Technological or Media Determinism

Daniel Chandler


Associated with technological determinism is reification. To reify is to 'thingify': to treat an abstraction as a material thing. What is 'Technology'? Reifying 'Technology' involves treating it as if it were a single material thing with a homogeneous, undifferentiated character. This notion can be seen as a kind of 'essentialism'. In common and academic usage, the word 'technology' is variously used to refer to tools, instruments, machines, organizations, media, methods, techniques and systems. And as Jonathan Benthall notes, 'virtually any one of a wide range of technical innovations can stand symbolically for the whole of technology... The symbolic field of technologies is interconnected' (Benthall 1976, p. 22).

The problem is that it is easy to slip into generalizations about 'Technology'. Philosophers such as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger treated technology as a monolithic phenomenon. And Jacques Ellul, a French sociologist, adopted the even broader umbrella of 'technique', by which he referred to 'the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency... in every field of human activity' (Ellul 1964, p. v). The linking of computers with other technologies is also making it increasingly difficult to make clear distinctions between different media.

Technology is often seen as a whole which is more than the sum of its parts, or various manifestations. However, as Seymour Melman observes 'there is no machine in general' (1972, p. 59). Similarly, the umbrella term 'mass communication' covers a multitude of very different media. And even categories such as 'writing', 'print', 'literacy', 'television' or 'the computer' encompass considerable diversity. Referring loosely to such abstract categories is hazardous. Some technologies may also be less determining than others; the flexibility or 'openness' of tools varies. And of course a technology cannot be cut off as a separate thing from specific contexts of use: technology has many manifestations in different social contexts. A single technology can serve many quite different purposes.

Reification is a difficult charge to avoid, since any use of linguistic categorization (including words such as 'society' or 'culture') could be said to involve reification. Theorizing about technology and society is full of reification, quite apart from these two key terms. Reification is involved when we divide human experience into 'spheres' variously tagged as 'social', 'cultural', 'educational', 'political', 'ideological', 'philosophical', 'religious', 'legal', 'industrial', 'economic', 'scientific' or 'technological'. If such separation proceeds beyond analytical convenience it also involves what is called structural autonomy, a theme which I will examine in a moment.

Lived experience is a seamless web, but academia in particular encourages specialists to indulge in reductionist interpretation. Structuralist sociological theories emphasize that social institutions interact as an inter-related system; none act as independent 'causes' (although theorists differ in the importance which they ascribe to particular factors). It is not adequate to suggest that what shapes technology is science, since science is also socially shaped, and technology also influences science (MacKenzie & Wajcman 1985, p. 8). Rather than being 'outside' society, technology is an inextricable part of it.

The debate over technology and society is typically polarized into an emphasis either on technological factors or on socio-cultural factors. Within this reificatory framework economic factors tend to be lumped either with technological ones or with socio-cultural ones. I should add that whilst reification is a strong criticism for materialist theorists, to other theorists who reject epistemological realism (which posits the purely objective existence of things in the world) reification is hardly meaningful as a criticism, since (as one's stance approaches epistemological idealism) things are what we make with words.

"The historical ascent of the so-called West, in fact limited to Britain and a handful of nations in Western Europe as well as their North American, and Australian offspring, is fundamentally linked to the technological superiority achieved during the two Industrial Revolutions. Nothing the cultural, scientific, political or military history of the world prior to the industrial revolution would explain such indisputable "Western" supremacy between the 1750s and the 1940s. China was a far superior culture for most of the pre-Renaissance period; the Muslim civilization dominated much of the Mediterranean and exerted significant influence in Africa and Asia throughout the modern age. Russia ruled in splendid isolation a vast expanse across East Europe and Asia. Technology, expressing specific social conditions, introduced a new historical path in the second half of the eighteenth century." - Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (NY: Blackwell, 2000), 34.
      Heaven only knows how much Castells was paid for this series of books (which runs three volumes and nearly 1500p.), but as an analysis of the current state of the world's 'Information Society' (as it used to be called, or the 'global village' before that, etc.), it suffers, first and foremost, from a completely non-objective approach to technological issues and history. Sweeping generalizations (as you can see) abound; not in and of itself a bad thing, but a bit much when you're tackling the 'historical ascent' (might as well call it 'national destiny', or 'evolutionary superiority') of the West. The book is much better when he leaves the theorizing aside and lets the facts speak for themselves: in 1993, ten countries accounted for 84% of global R&D and controlled 95% of the US patents registered. By the late 1990s, 1/5th of the world's people (living in the high income countries) had at their disposal 74% of the telephone lines and accounted for 93% of Internet users. (Tell that to the next e-biz goon who starts babbling about how 'inherently' democratic the Internet is.)
      However, he immediately plunges back into the broad conclusions again, stating "knowledge generation and technological capacity are key tools for competition between firms, organizations of all kinds, and, ultimately, countries. Thus, the geography of science and technology should have a major impact on the sites and networks of the global economy." Notice the immediate assumption of competition and economic comparison, as if knowledge had to be based on these principles, i.e. economic determinism (besides being analytically sloppy).
      Now, compare Castells rhetoric to that of Thomas Homer-Dixon, who wrote a similar work on the same subject in the same year (The Ingenuity Gap, NY: Knopf, 2000.) :
"Economic optimists usually dismiss any less upbeat assessments of humanity's prospects as little more than hand-wringing. Problems like global climate change or the social dislocations caused by markets might be serious, they concede, but they add that ever generations feels it lives on the cusp of chaos...this untempered faith in human ingenuity was often grounded in a partial and selective reality...about half the people on the planet - some three billion, all told - rely on agriculture for their main billion of these agriculturists are mainly subsistence farmers...over 1.2 billion lack access to clear drinking water; many are forced to walk kilometers to get what water they can find...many of us manage to ignore the contradiction these people present to our rosy worldview because we rarely see them or go to the places where they live." (30-31)
      The two authors use many of the same sources and statistics; they quote the same reports and organizations, they cite the same leading journals and newspapers. The difference between their conclusions, however, is vast.

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