Technological Determinism

Technological determinism is a reductionist theory that presumes that a society’s technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values. The term is believed to have been coined by Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929), an American sociologist. The most radical technological determinist in the United States in the twentieth century was most likely Clarence Ayres who was a follower of Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey. William Ogburn was also known for his radical technological determinism.

The first major elaboration of technological determinism came from the German philosopher and economist Karl Marx, whose theoretical framework was based upon the idea that changes in technology and productive technology are the primary influence on the organization of social relations, and that social relations and cultural practices ultimately revolve around the technological and economic base of a society. Marx’s position has become embedded in contemporary society, where the idea that fast-changing technologies alter human lives is all-pervasive.

Technological determinism seeks to show technical developments, media, or technology as a whole, as the key mover in history and social change.

Most interpretations of technological determinism share two general ideas:

  • that the development of technology itself follows a predictable, traceable path largely beyond cultural or political influence, and
  • that technology in turn has “effects” on societies that are inherent, rather than socially conditioned or produced because that society organizes itself to support and further develop a technology once it has been introduced.

Strict adherents to technological determinism do not believe the influence of technology differs based on how much a technology is or can be used. Instead of considering technology as part of a larger spectrum of human activity, technological determinism sees technology as the basis for all human activity.

Technological determinism has been summarized as ‘The belief in technology as a key governing force in society …’ (Merritt Roe Smith). ‘The idea that technological development determines social change …’ (Bruce Bimber). It changes the way people think and how they interact with others and can be described as ‘…a three-word logical proposition: “Technology determines history”‘ (Rosalind Williams) . It is, ‘… the belief that social progress is driven by technological innovation, which in turn follows an “inevitable” course.’ (Michael L. Smith). This ‘idea of progress’ or ‘doctrine of progress’ is centralised around the idea that social problems can be solved by technological advancement, and this is the way that society moves forward. Technological determinists believe that “‘You can’t stop progress’, implying that we are unable to control technology” (Lelia Green). This suggests that we are somewhat powerless and society allows technology to drive social changes because, “societies fail to be aware of the alternatives to the values embedded in it [technology]” (Merritt Roe Smith).

Technological determinism has been defined as an approach that identifies technology, or technological advances, as the central causal element in processes of social change (Croteau and Hoynes). As a technology is stabilized, its design tends to dictate users’ behaviors, consequently diminishing human agency. This stance however ignores the social and cultural circumstances in which the technology was developed.

In examining determinism Hard determinism can be contrasted with Soft Determinism. Hard determinists would view technology as developing independent from social concerns. They would say that technology creates a set of powerful forces acting to regulate our social activity and its meaning. Soft Determinism, as the name suggests, is a more passive view of the way technology interacts with socio-political situations. Soft determinists still subscribe to the fact that technology is the guiding force in our evolution, but would maintain that we have a chance to make decisions regarding the outcomes of a situation. This is not to say that free will exists but it is the possibility for us to roll the dice and see what the outcome is.

In opposition to technological determinism are those who subscribe to the belief of social determinism and postmodernism. Social determinists believe that social circumstances alone select which technologies are adopted, with the result that no technology can be considered “inevitable” solely on its own merits. Postmodernists take another view, suggesting that what is right or wrong is dependent on circumstance. They believe technological change can have implications on the past, present and future.

Media determinism is a form of technological determinism, a philosophical and sociological position which posits the power of the media to impact society.  Two foundational media determinists are the Canadian scholars Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. One of the best examples of technological determinism in media theory is Marshall McLuhan’s theory “the medium is the message” and the ideas of his mentor Harold Adams Innis. Both these Canadian theorists saw the media as the essence of civilization. The association of different media with particular mental consequences by McLuhan and others can be seen as related to technological determinism. It is this variety of determinism that is referred to as media determinism. According to McLuhan, there is an association between communications media/technology and language; for McLuhan, media is a more powerful and explicit determinant than is the more general concept of language. McLuhan was not necessarily a hard determinist. As a more moderate version of media determinism, he proposed that our use of particular media may have subtle influences on us, but more importantly, it is the social context of use that is crucial. Media determinism is a form of the popular dominant theory of the relationship between technology and society. In a determinist view, technology takes on an active life of its own and is seen be as a driver of social phenomena. Innis believed that the social, cultural, political, and economic developments of each historical period can be related directly to the technology of the means of mass communication of that period. With regard to communications media, audience determinism is a viewpoint opposed to media determinism. Instead of media being presented as doing things to people; the stress is on the way people do things with media. Individuals need to be aware that the term “deterministic” is a negative one for many social scientists and modern sociologists; in particular they often use the word as a term of abuse.


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