The Very Exciting Topic of Technological Determinism: Is Technology Controlling You?

There’s an interesting connection between liberation and technology.  I am studying this idea in one of my classes this semester, and the attitude that technology can and will save us, or that it is somehow in charge, is called technological determinism.  This idea is closely connected to society and culture, which is why the term and the belief that technology has so much power or agency over us is hotly contested.

Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism (1994) is a collection of academic essays exploring technological determinism and trying to grapple with these conundrums.  Although the essays never come to a consensus or a clear answer to technology’s power and place in our lives, they do raise many valid points.

tech drive history cover

One that struck me is the unintended consequences of technology, an idea raised by Bruce Bimber.  We can use, invent, or praise a new gadget or system.  We can proclaim its power to change the world or our lives.  Yet we cannot be sure of all of its consequences, good and bad, until it is fully employed, and sometimes not until years later.  An example from the book is the nineteenth century idea of progress.  Technology was seen as deterministic, or as liberating and in charge of human fulfillment.  Technology has the power to prove we are a civilized society and that we are making progress.

This attitude is portrayed in several advertisements and paintings of the era.

tech drive history painting

This piece shows the power of the railroad, and its destiny to continue taming the prairie and going on into the distance forever.  There is an eternal power in this image, and it provokes a sense of human control over nature, human progress into the unknown, and prosperity for all people.  Yet when I saw this painting, I immediately focused on the smoke and could only see how much pollution it was emitting.  I could see the unintended consequences of this technology because I am so far removed from its inception and I am living in the consequences of it and that other technologies have produced.  However, a common attitude, which continues to be deterministic, is that we need even more technology to correct the problems originally caused by technology.

The book explores this power relationship and the fact that we still embrace technology as progress.  Where is the agency?  Who is in charge?  This attitude is problematic, which is why an entire book is devoted to defending and criticizing it academically, but it is also one we have been grappling with for years.  We can also see the danger in putting such faith in technology, especially when we read the frightening futuristic novels Brave New World or 1984.  These novels are attempts at dealing with progress and technology as perceived in those times.  They may seem exaggerated, but they illustrate the problem with believing that technology can and will save us.

One of my favorite essays from the book is by Rosalind Williams, who criticizes technological determinism because of the power, class, and gender issues that are often forgotten or dismissed.  She recognizes that “technology produces historical contradictions” (p. 221).  We often think of history as a technology-driven process (221), but socioeconomic factors are important too, and the way we define these terms matters.  She opposes technological determinism because it separates us from the spiritual and the natural.

She recounts several theorists interpretations of technology.  Anne Robert Jacques Turgot says that technology is revolution.  Thomas P. Hughes recognizes that technology may limit human agency and choices.  Many of these theories point to power as a guiding force behind technological production and consequences.  Lewis Mumford talks of technology in terms of being democratic and authoritarian.  He says that technological determinism is an illusion and that we can regain control by recognizing the myth of the machine.  Other critics try to understand motives behind determinative technologies.  Vaclav Havel says that society tries to address social problems by gaining more scientific knowledge and power to control.

From here, Williams examines gender in terms of determinism.  She points out that machines and technology have been created by and for men, and as a way to control.  Women are largely excluded, and technological determinism represents a masculine bias and perspective.  Many technological systems are life-denying.  This shows a bias toward producers rather than users.

She explores the debate among ecofeminists of whether or not women are validly associated with nature or if that is a social convention.  Is it a metaphor created by men to control women and “sacrifice” women to nature?  She concludes that nature is still a force but not independent.  We have not escaped from nature, but it has escaped from us.  She sees this new environment created by technology as determinative of human fate, not necessarily history.

Here are a few great quotes from Williams’s essay.

“Revolution is inevitable precisely because technology is largely out of human control” (223).

“The appeal to technology as a revolutionary force is therefore not particular to Marxism.  It is part of a comprehensive view of inevitable historical progress that emerged in the Enlightenment and still endures, though greatly weakened” (225).

“Human beings must come to value democracy over authority, multiplicity over centralization, personal life rather than impersonal systems” (231).

“[M]ale elites, in their prideful effort to deny the feminine role in bearing and sustaining life, have deliberately created life-denying technological systems” (232).

“[A]ny theory of technological determinism that assumes humanity’s triumph over natural necessity is plainly unrealistic and simplistic . . . Human imperialism is a fact. . . . Nature may still be a force, but it is no longer an independent one” (235).
How do you view your technologies?  Do you feel disconnected from nature? Are you addicted?  Is this attitude dangerous to you or just something to accept?