. The term’s connotations of abstractness and scientific objectivity served to reinforce the idea that technology was an autonomous social force.

These meanings entered popular culture through such media as utopian novels, exhibits at World’s fairs, the Technocracy movement in the 1930s, and company advertisements that endlessly touted new products as the cure for social ills and the source of all happiness. The organizers of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair encapsulated the gender biased, applied science aspect of technological determinism with the motto, ‘Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.’ Ironically, twentieth-century critics of technology’s harmful effects, such as technological unemployment and environmental degradation, have tended to reify the notion that technology is an autonomous agent of change in their attempts to control it (Smith 1994, Marx 1994).

The term ‘technological determinism’ is more recent, with roots in the turn-of-the century debates about Marx’s theory of history. While Europeans used the phrases ‘historical materialism’ and ‘economic determinism’ to describe Marx’s theory, many American social scientists employed the broader phrase, the ‘economic interpretation of history,’ popularized in a non-Marxist manner at the turn of the century by Edwin R. A. Seligman, editor-in-chief of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. Historian Werner Sombart in Germany and economist Alvin Hansen in the United States argued that Marx’s theory should more properly be called a ‘technological interpretation of history’ (a phrase which Hansen seems to have coined). Although many scholars questioned this view, prominent Soviet theorists established a ‘technicist’ version of historical materialism as the dominant interpretation in orthodox Marxism during the first half of the century (Bober 1927, MacKenzie 1984, Miller 1984).

During the early Cold War, social scientists and historians, who were increasingly concerned about how to control the effects technology apparently was having on daily life, began using the starker term, ‘technological determinism’ to criticize Marxist theories of technology and society. They also used the term to criticize the controversial views of such authors as Veblen, historian Lynn White, Jr, and the philosopher Jacques Ellul. White and Ellul said their views were not a strict determinism. Only a few authors, such as economist Robert Heilbroner (1967), have labeled their position a form of ‘technological determinism’ (soft determinism in Heilbroner’s case). Philosopher Langdon Winner criticized scholars for dismissing the issue of technology’s social effects because of the flaws in the concept of technological determinism. Saying that the ‘idea of determinism is not one that ought to be rejected out of hand,’ Winner argued that technology does constrain human activities (Winner 1977, p. 77).

By the mid-1970s, the issue of technological determinism had become a central topic in both Marxist scholarship and in the interdisciplinary study of science, technology, and society (Cohen 1978, Staudenmaier 1985). In the recent turn toward social constructivism in the latter field, the issue of technological determinism remains a focal point around which to criticize a theory of technology and society that is still prevalent in other disciplines and in popular culture.

2. Was Marx A Technological Determinist?

Recent scholarship is sharply divided about whether or not Karl Marx’s theory of history, the locus classicus of technological determinism, is, indeed, technological determinism. Much of the debate centers on the meaning of an often-quoted excerpt from the preface to Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859): humans enter into ‘relations of production [Produktionsverhaltnisse] which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces [Produktivkrafte]. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure [of society], the real basis on which arises a legal and political superstructure’ (quoted in Cohen 1978, p. 28).

Those who argue for a technological interpretation of Marx usually equate ‘forces of production’ with ‘technology’ and interpret the verb ‘correspond’ to mean that the relations of production evolve to maximize the productivity of the forces of production. William Shaw, who includes instruments, raw materials, and labor power (including knowledge) in the category of productive forces, calls Marx’s ‘technological determinism’ more properly a ‘productiveforce determinism.’ Shaw acknowledges that Marx allowed for interplay between forces and relations of production, but maintains that productive forces are the ‘long-run determinant of historical change’ (Shaw 1979, p. 160). Gerald Cohen defines productive forces in a similar, broad manner, but rejects the label of ‘technological determinism’ in favor of a ‘‘‘technological’’ interpretation of historical materialism.’ In this functionalist view, social structures adapt to technological change to increase productivity (Cohen 1978, p. 29).

