Masthead CMC Magazine / February 1, 1996
  Shaping and Being Shaped, by Daniel Chandler

Attitudes Toward the Potency of Technology

Attitudes towards technological potency are inextricable from the debate over "technological neutrality" (see Winner 1977, Bowers 1988). Some critics of determinism argue that the tools themselves are "neutral"--for them bias can arise only from the ways in which tools are used, not from the tools themselves (remember the folklore saying, "it's a bad worker who blames the tools"). It is doubtful, of course, that anyone would dispute that bias may arise in the process of use, but determinists of various hues argue that particular technologies or media themselves embody (or dispose users towards) biases of various kinds.

Although I'd distance myself from hard determinism I do feel that there is some truth in a more moderate stance, at least on the level of the regular use of particular kinds of tools by individuals. In my own view, it is a mistake to regard any tools as "general-purpose" or "content-free": all tools and media--from language to the computer--embody basic biases towards one kind of use or mode of experience rather than another. The word processor, for instance, may seem to be "content-free", but it embodies someone's idea of what writing is, and its use may sometimes involve a degree of compromise [a theme I have treated at length in a recent book, The Act of Writing (1995)]. As someone once said, when you are holding a hammer the whole world can look like a nail, and giving a twist to a remark by Neil Postman, one might fruitfully speculate as to what the world might look like to someone regularly using the Internet (though I'd stress the need for an explicit comparison with some other mode of experience).

My argument is that all media give shape to experience, and they do so in part through their --selectivity.

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