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From a social-science perspective, technological determinism can be an exasperating concept. Its underlying premise—that technological invention and development are independent causal factors driving change in human history—reduces individuals, society, and culture to mere epiphenomena of a basic, autonomous force. Although the concept suggests that history is overdetermined, at least in its extreme form, the simplicity, tangibility, and rhetorical power of the central argument explains its popular impact. Yet the academic debate also remains lively, as the concept addresses fundamental questions about modern society.
In Does Technology Drive History? (1994), a key text tackling the concept, Merritt Smith and Leo Marx place the various approaches to technological determinism along a spectrum between the extremes of hard and soft determinism. Hard determinists assign agency—the power to effect change autonomously—to technology itself, and to the institutions and structures built to facilitate it. Soft determinists still treat technology as a locus of historical agency—operating within a complex economic, political, and sociocultural matrix—but, crucially, not as an autonomous locus.
Merritt Smith also focuses on three individuals whose work, he argues, is central to the debate: Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, and Langdon Winner. Of the three, Ellul’s position is perhaps the “hardest.” His characterization of “technological society” is almost as totalizing as it is pessimistic. It sees individual personal liberty as nearly impossible in the face of a fundamentally organized, rationalized, and autonomous world of machines, technological devices, and interlocking institutions and organizations created around them. Mumford and Winner both map out broadly similar scenarios for the emerging technological order, though both take “softer” approaches, finding arguments for some sort of human or cultural agency (albeit limited) within the dominant structure provided by technology. Add in Robert Heilbroner’s classic essay on technology’s central role in society’s historical development, “Do Machines Make History?” (1994), and Raymond Williams’s more humanistic call for technology to be treated as a symptom, rather than a cause, of social change, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1989), and the stage for the debate was set. And if participants rarely pushed their arguments to the extremes, they nevertheless have slugged it out over the extent to which technology determines, or is determined by, societal change.
The debate has flourished through works examining the role of technologies as varied as weaponry, agricultural implements, and industrial automation in effecting social change. A particularly fruitful topic of debate has been over the role of new information and communication technologies in society, which is closely related to economic studies of how post-Fordism and postindustrial changes have affected Western economies, particularly since the 1970s. The trend since the 1990s has been toward a harder approach to technological determinism under the guise of information theory. The rise of the Internet and satellite communication as a global force has brought back into vogue, both at the academic level and in the popular imagination, the writings of Marshall McLuhan, perhaps one of the most deterministic of all scholars. More recent academic expositions by Manuel Castells and others on the power of the Internet-driven, global network society have built on the ground laid by McLuhan, Daniel Bell, Alvin Toffler, Howard Rheingold, and even Jean Baudrillard, all of whom have enjoyed a significant popular following, as well as scholarly fame.
- Heilbroner, Robert L. 1994. Do Machines Make History? In Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, ed. Merritt R. Smith and Leo Marx. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Smith, Merritt R., and Leo Marx, eds. 1994. Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Williams, Raymond. 1989. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. London: Routledge.
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