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Determinism, Technological

Determinism, Technological

BIBLIOGRAPHY

From a social-science perspective, technological determinism can be an exasperating concept. Its underlying premisethat technological invention and development are independent causal factors driving change in human historyreduces 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 agencythe power to effect change autonomouslyto technology itself, and to the institutions and structures built to facilitate it. Soft determinists still treat technology as a locus of historical agencyoperating within a complex economic, political, and sociocultural matrixbut, 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, Elluls 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 Heilbroners classic essay on technologys central role in societys historical development, Do Machines Make History? (1994), and Raymond Williamss 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.

SEE ALSO Change, Technological; Forces of Production

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

Douglas Bicket

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technological determinism

technological determinism A theory of social change, characteristically one of evolutionary progress or development, in which productive technique obeys a logic or trajectory of its own; and, in the process, acts as the principal determinant of institutions and social relationships. Since literal technological determinism is clearly untrue, most such theories also invoke a cultural lag between the introduction of a technology, and its full social impact. It should not be confused or equated with historical materialism. See also CULTURAL MATERIALISM.

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Georgia Institute of Technology

Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta, Ga.; coeducational; state supported; chartered 1885, opened 1888. It is a member school in the university system of Georgia. Significant among its facilities and programs are the Frank H. Neely Nuclear Research Center and the School of Information and Computer Sciences.

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