Technodeterminism (or technological determinism for those who like to beat around the bush) speaks to how much technology influences social change1. What makes someone a technodeterminist? A simple explanation is that a technodeterminist believes that media and technology have an effect on us, and that that effect is somewhat inevitable2. Still, that sounds relatively innocuous. The problem with technodeterminism is that there are several ways to define it, each a little slipperier than the last. Thankfully, it has been broken down for us into three relatively succinct definitions3:

  • Normative Technodeterminism: When societal norms that advance technology are removed from ethical and political discourse, and when goals based on efficiency replace morals, technology can then be considered autonomous and deterministic. An example of this is might be if a military designed more and more dangerous weapons, without being under threat, simply because they were able to. This is also referred to as “hard” technodeterminism and is usually what people are referring to when they simply indicate “technodeterminism”.
  • Nomological Technodeterminism: This term can be used to describe a situation wherein society evolves by way of adapting to technological advances. For example, since cell phones have come into popular use, sending text messages (rather than actually placing a phone call) has become a socially sanctioned preferred method of communication. This can also be called “soft” technodeterminism.
  • Unintended Consequences: This model of technodeterminism mainly focuses on the idea that people cannot always know the precise outcomes of technological choices or advances. An example of this would be the invention of the car. Initially, society touted its many values, one of which was the fact that streets would actually be cleaner. Fewer horses also meant fewer horse apples on the streets. However, people were unaware that one day the emissions from automobiles would greatly threaten the environment.

Some people subscribe to the normative model of technodeterminism, but others refute its existence2, claiming that technology isn’t so much deterministic as it reflects ideas about who we are and what we want.

Technodeterminism can actually be a fairly dangerous way of thinking, especially when it comes to the myriad technological developments and changes we’re undergoing right now. The attitude of many engineers and technological innovators is that their work is exempt from having moral consequences4. This is all very reminiscent of the expression “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” And while, yes, someone must choose to pull the trigger, the technology does exist and the designer has some responsibility for what that technology is used for. Guns are an extreme example, but this lack of responsibility affects us even when its source seems harmless. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, for example, claimed that you don’t have to use Facebook if you don’t want to, when confronted with a question about Facebook’s deteriorating privacy policy4. In a sense, he’s right, but that doesn’t mean Facebook users don’t deserve to know how their private information is being used.

The idea itself becomes exceptionally problematic as soon as the term is used to claim that we’re helpless and have no power over technology or that technology paints everyone with the same brush, no matter their socioeconomic status, background, culture, or personality2. Hard or normative technodeterminism does not account for factors outside of technology’s supposed oppressive influence. Technology’s influence on society cannot be truly independent of social history, thus negating the idea of technodeterminism as an established truth5. The theory behind it is based in reductionism because it points to one sole cause for a phenomenon, rather than a plethora of factors that contribute to a result, which is a more holistic way of looking at technology’s impact on society6. Rather than being outside of society, technology is an inextricable part of it. It’s too simplistic to say that it’s science that shapes technology, because science is also influenced by society, and technology influences science7.

There is a disconnect between technodeterminism and reality since it is a theory or viewpoint rather than a universal truth, so it is difficult to say what exactly is in store for the future. However, if the attitudes of many in the media and technology industries remain unchanged, we may find ourselves in a world where technological advancement takes precedent over ethical regulations. When programmers, architects, and engineers are confronted with consequences of their actions, they fall back on technodeterminism as an excuse. Many are unclear about the scope of their social and political responsibilities4. Rarely do the technological innovators of the Web say that something “could” or “should” happen, but that it “will” happen4. Some Technology can’t solve every problem, though, and for that reason it cannot operate autonomously. While we’re living in an incredibly exciting time when almost anything seems possible, we must be cautious of progress for progress’s sake and consider the implicit consequences for our actions.

  1. Chandler 1
  2. Weinberger
  3. Bimber 82-86
  4. Pariser
  5. Bimber 95
  6. Chandler 4
  7. Chandler 7

One comment

  1. Really nice text and illustration!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: