Technology is often seen as the engine of social change. But this ignores the cultural forces and changes that enable technological shifts, as well as the fact that technology is often used to preserve the status quo, rather than usher in change, argues Lelia Green.
We have just experienced one of the most significant social upheavals in living memory. The COVID-19 pandemic made us review everything we took for granted: personal freedoms, community engagement, work, leisure, shopping, travel. It struck at the heart of consumer society, and it demanded to be taken seriously. And we changed: quickly, and dramatically.
In the rich countries of the global north and its wealthy, educated, privileged outcrops, we have the luxury of looking back on the worst of the pandemic. There’s a sense that normal, pre-COVID, life is resuming, but the truth is we all experienced a huge cultural shift. Our societies changed, culturally, with unexpected speed. Some would argue that it was technology that enabled the cultural shift that COVID required, as well as our slow return to “normal life”. From the means of detection and diagnosis of the disease, through to treatment options and onto vaccines, the north’s technological advantages and its capacity for production at scale, were crucial. Digital connectivity outpaced lightning’s speed in creating new ways for people to connect in virtual groups; contactless shopping became a thing and didn’t blunt the desire to consume. But is technology really the driver that makes it all happen? With over thirty years as a student of the interplay of technology and society to draw on, I say: ‘no’. Technology is only ever a second-order factor; culture is always the key to change.
Making a technologically determinist statement, such as ‘Computers have changed the world’ misses the point that it was cultural forces at work in the world that resulted in computers.
SUGGESTED READINGAI won’t steal your job, just make it meaninglessBy JohnDanaher Back in the 1980s, like other researchers in those days, I had access to what we thought of as a state-of-the-art personal computer. The story of the PC can be seen as the paradigmatic case of a piece of technology changing culture forever. Alan Michael Sugar’s electronics trading company, Amstrad, which he set up in 1968, is usually pointed to as a key part of the story of how the computer became a consumer good. This narrative ties in with the myth of the brilliant visionary who changed the world by imagining an industrial machine as having domestic use. But beginning the story at the domestication of computing sidesteps the entire cultural zeitgeist that underpinned the information revolution. It ignores the shift in social and economic priorities which accompanied the huge investments in technology during and after the Second World War.
The political concerns of the late 40s and 50s directly funded a cold war arsenal and a space race between the USA and Russia. Together, these powers had defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but in doing so they had become suspicious of each other. Their cultural anxieties gave rise to an unprecedented scale of technological investment. With a growing experience of computing, and with knowledge of game-changing wartime interventions such as Alan Turing’s leadership in cracking the ENIGMA code, the US Department of Defense supported experiments to get huge, stand-alone computers, ‘talking’ to each other.
Within its first decade, the United States’ Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) had nurtured the social networks and the research priorities of the scientists who developed the prototype Internet. That was about the time that Alan Sugar, at 21, was setting up his consumer electronics company which, less than two decades later produced the machine I took with me when I emigrated to Australia. Making a technologically determinist statement, such as ‘Computers have changed the world’ misses the point that it was cultural forces at work in the world that resulted in computers.
It is culture that drives technological change and innovation. As societies, we get the technologies that our culture determines.
The same is true of the rise of England’s cities which powered the start of the industrial revolution, following the dislocation of people from the land. It’s possible to construct the ‘Enclosure Acts’ as the greediness of landowners intent on profiteering, but even the concept of ‘profit’ was comparatively novel at that time, with stock markets in their infancy and newspapers barely distinguishable from pamphleteering. Arguably, the growth of the city started with the failure of poor laws that kept people anchored to the parish of their birth. This social contract, where loyalty to a rural community meant cradle to grave security, broke down at the start of the sixteenth century, buckling under an estimated 40% explosion in population between 1485 and 1545. The fracture of the bond between a villager and their village sounded the death knell of feudalism, igniting the embers which led to the Enlightenment. These cultural shifts underpinned the social and political changes which were to follow, including the Agrarian and Industrial revolutions, and the establishment of Empire. There are technological dimensions to these cataclysms, but the technologies that resulted are the visible expression of shifts in culture.
SUGGESTED READINGHow technology will revolutionise relationshipsBy ElyakimKislev It is culture that drives technological change and innovation. As societies, we get the technologies that our culture – specifically the elite groups we support in our culture – determines. When I first began my work in this area, prior to the integration of the world wide web into every facet of the global north, I identified the three key drivers of technological change in terms of A, B and C.
