Technology and its role and influence on society is a fairly widely researched area. It’s certainly something I’ve been thinking about lately in relation to perceptions of colleagues about universities and scholarship. This prompted me to repost a piece on technological determinism; what it is, opposing theories, and it’s influence in current socio-technological thinking.
Technological determinists believe technology is the causal primary for social change, that technologies such as print or television have changed society itself. Technological determinists are essentially technocentrics, who consider society to be nothing without the tools we use. This is a reductionist view, a mono-causal theory of social change. In essence, it can be seen as a theory which opposes holism (which posits that there is no single cause for societal shift – “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”). Technological determinists consider machines to be autonomous; once switched on they can work independently. In such a way, technology is not directly controlled, and seems to have its own will. It can therefore change our “habits of mind” (Postman, 1983, p23), which in turn changes our society under the weight of its own momentum. Technology is an unstoppable force (technological imperative). Chandler (1995) explains how sometimes this leads us to anthropomorphise technology; either as entities which can fulfil human needs (technology as a benevolent servant of the human species) or as resistors to humans (not benevolent, but actively resistant).
What these notions of autonomy and anthropomorphism do not consider is the part the human plays, in terms of how we use technology and how the need for use comes about. As Carroll Pursell (in Chandler) puts it, “many modern “needs” are themselves inventions, the product of an economy that stimulates consumption so that it can make and market things for a profit” (Pursell 1994, p. 40). This is one of the key arguments against technological determinism, and posits that technology should be considered to be ‘neutral’, that what counts is the way we use it. Indeed, the theory of universalism further suggests that technology has different effects on society depending on how we use it, in what situations, and within what cultural groups. Chandler explains that in the 19th century, the pace of change was highly visible and led people to accord technology a strong link with economic growth. We know such growth often leads to rapid progress in society, and this may account somewhat for a dependence on technology. This is clearly not a sound basis for belief in technological determinism. The idea of a socio-technical concept, however, has gained more ground in the last thirty years as a way of understanding the interrelationship between humans and the technology (Ropohl, 1999).
Technology in teaching
Any discussion of technological determinism in relation to my own practice must inevitably prompt questions on whether our teaching methods are determined by our technology use or our technologies determine our teaching methods? This is where the socio-technical concept has more relevance for me as an educator in the field of digital technologies, since our use of technology here is, by necessity, more nuanced. This concept therefore appeals since it offers the potential of social and cultural change facilitated by, rather than driven by, digital technologies. This is an idea I intend to take forward.
Chandler, D. 1995. Technological or Media Determinism. Accessed via: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html
Ropohl, G. 1999. Philosophy of Socio-Technical Systems. Accessed via: http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v4_n3html/ROPOHL.html