Has Technology Moulded Modern Society? Essay

There is no denying that technologies have come to play a central role in today’s highly mediated society. This is a society which has undergone major transformations in the space of a few hundred years whilst certain technologies have flourished and become a part of the social fabric. These technologies, which include print, television, radio, telephony and the internet, are so pervasive in modern society that it may be easy to think that they themselves are responsible for transforming society.

This philosophy can be linked to a broader theoretical underpinning known as technological determinism, which is essentially the understanding that technologies are the primary cause of the changes society has undergone and is to undergo. However despite its popularity, anthropologists should reject the technologically deterministic approach to media for a number of reasons. Namely that it reifies ‘technology’, treats it as a force free from societal influence when in fact it is entirely a social creation and that it uses simplified mono-causal explanations to explain complex social phenomena.

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Technological determinism is a theory within the social sciences whereby its adherents subscribe to a model of social change that is determined by technologies. Bimber (1990: 338) states there is some confusion over what actually constitutes technological determinism with the work of some sociologists being incorrectly regarded as such. For Bimber the two key tenets of technological determinism are that ‘technology’ progresses in a linear sequence free from cultural, political and social influence and also that “social structures evolve by adapting to technological change” (Bimber 1990: 338).

Interpretations of society which do not share these characteristics cannot be labelled as technological determinism. Yet despite this, actual technological determinism is still pervasive within the public culture and academia. The role of the mechanic arts as the imitating agent of change pervades the received popular version of modern history. It is embodied in a series of exemplary episodes, or mini-fables, with a simple yet highly plausible before-and-after narrative structure (Marx and Smith 1994: x).

Media determinism, a subset of technological determinism which deals with the way media technologies affect society, rose to prominence in the middle of the 20th century. As media technologies have come to play an integral role in peoples live this approach has become a popular method for explaining the changes in human society (Keeris, van der Graaf and Washida 2007: 292). Renowned media determinist Marshall McLuhan (1964: 15) argued that the “the medium is the message”. What he meant by this is that the social consequence of any given technology is not a result of the content ascribed to it by people but rather, of the medium itself.

The medium, or process, of our time – electric technology is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. It is forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted (McLuhan 1967: 8). The social structures of today are seen as having been, and are continuing to be, determined by media technologies; print and then radio, the telephone, the television and computers. Yet despite its prominence, there are a number of faults with media and technological determinism.

A major flaw which can be found within the discourse of technological determinism is the process of reification of ‘technology’ itself. ‘Technology’ is treated as “a single material thing with a homogeneous, undifferentiated character” (Chandler 2000: 7). It is instead an abstract “constellation of knowledge, processes, skills and products” (Simpson 1995: 16). To treat it is a monolithic machine is to discount the various types of technologies that are being lumped together and the differing roles that these technologies play in individual cultures.

One only has to look at the essentially different social functions of television, radio, print and the internet in cultures all across the world to see this. This leads into the next issue which is the assumption in technological determinism that “technological change comes from outside society as part of an autonomous scientific development and that application of a device follows straightforwardly from its instrumental logic” (Fischer 1992: 8). The problem with this is that when the process of technological development is analysed in depth it is hard to abstract it from social influence.

The scientists conceptualising necessary fundamental understandings are as much social beings, exponents of and prisoners of the culture that produced them, as are the technologists who have ideas for devices and prototypes (Wintson 1998: 5). Indeed, at any time during the life-cycle of any given technology, social forces are acting upon it, suppressing it or pushing it forward. The technological determinist’s account of how technologies develop and are adopted by society is simply incorrect.

Brian Winston (1998: 11) identifies that all media technologies have gone through a similar evolution which can be traced in overlapping stages. Initially there is the stage of science and ideation which is continually evolving. From this, prototypes of the technology are then developed. Depending upon if there is a social necessity for the technology, it will then enter into the invention phase, where the prototype is perfected for that specific necessity. This then leads to the next stage which is the diffusion of the technology in society and the marketplace.

However, during this period the radical potential of the technology to disrupt pre-existing social norms and institutions is suppressed. Constraints operate to slow the rate of diffusion so that the social fabric in general can absorb the new machine and essential formations such as business entities and other institutions can be protected and preserved (Winston 1998: 11). Then as the technology grows it may spin-off into other technologies and the cycle will continue.

Winston (1998: 19-29) demonstrates this model with the example of Samuel Morse’s telegraph which was ‘invented’ in 1837. The science of using magnetism and electricity to send signals along metal wires had been around since the early 18th century and a number of prototypes were constructed. Yet there was no social necessity for the technology and the prototypes were rejected by the established institutions. However, the arrival of single-track railways in the 19th century prompted the need for a long-distance signalling system and Morse’s form of the telegraph was adopted.

Its potential application for uses in other areas led to its diffusion. Yet it was suppressed somewhat by governmental institutions in an attempt to limit its potential to disrupt. Eventually it contributed to the development of other technologies such as telephony, the facsimile and television (Winston 1998: 19-29). Not just with the development of the telegraph but with all technologies, social forces play a role in either progressing or stalling the development, and then adoption by society, of the technology.

Society’s relationship with technologies is much more complex than it is envisioned by technological determinists. The crux of technological deterministic accounts is the focus on simplistic and mono-causal explanations for what are in essence, complex social phenomena. White (1949: 366) offers a clear example of this fallacy. We may view a cultural system as a series of three horizontal strata: the technological layer on the bottom, the philosophical on the top, the sociological stratum in between… The technological system is basic and primary.

Social systems are functions of technologies; and philosophies express technological forces and reflect social systems. The technological factor is therefore the determinant of a cultural system as a whole (White 1949: 366). To White, ‘technology’ is the key determinant force; it alone determines society and there is no consideration of the fact that societal forces may impact ‘technology’ nor that it is itself a product of society. On top of this, it does not take into account the influence of non-technological forces on society.

We have to think of determination not as a single force, or a single abstraction of forces, but as a process in which real determining factors – the distribution of power or of capital, social and physical inheritance, relations of scale and size between groups – set limits and exert pressures, but neither wholly control nor wholly predict the outcome of complex activity within or at these limits, and under or against these pressures (Williams 1974: 133). Here Williams is challenging the notion that societal change can be attributed to just one cause, ‘technology’.

This represents the biggest problem with technological determinism. To simply say that ‘technology’ is the sole cause of the monumental transformations that society has gone through is to discount the huge array of other factors which have had an immense impact. Despite the fact that the technological deterministic interpretation of social phenomena is popular within academia and especially within the public culture, there are a number of faults associated with it. The first has to do with the understanding of the nature of technologies and their elationship with society. ‘Technology’ is seen as a collective entity which is developed outside society and then, upon its introduction to society, social structures are altered around it. People are seen to have no agency over it and are powerless to these changes. However, at every stage in the life-cycle of any given technology social pressures are being exerted upon it. Technologies are entirely a product of societal forces. Finally, within technological determinism the focus is on ‘technology’ as being the sole driver for social change.

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