A is for the Armed Forces: huge drivers of innovation, supported by taxpayers in democracies and by despots in totalitarian systems. (Or vice versa: often it is the army that supports the despot.) B is for Bureaucracy: the naming, numbering, assessing and sorting that starts soon after conception and ends long after death, impacting every facet of activity in between. I count the higher education and research sector as part of bureaucracy, since it is funded through the public purse and grades and assesses those who pass through it. C is for Corporate Power, those same engines of profit and advantage that developed the vaccines, masks and lateral flow tests we continue to consume post-peak pandemic.
As the internet became pervasive at the cusp of the millennium, I was able to identify additional cultural change-makers. Change was not, initially, in gender relations: the 1990s web was a famously misogynistic space; as was the Geek culture it spawned. But that culture was to power the D in my alphabet: D is for the Distributed Collective. I'm not talking about the Titans of Silicon Valley here: they're occupied with delivering for As', Bs', and Cs' tech agendas. I'm referring instead to the hive. They leave their day jobs -- teacher, bus driver, shelf stacker -- and return home for an invisible second shift: updating wikis, moderating chat rooms, refining open-source software. The Distributed Collective keeps the non-commercial internet functioning. It also allows for the crowdfunding of technology, uncoupling some technical advance from the military-industrial complex.
And once Myspace and Facebook got going, I could include an E: E is for Everyday Users as drivers for technological adoption and dissemination. These are the friends, relatives and thought leaders who encourage us to sign up for ‘just one more’ platform. The Ds and Es in my alphabet are often motivated to prove themselves against a technological challenge; by winning respect and the ‘ego boo’ of others’ regard. These are socio-emotional and cultural forces.
Transhumanist technology isn’t a recipe for changing society, it’s the recipe for the status quo.
But maybe there’s a different kind of hope on the horizon, one that also addresses our cultural (and very personal) fear of death. In the same way that I have lived through the dawn of modern computing, I have experienced, at a distance, the world’s first heart transplant, the ‘test tube baby’, the cloning of Dolly the sheep and the sequencing of the human genome. If Yuval Noah Harari’s vision of transhumanist tech translating itself into Homo Deus becomes anything approaching reality, it will not be a game-changer: it will be more of the same. The same rich, educated, privileged elites will power and then use posthumanist technologies to keep them living and functioning for as well and for as long as possible. Transhumanist technology isn’t a recipe for changing society, it’s the recipe for the status quo.
My decades of exploring the interactions between society and technology lead me to conclude that technology is an outcome of social and cultural forces; powerplays and imbalances that we all ignore or collude with to some extent or another. And while it is true that a technology such as the internet allows the emergence of social formations that wouldn’t be possible without it, those changes are the products of human decisions. The implications of this are both challenging and liberating since, to a large extent, our technologies are a visible expression of the out-workings of cultural dynamics.
We cannot rely on technology, or on governments, to change our future. We need to change our culture, and we are the engines of culture change.
The challenging first. COVID-19 was but the merest blip on the horizon compared to the cataclysm which is the global climate emergency, accelerating in velocity and force with every weather-based news event. We cannot rely on green hydrogen, or any other technological innovation, to save us. A technological fix is an excuse to continue business as usual: the game doesn’t change. That’s not to say we shouldn’t invest in climate mitigating technologies, locally, nationally and internationally: we should. It’s simply to acknowledge that no technological fix is going to change the future we have constructed for ourselves. Unless there is a cultural shift, far greater than the one brought into being with COVID, we will continue our self-defeating love affair with technology and consumption.
The liberating implication of the social construction of technology is the reverse of this. We cannot rely on technology, or on governments, to change our future. We need to change our culture, and we are the engines of culture change. The ways in which we act and interact socially constitutes culture, and our recent experience with COVID shows this is fundamentally malleable. We can do things differently. We need to do things differently. And if we don’t, technology can’t save us.
