For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This concept is drawn from Newton’s third law of motion (action and reaction)—and the idea that everything we do can echo and affect everything around us is not a new one. In the technology realm, this concept is known as technological determinism.
With constant waves of technological innovation knocking at the front door, it is hard to ignore the very notion that these advances can impact society with unforeseen social consequences. Understanding potential outcomes requires a closer look at technological determinism itself.
What Is Technological Determinism?
Technological determinism is a theory in sociology that points to technology as not just the driving force of society but also the instigator of its development. Considered by many theorists—including European philosopher Karl Marx—as the defining characteristic of modern society, the concept was first brought forth by American social scientist Thorstein Veblen.
A Walk Through History
Technological determinism is a form of reductionist theory that can be traced back to the core workings of Thorstein Veblen, a sociologist and economist who lived from 1857 until 1929. Thorstein Veblen’s ideas were backed up by those of historian Charles Beard, who stated, “Technology marches in seven-league boots from one ruthless, revolutionary conquest to another, tearing down old factories and industries, flinging up new processes with terrifying rapidity.”
Karl Marx took this concept a step further, arguing that productive technology can fundamentally influence humans’ social relations and organizational structures, changing the idea of humanity all at once.
In summation, Marx and individuals like Veblen believed that technology could drive humanity forward, ushering in a new phase in human history with each alteration.
How Does Technological Determinism Impact Our Society?
To say that the impact of technology is not society-altering would be inane. Karl Marx and other theorists believed that technological determinism infiltrates the way we connect, calling to mind the social construction of technology.
In 1994, historian Merritt Roe Smith wrote, “Technology decides history.” The following examples demonstrate that concept, helping better piece together how technological determinism in practice has shaped our society.
At its core, technological determinism understands that technology influences the ways we act and behave. Here are a few real-life instances of technological advances whose technological development changed the world:
- Wheels – One of the easiest ways to exhibit how technology can sway the makeup of society is by discussing the wheel. The wheel was invented to revolutionize human mobility, allowing us to travel great distances while carrying many items at the same time. This simple invention paved the way for global travel and commerce, determining the very way our history unfolded.
- Cars – Marshall McLuhan wrote the book Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, in which he proposes that “media” extends beyond merely content to be consumed; rather, a physical “medium” can also have profound impacts on human behavior and interaction. The automobile is one life-sized example of technological determinism as it led to the creation of roads and the structural paving of the world.
- Guns – If bows and arrows were the equalizer in ancient Europe, then guns were the 19th-century innovation that fundamentally changed humanity around the globe. Guns became a crucial part of wartime planning as well as a significant symbol in politics and society to this day.
- Cameras – With the first camera developed in the 19th century, it is remarkable how far the technology has come. From infinite video content streaming across countless digital platforms to the ability to simply capture life as it passes by, cameras play a pivotal role in our present day-to-day.
The Role of Media in Shaping Technological Determinism
The role that media has played in shaping society is one argument, but another is to be had regarding its role in technological determinism.
Fiercely debated since the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan was integral to the argument that the media and its corresponding technologies are used to interject ourselves into our environments. McLuhan reasoned that the alphabet and printing press both extended the strength of human vision while giving rise to nationalism and centralized modes of governance.
Additionally, we can see the impact of technological determinism when utilized under the auspices of current media. Social media platforms—X (formerly Twitter) in particular—forces users to share their thoughts limited to fewer than 300 characters. On this same note, the notion of “cancel culture” derived from a so-called mob mentality on social media could certainly be part of the conversation surrounding modern tech determinism.
Technological Determinism in Education and the Workplace
Technology has fundamentally shaped our lifestyle, and its impacts on human behavior can be echoed in the workplace and education. For instance, innovations in science have spawned technologies that affect and often improve our lives.
Thorstein Veblen looked at the social construction of technology and saw how it would influence education. From the printing press and its impact on handwritten books to the advent of the internet and its impact on online classes and video-based learning, technology has played a pivotal role in the formation of society as we know it.
We can even see how technological determinism is changing our working environments. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed technology to create new methods of connection when lockdowns were in effect, which has had a butterfly effect on the work-from-home realm.
