Using Structuralism To Analyze People’s Views on Technological Determinism

Our discussion this week in class reminded me of the ideas of technological determinism. Last year I learned about, and explored, the interesting ideas of technological determinism in a research methods class and an art class.

In short, (according to wikipedia.com) technological determinism is a reductionist doctrine that a society’s technology determines its cultural values, social structure, or history. The social construction of technology is the opposing theory. It argues that technology does not determine human action, but that rather, human action shapes technology.

My personal opinion is that technology & culture are formed through a synthesis of these two opposing theories, by a social construction / technological determinist dialectic. This is my belief, but I was curious what most people think. A structural analysis of things said by everyday people and the media reveals that many people (perhaps subconsciously) subscribe to technological determinism.

Here are some examples:

  • Internet games are addictive and they ruin people’s social lives
  • Cell phones make people less social face to face
  • Information communication technology is making the world ‘flat’
  • Violent computer games make people violent
  • MySpace empowers online predators
  • Computer mediated communication is ruining people’s ability to spell

In these examples, and many others, people’s language appears to but the blame (or praise) on the technology, not the society that created it. Thus a very brief structuralist analysis of people’s language hints that many people subscribe to technological determinism. Or perhaps I am just not thinking of opposing examples.

So, what do you all think? Which philosophy do you agree with? Can you think of examples where people’s language seems to indicate technological determinism? How about examples people’s language seems to indicate a social construction technology? Is structuralism a good approach to analyzing people’s views on technological determinism?

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12 Responses to Using Structuralism To Analyze People’s Views on Technological Determinism

  1. davidroyer says:

    Disclaimer: The examples given above are just examples I have heard other people, or the media, say and I don’t nessecarily agree with them.

    Just making sure I don’t offend the hardcore gamers in the class 😉

  2. Dave Roedl says:

    I would have to agree that technological determinism is the dominant view held in society (at least according to my experience in the U.S.). My favorite example of is the common way that people speak about ‘technology’ in the abstract:
    “Technology is advancing rapidly. We must adapt and get on board, or else we will be left behind”

    The key implication of this statement is that technology is advancing, on its own, seemingly without human direction. That advance is in turn shaping the world, and the only choice we have as humans is to either learn enough about it to reap the benefits, or instead become alienated or victimized.

    Thinking about this it occurs to to me that this perspective is related to a close association between technology and science. The positivist view is that science reveals the truth of the world, and as a result humanity achieves progress. Perhaps because people think of science and technology as so closely related, they view technology as ‘true’ in the sense that it is inevitable, rather than the result of human choices.

  3. jimmypierce says:

    @Structuralist Dave and Hermeneutic Dave – Great thoughts and observations.

    1) I agree: I would describe my own working model of the relationship between technology and society as something very similar to the “social construction / technological determinist dialectic” you suggest. I don’t see any reason why determinism (of whatever flavor) isn’t how our world is ordered , but if our world is deterministic, it hasn’t yet determined that I will subscribe to this view!

    2) I disagree: I think you both bring up some really interesting examples of common language that suggests that people subscribe to technological determinism — however, I don’t necessarily agree that this is true. I’m going to guess that there are many more utterances of the form [people -or- society]–>[something] as there are those of the form [technology]–>[something]. It would be interesting to see some data on this, though (just think, in the future, technology will make this sort of analysis commonplace and trivially easy! -OR- just think, in the future, human advances in data gathering and analysis will allow us to easily analyze such things!)

    Another observation…all of your examples take the form

    [ubiquitous (new) technology] –> [something bad]

    It could also take the form

    “my” [technology] –> [something bad]

    For example, “My computer made me late — it kept crashing”.

    Could it be that people are more likely to blame bad things on technology, or other deterministic forces? Conversely, when it come to good consequences, we seem more than happy to take all the credit.

    HTML and personal computers didn’t create a billion web pages, people did. It is perhaps even more commonplace to find statements of the form “my” [technology]–>[something good]. People always want to show me badass powerpoints they created, but I rarely hear people say “My computer software created a badass Powerpoint presentation!” or even “My computer software allowed me to create a badass Powerpoint presentation!” Nope. I created it.

    Statements of the form [society]–>[something bad], or “me”–>[something bad] are also quite common, especially when we are suggesting that we can and should change or correct are mistakes. Humans are the likely culprit of global warming, not greenhouse gas emitting technology. I was responsible for missing my appointment, not the numerous technologies that both complicate and organize my life.

    I would argue that most people subscribe (consciously or otherwise) to either a view similar to the “social construction / technological determinist dialectic” you suggest, or more likely, people tend to switch views . I may subscribe to technological determinism when I want to complain about how kids are becoming more violent, and may want to subscribe to social construction when I talk about the new software interface I just designed for the ipod touch quiz program (for Marty’s class).

    Another thought…since common language does suggest people sometimes subscribe to technological determinism, it might be interesting to see how far back their causal reasoning would go….does the person who blames violence on video games blame digital technology for violent video games -or- video game designers? Is the oldest technology of all, language, the actual culprit of all the negative consequences of technology?

  4. davidroyer says:

    @ James – Some great points. I am glad you brought up that people change their wording depending on if it is a good thing or a bad thing. I think that is a very interesting insight.

    It seems as if structuralism is doing a decent job of helping us understand this.

    @ Dave – Yeah, I find it funny when people blame thing on technology in the abstract.

  5. Tyler Pace says:

    @ Royer – You made the videogame blacklist a long time ago. You’ve been warned about this behavior. There are repercussions for baseless video game slander! Have you seen what Mario koopa shell? Do you really want to go through that?!

  6. thismarty says:

    @tyler: don’t worry, I’ve already reported him.

  7. davidroyer says:

    @Tyler & Marty

    I re-installed Counterstrike this weekend and I love bubble bobble. Thats gotta count for something. Please guys, give me one more chance.

  8. thismarty says:

    @davidroyer: well, it’s a start. Still, I think you need some retrogame infusion treatment to get at the heart of the problem, just ot be safe. Play two games of Frogger and check back.

  9. @all: Awesome post, David, and outstanding subsequent discussion from everyone. This class blog is one of the best ideas I’ve ever, er, stolen from Shaowen.

  10. Dave Roedl says:

    @James, I like your suggestion that people tend to switch their way of talking about technology depending on the situation.

    However, to clarify, I didn’t mean my example to represent only negative statements about technology. I see this ‘inevitability of technological progress’ statement used for alarmist and utopian arguments alike. In fact, it may be more commonly and argument for technology. I think this paragraph from The Design Way, speaks to the same phenomenon:
    The motto of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, as Donald Norman (1993) reminds us, was: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” Scientific breakthroughs and the resultant applied technologies are treated as predestined realities for humans. A typical response to questions of what the future may look like is: “The technology is there, it will happen!” It is considered to be a matter of ‘trend destiny’.

  11. Tyler Pace says:

    @Royer

    You admitted to Bubble Bobble, that’s some serious gamer capital. I made it to level like ZZZZ114949494929.

  12. Pingback: The Machine Goes » Blog Archive » Using Structuralism To Analyze People’s Views on Technological Determinism

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