Why is technological determinism wrong? ›
Making a technologically determinist statement, such as 'Computers have changed the world' misses the point that it was cultural forces at work in the world that resulted in computers. It is culture that drives technological change and innovation. As societies, we get the technologies that our culture determines.Is technological determinism good or bad? ›
Determinism can appear on all levels, even the micro level. Thirdly, like its counterpart social/societal determinism, technological determinism is not necessarily a “bad” thing, but a natural result of design being a balance between what is societally desirable and technically possible.Is technological determinism true? ›
Unfortunately, this theory is false; if you think you have an instance, it probably means you are looking at just one part of a much more complex situation, and ignoring the complex social network that supports the technology. Social determinism is the theory that society is an autonomous force that changes technology.What counters technological determinism? ›
In opposition to technological determinism are those who subscribe to the belief of social determinism and postmodernism. Social determinists believe that social circumstances alone select which technologies are adopted, with the result that no technology can be considered "inevitable" solely on its own merits.What are some problems with determinism? ›
Critical Evaluation. Psychologists who take the free will view suggest that determinism removes freedom and dignity, and devalues human behavior. By creating general laws of behavior, deterministic psychology underestimates the uniqueness of human beings and their freedom to choose their own destiny.What is the problem with determinism? ›
Thus, determinism is incompatible with the idea that human beings are morally responsible agents. The practice of holding each other to be morally responsible agents doesn't make sense unless humans have incompatibilist free will—unless they could have chosen to do otherwise than they in fact did.How does technological determinism affect society? ›
Technological determinism argues that institutions, societies, culture and economics evolve because of developments in technology. Technology affects all people in all situations in the same way and at the same pace. In order words, technology shapes our society.What is the argument of technological determinism? ›
Technological determinism is the theory that a society's technology determines its cultural values, social structure, and history. According to the theory, social progress follows an inevitable course that is driven by technological innovation.What are the consequences of technological determinism? ›
Karl Marx believed that technological progress lead to newer ways of production in a society and this ultimately influenced the cultural, political and economic aspects of a society, thereby inevitably changing society itself.What is the best argument for determinism? ›
The mind does not so much experience cause as cause experience. Upon this basis the argument for determinism proceeds as follows: Like effects have like causes, the effect is like the cause, the effect is in fact the cause transformed, as the lightning is the effect of the preceding electrical conditions.
Does determinism allow for free will? ›
Determinism is incompatible with free will and moral responsibility because determinism is incompatible with the ability to do otherwise.Do scientists believe in determinism? ›
Determinism in nature has been shown, scientifically, to be false. There is no real debate about this among physicists. So the question as to whether determinism, if it really existed, would be compatible with free will is merely an academic question, an interesting bit of metaphysical speculation.What are the three faces of technological determinism? ›
I argue in this paper that three approaches to technological determinism are extant in the literature. I call these 'Norm-Based Accounts', 'Logical Sequence Accounts', and 'Unintended Consequences Accounts'. The first section of the paper outlines how these accounts differ, and what they have in common.Which of the following is the best example of technological determinism? ›
Answer: C - Believing that the internet will cause the breakdown of society is an example of technological determinism. Though it isn't always so bleak, technological determinism assumes that technological advances drive the rest of society. 1 Was this helpful?What is technological determinism in American culture? ›
Technological determinism affirms that changes in technology exert a greater influence on societies and processes than any other factor. One academic sees it as more important than international politics, maldistribution of wealth, gender or class differences, etc.Why is determinism a problem for free will? ›
Much of the philosophical interest in the free will/determinism problem is motivated by concerns about moral responsibility because, it is generally agreed, having free will is a necessary condition of being morally responsible. So if determinism precludes free will, it also precludes moral responsibility.Is environmental determinism wrong? ›
Environmental determinism has been widely criticized as a tool to legitimize colonialism, racism, and imperialism in Africa, The Americas, and Asia. Environmental determinism enabled geographers to scientifically justify the supremacy of white European races and the naturalness of imperialism.What is an argument against determinism? ›
The most common arguments against determinism seem to be the existence of free will or our ability of choice. That argument ignores the possibility that "free will" and "choice" are concepts that describe certain cognitive functions within a deterministic system.Do most people believe in determinism? ›
In the US, the majority did believe in free will (82.33%), and only a minority believed in determinism (30.77%).What is the main critique of technological determinism? ›
Chandler (2000) offers another criticism of technological determinism, which rests on the idea that determinism necessarily puts technology in a position of absolute power over society, and that this belief can lead people to feel helpless to change any perceived direction in which technology is driving society.
Does determinism mean we have no control? ›
Determinism is the view that free will is an illusion, and that our behaviour is governed by internal or external forces over which we have no control. Consequently, our behaviour is viewed as predictable. The causal laws of determinism form the basis of science.What is technological determinism and example? ›
Technological determinism is a theory focusing on the societal impact of technology. It posits that new technology directs and causes changes in society and culture. (Rather than society and culture directing new technology.) So, according to technological determinism, the smartphone comes before the need for it.What is technological determinism summary? ›
Technological Determinism state that media technology shapes how we as individuals in a society think, feel, act, and how are society operates as we move from one technological age to another (Tribal- Literate- Print- Electronic). Primary Article: Mcluhan, M. (1962).What is technological determinism essay? ›
By technological determinism, McLuhan refers to technology having the power to change societies and influence our cultures. In this essay I will argue that technology does have the power to change society and influence a civilization, using ideas put forward by Marshal McLuhan.What are 5 negative effects of technology? ›
- Depression and Other Mental Health Issues. A University of Michigan study found that Facebook use led to a decrease in happiness and overall life satisfaction. ...
