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?

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26 thoughts on “The Very Exciting Topic of Technological Determinism: Is Technology Controlling You?

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  1. You pretty much know by now how I feel about technologies! Today’s blog pretty much says it all. But the classic n this topic is Jacques Ellul’s “Technological Imperative.” It was written in the 1950s and he warned then about our tendencies to become too attached to our own inventions and convinced they will set us free when in fact the opposite is almost certainly the case.

    1. Yes, we read an excerpt of Ellul’s work for this class as well, and I was going to mention how his work connects to some of this, but I thought that nobody would know (or care) who he is. I was wrong, and I should’ve known that you would know Ellul! He’s fantastic.

  2. In many ways, the modern “myth of the machine” has placed a crown of moral authority upon the head of technology. As Neil Postman suggests in Technopoly, the paradigm we now struggle with has at its core the premise that “technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment.” As you say, it is a “way to control”, but I see no gender bias – its appetite is far too voracious for that!
    Thank you for a great article.
    James.

    1. Thanks for reading! I think you’re right about gender bias. Sure, some technologies are used “against” women (like with the medicalization of childbirth and the history of the forceps), but there are other technologies that affect men as well. It’s probably not something that can be measured, how many technologies affect men vs. affect women. But I did like Williams’s essay for my comp exams, since my cognate area is women and gender studies. I’ll have to look into Technopoly!

  3. This is a thought provoking post. I have a lot of jumbled thoughts about this and will definitely be checking out this book to learn more about it as it interests me regarding the similarities of technological determinism and religious determinism. Personally, I am slow to embrace technology but I recognize the necessity and usefulness of many kinds of tech. I do feel technology separates us from nature but I think the bigger issue is that technology changes time, at least in the sense of the moment of “now.” Technology is always ahead of now and everything we do with technology seems purposed to place us to the future of now. My many devices actually cause me stress, they wear out my eyes, wrists, and neck, and leave me always behind, always missing right now, always trying to catch up. I tend to put away all of my devices as often as possible to the point that my friends have drudged up the term Luddite to describe my perceived anti-tech habits. But I’m not actually anti-tech, I just limit my participation to preserve my sense of nature and time.

    1. What you say about technology’s impact on our perception of time is profound. I really like that idea. I am currently struggling with the psychological effects of technology. I don’t think it is healthy for me to know what goes on in the heads of all of the people I have ever met on Facebook. It is just too much! And it messes with time, too. Shouldn’t I be removed from people by years and different experiences? But social media seems to erase a lot of that. I feel like I can’t escape!

  4. Emily, this is well done and I love the comments. You throw a nice party. I feel we become enslaved to technology and don’t realize what it does to us. It does not liberate, but lengthens the chain to work. If you let it, you are never off work. That is presposterous. A Change Communication consultant told me “we are too connected.” We need to unplug, otherwise we will burn out. I totally concur with this. Well done Emily!!! BTG

  5. A friend of mine did his doctorate on these very concepts, specifically the relationship between man’s understanding of humanity, man’s understanding of machines, and man’s understanding of himself as a human-techno hybrid (otherwise known as cyborg theory…). He has a wordpress blog called Anthropo-eccentrism, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

  6. Reblogged this on ryan j price and commented:
    Emily, a fellow PhD student at USU, wrote this insightful post about the first book that we read in the course. Her research looks at the mommy blogging communities through a feminist lens (sorry that I can’t give a more detailed description!).

  7. Just this week, my AP Literature class has been discussing technology and its effects on society. We are reading Grapes of Wrath, and so much of the novel is about the creation of machines to take over farming jobs and the repercussions thereof. Great post!

    1. Now I really want to read The Grapes of Wrath again! It has been so long, and I would love to look at it through this new lens that I have. Thanks for the reminder of such a great book!

  8. Well, I have to agree with Turgot. Technology is revolution and ultimately key to survival. Take a very much underrated technology: waste water systems. Everyone needs to take a shit but they don’t want to deal with it once they do, so they throw it out the window. Black plaque ensues and then comes a paradigm shift. Let’s put it in pipes and direct it toward our rivers and creeks.Down stream, animal and fish kill occurs. Fisherman are out of work and must resort to looking further down stream for edible food. Paradigm shift, lets treat it before we release it…you get the idea. Every society experiences paradigm shifts not because its a “masculine stonghold” but because it is how we are designed. Our ability to organize, optimize and collectively manage ourselves as a society is certainly revolutionary and at the same time embedded in us as humans. Since we’re talking theories, that’s mine least. Also, I think when people hear “technology” most assume computers and cell phones…I hope this helped. Liked the post!

  9. Great post. John Gray’s “Straw Dogs” takes a very interesting approach to the subject of technology and human development. It’s a darkly pessimistic read but certainly a stimulating one.

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