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

The Tone of Technological Determinism

Whatever the specific technological "revolution" may be, technological determinists present it as a dramatic and "inevitable" driving force, the "impact" of which will "lead to" deep and "far-reaching" "effects" or "consequences." This sort of language reflects an excited, prophetic tone which many people find inspiring and convincing but which alienates social scientists. Most famously, it pervades the writings of the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan (d. 1980) argued that communication technologies such as television, radio, printing and writing profoundly transformed society and "the human psyche." The technologies (or media) which he discussed in such books as The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media reflected his very broad use of the terms, making his famous claim that "the medium is the message" even more dramatic. Such broad claims are open to the criticism of "reification" (treating the referent as if it were a single, undifferentiated object).

Technological determinism is, of course, particularly widespread at present with regard to computers and the Internet. Many enthusiastic users of such technologies drift unquestioningly into the assumptions of technological determinism. In its pessimistic form (as in the writings of Jacques Ellul), technological determinism involves a sort of conspiracy thesis in which "technology" (or a particular technology) is seen as a totally autonomous entity with a will of its own. In its optimistic form (as in the propaganda of countless technophiles) it involves a naive faith in "progress" (and in those initiating technological change). Either way, extreme forms of technological determinism have been criticized for leaving us feeling politically helpless, suiting the purposes of those with real power in society by performing the conservative function of preserving the socio-political status quo. --

[ []Monberg comments on the claims made about information technology. []Kling describes the assumptions underlying stories about computerization. ]

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