- Lack of Sleep. ...
- ADHD. ...
- Obesity. ...
- Learning Barriers. ...
- Decreased Communication and Intimacy. ...
- Cyberbullying. ...
- Loss of Privacy.
Social media and mobile devices may lead to psychological and physical issues, such as eyestrain and difficulty focusing on important tasks. They may also contribute to more serious health conditions, such as depression. The overuse of technology may have a more significant impact on developing children and teenagers.What are 4 disadvantages of technology? ›
- increased dependency on technology.
- often large costs involved with using the latest technology (especially for small businesses)
- increased risk of job cuts.
- closure of high street stores in favour of online business.
- security risk in relation to data and fraud.
Determinism entails that, in a situation in which a person makes a certain decision or performs a certain action, it is impossible that he or she could have made any other decision or performed any other action. In other words, it is never true that people could have decided or acted otherwise than they actually did.What are common objections to determinism? ›
For most people, the strongest objection to hard determinism has always been the fact that when we choose to act in a certain way, it feels as if our choice is free: that is, it feels as if we are in control and exercising a power of self-determination.Is determinism accepted? ›
Physicists hated determinism, but it was accepted into the social sciences. The greatest problems about determinism emerged in modern physics, in particular the quantum mechanics. Various physicists have tried to dismiss determinism of physical interpretation and analysis.
Will determinism affects your choice? ›
Determinism entails that, in a situation in which people make a certain decision or perform a certain action, it is impossible that they could have made any other decision or performed any other action. In other words, it is never true that people could have decided or acted otherwise than they actually did.What is an example of determinism in real life? ›
Imagine a shot in snooker (or “pool” for you Americans). You hit the cue ball which then strikes another, and the movement of the balls is determined by the laws of physics. But once you've hit the ball, neither you or the balls have any say in which way things turn out!What is an example of determinism? ›
Determinism is the belief that all human behaviors flow from genetic or environmental factors that, once they have occurred, are very difficult or impossible to change. For example, a determinist might argue that a person's genes make him or her anxious.Does Christianity believe in determinism? ›
Theological determinism exists in a number of religions, including Jainism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is also supported by proponents of Classical pantheism such as the Stoics and Baruch Spinoza.Who supports determinism? ›
Supporters of environmental determinism often also support behavioral determinism. Key proponents of this notion have included Ellen Churchill Semple, Ellsworth Huntington, Thomas Griffith Taylor and possibly Jared Diamond, although his status as an environmental determinist is debated.Did Einstein believe in determinism? ›
Like Spinoza, Einstein was a strict determinist who believed that human behavior was completely determined by causal laws.What is the belief that technology will save us? ›
Technological utopianism (often called techno-utopianism or technoutopianism) is any ideology based on the premise that advances in science and technology could and should bring about a utopia, or at least help to fulfill one or another utopian ideal.What are the 4 types of determinism? ›
- Causal determinism.
- Theological determinism.
- Logical determinism.
Technological determinism is the belief that science and technology are autonomous and the main force for change in society. It is neither new nor particularly original but has become an immensely powerful and largely orthodox view of the nature of social change in highly industrialised societies.What are the examples of technological dimension? ›
Language, which is one of the important features of being human, belongs to the technological dimension (it is a tool). This goes along with communication aids such as radio, telephones, TV, books and typewriters (now computers).
Who came up with technological determinism? ›
The term 'technological determinism' was coined by Thorstein Veblen. Thorstein Veblen was an American economist and sociologist who was better known for conceiving the concepts of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure.What is the disadvantage of technological determinism? ›
Similarly, in workplaces, new technologies do not necessarily lead to innovation. Sometimes, they might stifle creativity or lead workers down the wrong path. Thus, technological determinism theory fails to understand the complex ways humans interact with technology.What is the criticism of technological determinism theory? ›
A critique of technological determinism is that technology never forces itself on members of the society. Man creates technology and chooses to use them. He invents television and chooses to view it.What are the critiques of technological determinism? ›
Critics of technological determinism argue that what counts more than technical features are social and political issues concerning: the circumstances of production, modes of use, values, purposes, skill, style, choice, control and access, or as Finnegan puts it, 'Who uses it, who controls it, what it is used for, how ...