Those who argue that Marx was not a technological determinist typically have concentrated on the manner in which he wrote history. Harry Braverman, Nathan Rosenberg, and Donald MacKenzie point to the dialectical aspects of Marx’s writings, especially where he attributed the development of productive forces to social relations. Indeed, MacKenzie characterizes Marx’s treatment of the history of machinery in the Industrial Revolution as an ‘attempt to develop a theory of the social causes of organizational and technical changes in the labor process’ (MacKenzie 1984, p. 492). Richard Miller argues that Marx was not a technological determinist because in his historical work, ‘economic structures do not endure because they provide maximum productivity. Productive forces do not develop autonomously. Change in productive forces, in the narrowly technological sense that excludes work relations, is not the basic source of change in society at large’ (Miller 1984, p. 188). Bruce Bimber, who defines technology narrowly as artifacts, argues that, for Marx, human characteristics of accumulation and self-expression drive the forces of production. Thus Marx was an economic, not a technological, determinist (Bimber 1994).

3. Varieties Of Technological Determinism

Bimber and Thomas Misa effectively analyze varieties of technological determinism. Bimber distinguishes between normative, nomological, and unintended-consequences accounts (Bimber 1994). Normative accounts, evident in the writings of such critics of technology as Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, and Jurgen Habermas, claim that society is relinquishing control over technology, or replacing political and ethical norms with those of the technologist’s goals of efficiency and productivity. Nomological accounts, such as that by Heilbroner (1967), evoke the two-part definition of technological determinism given above: technology develops autonomously according to an internal logic and forces a prescribed social change. In unintended consequences accounts (e.g., Winner 1977) technology produces unpredictable social change, a view that challenges determinism, but reinforces the idea that technology is out of control. Bimber argues that the term ‘technological determinism’ should be reserved for nomological accounts, which are the only ones that satisfy his strict definition of the term.

In his survey of scholarship about the relationship between technology and social change, Misa (1988) found that sweeping, macro-level accounts were more likely to be technologically determinist (using the two-part definition of the term) than micro-level accounts, which focused on specific practices. Philosophers, business historians, urban historians, and historians of physical sciences were generally more deterministic than technological historians and labor historians.

Another form of technological determinism is what Claude Fischer (1992) criticizes as the ‘impact-imprint’ model of technology. Rather than investigating how consumers use a technology, scholars assume that a technology’s capability (e.g., the ability of the telephone to enable people to talk at a distance) leads to a predictable ‘impact’ (e.g., new, long-distance communication patterns).

4. Political Artifacts And Systems

Winner and Thomas Hughes have proposed influential theories of technology and society that address the question of technological determinism. Winner (1986) argues that artifacts have politics (i.e., are associated with specific social changes) in two ways. Technologists can design a (plastic) artifact to promote a certain type of politics, as when Robert Moses built low bridges over the Long Island Expressway in order to prevent inner-city buses (carrying poor minorities) from traveling to Jones Beach. Secondly, the design and building of some systems seems to require a certain type of politics. Nuclear power plants, for example, require a centralized form of government to run the reactor and prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Hughes (1994) states that his concept of technological systems allows for the social construction of a system when it is young, but technological determinism comes into play once it is established and shapes society more than being shaped by society.

5. Social Construction Of Technology

The advent of the approach known as the social construction of technology (SCOT) in the mid-1980s (Pinch and Bijker 1987), along with a contextualist history of technology (Staudenmaier 1985), has challenged the technical aspect of technological determinism (the first part of the definition given above). Sociologists and historians of technology have published numerous case studies of the development of technologies that argue that their design was the outcome of negotiations between several social groups (such as inventors, engineers, managers, salespersons, and users), rather than the product of an internal, technical logic. When Winner (1993) and others criticized this approach for leaving out power relations among social groups, constructivists responded by investigating the social aspect of technological determinism (the second part of the definition). Bijker (1995) employed a semiotic version of Michel Foucault’s ‘micropolitics of power’ to show the mutual construction of artifacts and social groups. Ronald Kline and Trevor Pinch (1996) utilized theories of gender in the original SCOT approach to show how gender relations and the automobile were mutually constructed when farm men in the United States before World War II adapted the car, as a stationary and mobile source of power, to a variety of novel uses, such as grinding grain, washing clothes, and plowing fields. Fischer (1992) employed a similar user-heuristic to argue that callers in the United States used the telephone before 1940 to widen and deepen existing communication patterns, rather than to create new ones.

6. Conclusion

Although historians and sociologists of technology have discredited the tenet of technological determinism, so much so that it has become a critic’s term and a term of abuse in their academic circles, the idea that an autonomous technology drives social change pervades other fields of scholarship and popular culture. This is especially evident in discourses claiming that new information technologies have created an information society in the United States and Europe. It remains to be seen if this scholarship will overturn the widely held belief in forms of technological determinism.


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