torek, 22. januar 2008

Technological Determinism and Digital Media

It's been a long time since my last post and I'm comming back on track... The last online session and essays of our class were on technological determinism. The theme resulted in several interesting essays. This one is mine...

"The development of the internet and its’ extremely rapid penetration in all aspects of human life implies the idea of technological determinism - the term, which is used to refer to the common assumption that new technologies are the primary cause of major social and historical changes. Working in an industry that offers internet services and being part of persuading customers that this is everything they need in this world for their life to be more efficient, fun, successful and simple… I often find myself believing in inevitability of the new media.

But is it really so? Is persuading people that living without digital media already part of the path to technological determinism? Is submitting technology really necessary? Will technology really result in a better life?

The frequent usage of the idea of technological determinism in advertising and other texts the primary purpose of which is persuasion was also noticed by Joseph Goguen who also sets the question “why this invalid form of argument is so common and so effective?”

Reading the texts on technological/media determinism and cyberspace it was obvious the theorists do quote Marshall McLuhan's media determinism, but do not use the theory of technological determinism as the theory that explains it all. In spite of that the feeling of inevitable process of the technologically oriented changes is at this very moment stronger than ever before. As Samuel Ebersole states “the speed at which the internet is growing prevents us from turning aside. One can not deny the millions of people who do believe in the Internet – people who have faith in the technology” (in Goguen)

One of the digital media that produced significant social change are blogs, wikis and other social media with user generated content. Blogs, wikis and the rise of user generated content represented the diminishing power of traditional media, which served merely the needs of the owners with service to the public only on the second place. The public questioned journalism and the truth presented by the journalists. At the same time they were powerless for not being able to be heard in traditional media.

The rise of new forms of media was a boost to the public. Blogs and wikis made the public possible to play an active role in collecting, publishing and disseminating the information and thereby overtaking the role that was once exclusively reserved for traditional media. Blogs and wikis gave public the possibility to regain the voice and also to represent the corrective mechanism for bad journalism. Social software and blogs represent digital media, which is based on technological innovation, but would wither away unless there was the right time, space and the social moment that enabled its’ flourishing.

That we can not apply Marshall McLuhan’s famous “The medium is the message” to blogs prove different uses and reactions on them in different countries – from liberal expression of thoughts in western countries to oppression and arresting of bloggers, like recently in China where a blogger was beaten to death in attempt to take a picture.

So neither theory on technological determinism, nor social determinism can fully explain the rise of blogs and other social media. Technology, social reality and many other factors (we may never know entirely) influence each other.

What is the cause and what is the effect of the technological development discusses Raymond Williams (Williams, 1974) He highly criticized the technological determinist school of thought and argued against it throughout the book. He argues that technology can not be isolated from the surrounding political, cultural and economic environment.“For if the medium is the cause, all other causes, all that men see as history, are at once reduced to the effects. What are elsewhere seen as effect, are excluded as irrelevant by comparison with the direct physiological effects of media as such.” He emphasizes the importance of the question whether it is “… reasonable to describe any technology as a cause, and in what relations with other kind of causes.” He continues: “If the technology is a cause, we can at best modify or seek to control its effects. Or if technology, as used, is an effect, to what other kinds of cause and other kinds of action, should we refer and relate our experience of its uses?”

Technology is never just technical but is a combination of what is possible in a time and what is desirable in a certain socio-historic context. Because we have become accustomed to live with and inside techno-social systems, we tend to forget that they are man-made and contingent. Because they have shaped our milieu for such a long time, we see them as a sort of second nature.So do we take part in blogs, wikis, social media for technological or social reasons? That brings us back to the question on advertising or to reformulate – can we artificially create social environment for our technological innovation? Can social environment also be a kind of technological innovation? According to Langdon Winner (in Ebersole) “those who had the power to introduce a new technology, also had the power to create a consumer class to use the technology, with new practices, relationships, and identities supplanting the old." Later he wrote, "those who had the wherewithal to implement new technologies often molded society to match the needs of emerging technologies and organizations."

Joseph Goguen,Media determinism in Cyberspace

Daniel Chandler, Technological or Media Determinism. Available at:

Basic definitions, Regent University,

Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, eds., Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994. Reviewed by Brian Martin, Technological Determinism Revisited;

Langdon Winner, Technology today: utopia or dystopia? - Technology and the Rest of Culture

Williams, Raymond (1975): Television: Technology and Cultural Form. London: Routlege

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