Technological Determinism vs. Social Shaping of Technology
Technology and society go together hand in hand. But in academic circles, the evolution of both has professionals arguing over which affects the other more.
Technological determinism posits that because of technology, people, culture, and economics will grow and evolve as a consequence. As McLuhan stated, “Media technologies impact us, change our perception, and ultimately change our world.”
On the other hand, the social construction of technology suggests that tech changes are the result of cultural impacts on society. Put more plainly, the social shaping position argues that people create technology to induce change, not the other way around.
In reality, there is always a mutual relationship at least somewhat between both technology and users that goes both ways. Ambiguous attributes and forces can lead to behavioral outcomes demonstrating positive change—which may be guided by the technology itself or the humans influencing and interacting with it.
Ethical Dimension of Technological Determinism
Technological determinism is a powerful perspective that proposes technology holds authority and influence, independent of the intention or control of the humans in charge of it. Technological advancements can drive change and shape the world within which we interact with one another.
There is also an ethical component to technological determinism to analyze, as the margins of progress always leave shadows where problems reside. Critics of technological determinism present several ethical arguments against its concepts, including:
- Reduced human agency – By the nature of its definition, technological determinism disputes the agency of the human in charge, overlooking the role of society and individuals in the development of tech.
- Simplification of social dynamics – Tech determinism oversimplifies complex dynamics within social settings, attributing most change solely to technological factors. Tech determinism disregards many social dynamics.
- Neutrality of technology – Critics of tech determinism argue that technology is not innately neutral. That is to say, some technology can be detrimental, of minimal value, and lead to negative outcomes.
Moral Implications of Technological Progress
The moral implications of technical advancements have been discussed since the Industrial Revolution. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote extensively on the impact of technology on the fantastical world of Middle Earth, and those concerns are no less pressing in real life.
The ethical and moral implications of technological progress are hard to nail down in today’s ever-changing landscape. Of course, technological advancements can lead to reduced illnesses, wider availability of food and resources, and improvements in quality of life.
However, critics of technological determinism may argue that not all tech progress is good progress. Job displacement, environmental impacts, and human misuse of technology are all ever-present moral concerns for some.
Criticisms and Counterarguments Against Technological Determinism
There has and will likely always be a debate over the best ways to understand technology and humanity as well as the ways that they influence each other. While technological determinism has gained ground among many leading thinkers, it has detractors in many corners of the world, too.
Criticisms of technological determinism largely focus on the disdain the theory has for society and its impact on the human condition. As studies continue to mount, more scholars are looking at how technology and society weave together to create overarching change in the world.
Further criticisms and arguments against technological determinism include:
- Class and power struggles – Technological advancements are primarily concentrated and distributed at the top of the financial class structure. This leaves tech determinism in the unenviable position of contributing to class struggle and social inequity.
- Environmental impact – Technological developments aren’t always innately bad for the environment, but in recent history, a considerable number have trended in that direction.
- Lack of transparency – Technological determinism is criticized by many philosophers because it underscores a lack of transparency and accountability that is not mirrored in social constructivism (which, conversely, suggests our reality is created by individuals and society through social interactions, cultural norms, and shared beliefs).
The Nuanced Perspective of Technological Determinism
Ultimately, technological determinism is a reductionist theory that paints technology as the driving force of development in human society. Tech determinism goes further to argue that society is defined by the advancements in technology that humanity makes.
To better understand a nuanced society through the lens of technological determinism requires us to strike a proper balance in examining how technology changes and shapes our behavior (and vice-versa). Global leaders and industry pioneers should consider how technology is affecting society to make decisions and legislation that influence it positively.
Like the chicken-and-egg metaphor, technological determinism will remain fiercely debated among adherents to social constructivism.
Our Future With Technological Determinism
Though technological determinism may be a notion mainly relegated to conversations in classrooms, the real-world outcome of the theory will impact our lives for years to come. Technological determinism may shape not only our lives but also the decisions we make for the foreseeable future.
To learn more about technological determinism, interested parties can turn to Johnson & Wales University College of Professional Studies and the Bachelor of Science – Computer Science degree.