Despite the term originating sometime in the mid-20th century, Technological Determinism is fast becoming a hot button topic in futurist and philosophical circles, for obvious reasons. The first 2 decades of the 21st century saw human society make exponential gains in terms of technological achievement. In fact, the leap in technology we’ve had from 2000 to 2020 is exponentially more than the leap in tech from, say, 1940 to 1960.
But despite being timely, Technological Determinism in and of itself is a controversial issue, with social science and organizational studies going up at arms at what they feel is technological overblown or underrated impact on society. In this article, we talk about Technological Determinism, what it is, and why people can’t seem to stop arguing about it.
What is Technological Determinism?
At its most basic, Technological Determinism is the notion that technology has a profound effect on both the lives of the individual and the entire human experience as a whole. Seems simple enough, but Technological Determinism takes it a step further and claims that technology is what determines (hence the name) the course of social development.
The Debates Surrounding Technological Determinism
Of course, this ruffled the feathers of social scientists, who claim that it’s the other way around: technology is in itself socially determined, and that while both have an impact on each other, society and technology evolve separately in non-deterministic and emergent processes.
And, of course, that rustles the jimmies of technologists and futurists, who stand firm in the notion that it is, in fact, the development of technology that determines the future course of society, e.g. the creation of the steam engine gave birth to the industrial era, the invention of the internet gave rise to the 21st century, and so on and so forth.
Naturally, the debate surrounding Technological Determinism rages on, with both critics and proponents doubling down on their stances. Meanwhile, new technologies are created, proliferated, and utilized under modern capitalism.
There is, however, no debate (and, indeed, neither should there be) that technology has both informed and impacted changes in the socio-economic superstructures that dominate society: the steam engine and the industrial age also transitioned us from late feudalism to early capitalism, while the rise of the internet and the digital age is ushering us into a more socialist, people-first age of development. For many who embrace technological determinism, technology is the only way for humanity to free itself from the shackles of physical labor and the prisons of human physical fragility. Meanwhile, critics claim that, while technology can and does help society, the machinations of capitalism is trapping the majority of society in an endless, causal loop of alienation that profits only the oligarchy.
It is the latter position that dominates much of the conversations regarding technological determinism. This position holds technology as part and parcel of human evolution, both in the physical and socio-economic sense, which means that tech not only has power, it has a lot of power. Analysts in this school of thought propose that certain political and economic ideologies, like capitalism, can (and have) pushed innovations in technological development, but have failed to put in the necessary framework to ensure it benefits the majority of society.
This school of thought in technological determinism takes its cue from none other than Karl Marx, who sees the “forces of production” (i.e. worker’s capabilities made manifest, or augmented, by technology) as the underlying foundation of both the relations of production and the entire cultural-political framework of society. This means that, over time, the productivity (i.e. the overall output) of the forces of production will develop and change depending on the technology. Using this model, it’s possible to interpret the independence of technology and society from each other; however, Marx argues that, without proper social guidance, the development of technology can either be slowed down (or even reversed) or twisted in such a way that it does not benefit society as a whole.
On the other hand, the school of organizational studies tends to see technological determinism as a powerful force that drives interactions on both the macro and micro level. Organizational scholars have consistently highlighted the role of technology in both shaping and influencing organizational structure in what is called the “contingency theory”, although that theory in itself is subject of debate. The contingency theory sees transaction cost economics –a theory that proposes how an organizational structure can operate at maximum efficiency only if it can find ways to minimize transactional costs –as a perfect example of how technological determinism can guide macro-economics because of asset specificity and the role technology has in lowering the cost of transactional experiences.
On the personal level, technological determinism is also discussed in behavioral and social psychology, wherein researchers study the positive and negative effects technology has on both the psychological functioning of an individual and interpersonal relations on a community scale.
And finally, there are two main talking points that are hotly debated when it comes to technological determinism: one school of thought posits that technological determinism in the purest sense (i.e. technology is what informs society) is an eventuality given a long enough time frame and a broad enough aggregate. Meanwhile, critics of technological determinism argue that technological determinism is restricted only to a localized population in a horizon of a short period of time.
Technological Determinism: What is it Good For?
The discussion of technological determinism is not purely an academic endeavor: as discussed, theorists from Karl Marx to Oliver Williamson have all seen technological determinism as both a function and result of societal development. Indeed, social structures have informed certain features of technology, but at what point –and, more importantly, what economic ideology –does technology become the sole reason for a change in the societal zeitgeist? How does technological determinism explain prolonged periods of technological regression, both in the past and in the modern era?
There is also the question of whether technological determinism, by virtue of its name and ideology, implies an inevitability in structural and organizational changes to society. If that’s the case, does it mean that technological development is solely for its own sake? What, then, is the role of technology per se?
These are the questions we need to ask ourselves every time a tech billionaire decides to go to space. Yes, they’ve created commercially-available space flight, but for what? And more importantly, how does it help society as a whole?