Thursday, December 24, 2020

Technological Determinism

Social scientists and social historians are naturally keen to produce explanations for social phenomena. Event B happened because of A.

Sometimes the explanation involves some form of technology. Lewis Mumford traced the start of the Industrial Revolution to the invention of the mechanical clock, while Marshall McLuhan talks about the great medieval invention of typography that was the take-off moment into the new spaces of the modern world McLuhan 1962 p 79.

These explanations are sometimes read as implying some form of technological determinism. For example, many people read McLuhan as a technological determinist.

McLuhan furnished [the tech industry] with a narrative of historical inevitability, a technological determinism that they could call on to negate the consequences of their inventions - if it was fated to happen anyway, is it really their fault?
Daub 2020 pp 47-48

Although sometimes McLuhan claimed the opposite. After Peter Drucker had sought an explanation for the basic change in attitudes, beliefs, and values that had released the Technological Revolution, McLuhan's 1964 book set out to answer this question.

Far from being deterministic, however, the present study will, it is hoped, elucidate a principal factor in social change which may lead to a genuine increase of human autonomy.
McLuhan 1962 p 3

As McLuhan has said, there is no inevitability so long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.
Postman Weingartner 1969 p 20

Raymond Williams saw McLuhan's stance as 

an apparently sophisticated technological determinism which has the significant effect of indicating a social and cultural determinism: a determinism, that is to say, which ratifies the society and culture we now have, and especially its most powerful internal directions.
Williams, second edition p 120

Neil Postman himself made some statements that were much more clearly deterministic. 

Once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do.
Postman 1992

But causal explanation doesn't always mean inevitability. Explanations in history and the social sciences often have to be understood in terms of tendencies, probabilities and propensities, other-things-being-equal.

There is also a common belief that technological change is irreversible. A good counter-example to this is Japan's reversion to the sword between 1543 and 1879, as documented by Noel Perrin. What's interesting about this example is that it shows that technology reversal is possible under certain sociopolitical conditions, and also that these conditions are quite rare.

What is rather more common is for sociopolitical forces to inhibit the adoption of technology in the first place. In my article on Productivity, I borrowed the example of continuous-aim firing from E.E. Morison. This innovation was initially resisted by the Navy hierarchy (both UK and US), despite tests demonstrating a massive improvement in firing accuracy, at least in part because it would have disrupted the established power relations and social structure on board ship.

Evolution or Revolution?

How to characterize the two examples of technology change I mentioned at the beginning of this post - the mechanical clock and moveable type? It is important to remember that this isn't about the invention of clocks and printing, since these technologies were known across the ancient world from China to Egypt, but about significant improvements to these technologies, which made them more readily available to more people. It was these improvements that made other social changes possible.

Technologists are keen to take the credit for the positive effects of their innovations, while denying responsibility for any negative effects. The narrative of technological determinism plays into this, suggesting that the negative effects were somehow inevitable, and there was therefore little point in resisting them.

The tech industry ... likes to imbue the changes it yields with the character of natural law.
Daub 2020 p 5

If new tech is natural, then surely it is foolish for individual consumers to resist it. The rhetoric of early adopters and late adopters suggests that the former are somehow superior to the latter. Why bother with old fashioned electricity meters or doorbells, if you can afford smart technology? Are you some kind of technophobe or luddite or what?

What's wrong with the idea of technological determinism is not that it is true or false, but that it misrepresents the relationship between technology and society, as if they were two separate domains exerting gravitational force on each other. In my work on technology adoption, I used to talk about technology-in-use. Recent writing on the philosophy of technology (especially Stiegler and his followers) refer to this as pharmacological, using the term in its ancient Greek sense rather than referring specifically to the drug industry. If you want to think of technology as a drug that alters its users' perception of reality, then perhaps it's not such a leap from the drug industry to the tech industry.

But the word alters isn't right here, because it implies the existence of some unaltered reality prior to technology. As Stiegler and others make clear, there is no reality prior to technology: our reality and our selves have always been part of a sociotechnical world. 

Donna Harraway sees determinism as a discourse (in the Foucauldian sense) rather than as a theory of power and control.

Technological determination is only one ideological space opened up by the reconceptions of machine and organism as coded texts through which we engage in the play of ·writing and reading the world.

As Rob Safer notes,

Human history for Haraway isn’t a rigid procession of cause determining effect, but a process of becoming that depends upon human history’s conception of itself, via the medium of myth.

Finally, one of the best arguments against technological determinism is presented by Andrew Feenberg, who provides examples to show the tremendous flexibility of the technical system. It is not rigidly constraining but, on the contrary, can adapt to a variety of social demands.


Adrian Daub, What Tech Calls Thinking (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2020) 

Andrew Feenberg, Subversive Rationalization: Technology, Power, Democracy (Inquiry 35, 1992, pp 301-22)

Donna Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto (Socialist Review, 1985)

Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (University of Toronto Press, 1962) 

E.E. Morison, Men Machine and Modern Times (MIT Press, 1966)

Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (London: Routledge, 1934)

John Durham Peters, “You Mean My Whole Fallacy Is Wrong”: On Technological Determinism  (Representations 140 (1): 10–26.  November 2017)

Noel Perrin, Giving up the gun (New Yorker, 13 November 1965), Giving up the gun (David R Godine, 1988)

Neil Postman, Technolopoly: the surrender of culture to technology (Knopf, 1992)

Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Delacorte 1969) page references to Penguin 1971 edition

Jacob Riley, Technological Determinism, Control, and Education: Neil Postman and Bernard Stiegler (1 October 2013)

Federica Russo, Digital Technologies, Ethical Questions, and the Need of an Informational Framework  (Philosophy and Technology volume 31, pages 655–667, November 2018)

Rob Safer, Haraway’s Theory of History in the Cyborg Manifesto (16 March 2015)

Richard Veryard, Demanding Higher Productivity (data processing 28/7, September 1986)

Raymond Williams, Television, Technology and Cultural Form (Routledge, 1974, 1990)

Related posts: Smart Guns (May 2014), The Social Dilemma (December 2020)

1 comment:

  1. I just happened to read N.N. Taleb and McLuhan at the same time, and this left me thinking that a mere "willingness to contemplate what is happening" is pretty much worthless vis-a-vis charting a future course of action. It is less a question of "determinism" per se, rather it all depends on the quality of the information you have. "Event B happened because of A" is a difficult enough proposition even with great hindsight. "Event B happened, now what?" is a whole other kettle of fish. In McLuhan's case, though he is a brilliant retrospective thinker, I question his equanimity in such matters. His "ecological" view of the tech landscape itself portends great difficulties in the forecasting department, as he himself (inconsistently again) observed: e.g. "the exhortation to "think for yourself" is, in these circumstances, a cause of discouragement only." (Mechanical Bride, 144) But this seems to be an outlier statement from him.

    As for tech people reading McLuhan selectively, let them take note that his guiding literary analogy in The Mechanical Bride is Poe's Maelstrom.