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.
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...
References: Bimber, Bruce. 1990. Karl Marx and the Three Faces of Technological Determinism. Social Studies of Science. 20(2): 333-351
Fischer, Claude S. 1992. America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940. University of California Press, Los Angeles
Keeris, Eva, Shenja van der Graaf and Yuichi Washida
Marx, Leo and Merritt Roe Smith. 1994. Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge, United States
McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. 1967. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Bantam Books, New York
Simpson, Lorenzo Charles
White, Leslie A. 1949. The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization. Farrar, Straus. New York
Winston, Brian. 1998. Media Technology and Society: A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet. Routledge, New York
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