Tag Archives: social determinism

A Map of Typical Positions on Technology and Culture

In this post, I want to step back a bit from historical details in order to do some broad-stroke theory. I want to build a map for you that should help give you some orientation when wading into various writing on the technology and culture relationship. Those of you who study this all the time will probably find this post a bit of a review, and if that’s the case, feel free to skip it. But if you tend to find yourself getting more and more perplexed when reading conflicting perspectives on technology, this post should help you get your bearings.

Let’s start our map by laying out a spectrum on the horizontal axis.

Whenever an author theorizes the technology and culture relationship, that author must deal with one of the most basic questions in the field: in what direction do the influences flow? That is, does technology “impact” culture, does culture shape technology, or do both happen simultaneously? How an author answers this question can be plotted on this spectrum.

At one extreme is the position of technological determinism. People who ascribe to this believe that technologies impact an adopting culture culture in a kind of one-way, deterministic relationship. Technologies are seen as a powerful, non-neutral forces that carry with them moral consequences, and produce deterministic effects. Extreme technological determinists also tend to think of technology as an autonomous force that actually guides and determines its own development. As one of my professors used to say, a strong technological determinist believes that once someone invents the techniques for radar, it’s really only a matter of time before we get the microwavable burrito.

On the other extreme is the position of social determinism, which is sometimes called instrumentalism by philosophers of technology. Extreme social determinists see technologies as completely neutral artifacts that can be used for good or for evil depending on the desires of the adopting individual or culture. This kind of position is wonderfully summarized using that well-known motto of the National Handgun and Rifle Association (NHRA): “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

I’ve portrayed these positions as extreme ends of a spectrum because it’s important to realize that very few authors subscribe to either of these positions wholeheartedly. Some certainly lean farther to one side or the other, but we should avoid labeling any author as being strictly a technological determinist or a social determinist. Most sit somewhere in between the extremes, which leads us to that position at the center: the social-shaping perspective.

The social-shaping of technology (SST) perspective acknowledges what is obviously true about both of the more extreme positions: technologies certainly do affect an adopting culture in significant ways; but historical cases also show quite clearly that engineers and adopting cultures play important roles in reshaping those technologies to better fit with their existing social values. SST sees technology and culture as “mutually constitutive,” (MacKenzie & Wajcman 1999) each creating and shaping the other. In other words, “guns don’t kill people, but they sure make it a heck of a lot easier.”

To complete our map, we need to add a vertical dimension to our existing horizontal one:

This vertical axis represents the moral attitude an author takes towards technological change. At one extreme is techno-optimism, a belief that our technologies are making the world a better place. In its most extreme forms, techno-optimists elevate technology to the position of savoir, the ultimate tool with which we can save ourselves and create a utopia on earth. This position is excited about the possibilities of new technologies and says “full steam ahead” to any and all technological development.

At the other extreme is techno-pessimism, a position that sees technology not as a savoir, but as a destroyer. Techno-pessimists think that technology is making the world a worse place, and that it might just end up killing us all (think nuclear holocaust, genetic engineering gone awry, sentient robots that turn against us, etc). This position tends to pine for the simpler days before industrialization, and is sympathetic towards  Romanticism.

As with the other axis, this is of course a spectrum and most authors situate themselves somewhere in between the two extremes. At the very middle is a position I’ve called “double-edged sword.” This position argues that every technological change brings with it a wide array of consequences, some of which can be considered ‘good’, others ‘bad’, depending on your perspective. The costs and benefits of an innovation are never equally distributed in a given society, so whether you think a given technology is making the world better or worse largely depends on whether you received more of its benefits and less of its costs, or vice-versa.

Putting it all together, we get a map that looks something like this:

Most critics of technology (Christian or secular) tend to sit somewhere in the lower-left quadrant. They lean towards technological determinism, and they are generally pessimistic about future technological change. Jacques Ellul seems the most pessimistic to me—his book The Technological Society is almost fatalistic. Neil Postman is closer to the double-edged sword position, but he is still overall more pessimistic than optimistic. Marshall McLuhan is an unapologetic technological determinist, but he is far less pessimistic than other Christian critics.

In the upper-left quadrant we find people like Ray Kurzweil, who is extremely excited about the potential for a full human-machine integration. His belief in the inevitability of the “singularity” puts him on the technological determinist side, but unlike McLuhan or Ellul, he sees technology as a potential savoir of humanity.

At the extreme corner of the upper-right quadrant would be the NHRA sentiment I discussed earlier. The Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) position is probably the most social determinist theory I know of, but it takes a very neutral view on whether technology is making the world better or worse. The Social Shaping of Technology (SST) position is on there twice because the first edition of MacKenzie & Wajcman’s book in 1985 was far more social determinist than their second edition in 1999, which took a much more balanced tone.

Interestingly, I don’t know yet of any author that would fit into the lower-right quadrant, probably because those who lean towards social determinism rarely have an overly pessimistic view of technology.

Does this help you navigate your way around the various positions you may have encountered? Where would you place your favorite authors on this map?