CSE 190B: Social and Ethical Issues in Information Technology

2. Technological Determinism

A very basic question for this course is: What counts as an explanation or a justification for an assertion (for issues in the relationship between society and technology)? In the absence of precise and explicitly articulated theories, so called folk theories, or cultural mythologies or myths, will come to dominate our thought; these are widely shared, implicit, unarticulated, and superficially plausible beliefs, which generally fall under the rubric of "common sense." Every culture, including our own, has such theories, which embody and help to transmit its values. The following are two examples of such theories:

  1. Technological determinism is the theory that technology is an autonomous force that changes society. This provides explanations for many changes that can be observed in society, and it has a very simple cause/effect form. Unfortunately, this theory is false; if you think you have an instance, it means you are looking at just one part of a much more complex situation, and ignoring the complex social network that supports the technology.
  2. Social determinism is the theory that society is an autonomous force that changes technology. This provides explanations for many changes that can be observed in technology, and it also has a very simple cause/effect form. It is the converse of technological determinism, and it is also 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 some of its significant technical aspects.
Here society does not refer just to individuals, but rather to collections of individuals that share values, amd are communicating and having effects as a group. So an effect of technology on an individual, or even on a set of individuals, could not be technological determinism, even if we could argue that that effect was inevitable and without any social context (which I claim will never be possible anyway). Similarly, social determinism cannot refer to the effects of individuals as mere individuals on technology.

It is important to notice how often, and how effectively, technological determinism is used in advertising and other texts (in this course, we will use the word "text' in the very general sense of any communicative object in any medium - e.g., it could refer to TV commercials, cartoons, or stop signs) the primary purpose of which is persuasion. This is easily observed in technology advertisements in newspapers, magazines, and TV. It is interesting to ask why this invalid form of argument is so common and so effective. We will address this below, especially in Section 3.1 of the class lecture notes. Of course, the fact that a false theory is commonly used for persuasion is a significant moral issue.

Both technical and social determinism come in hard and soft forms, where the "soft" form only claims that this is one influence among many, and not an absolute determinant. The hard forms claim that the force is dominant and irresistible. Let's look at two simple examples:

The first of these has the form of hard technological determinism, while the second has the form of soft technological determinism, because the verb "help" implies that there may be other causal factors.

A myth that is closely related to technological determinism is that technological progress is inevitable, and inevitably leads to social progress. Most of us know that this is not really true, but we still have somehow internalized it. Of course, technology has continued to evolve for a long time, but whether its results can always be called progress is open to debate, in several different ways. One problem is defining progress. But if we look at specific cases, most of us can probably agree about the outcomes. It is all too easy to think of examples where technology has had positive outcomes, so let's consider some cases where the outcome is (most likely agreed to be) negative.

Weapons have certainly evolved enormously over the last few centuries. But are their effects on human society positive? For an extreme case, imagine that each adult human has a hydrogen bomb, with detonator built into their hand (or mouth or whatever); most of us probably get mad enough occasionally that we might actually use such a weapon to get rid of someone who really annoys us, even though it also gets rid of us and a few million others at the same time. Are the availability of handguns, laser sights, silencers, assult rifles, Uzzi's, AK-47's, the ease of making chemical and biological weapons, etc., really contributing to the general health and happiness of humanity? (I recently read that the ongoing development of lighter weight automatic weapons has made it possible for younger and younger children to participate in warfare, so that there is now a higher than ever death rate for children in war, especially in Africa.)

Or how about the recent very rapid progress in highly addictive drugs (e.g., crack cocaine)? Also cars have been a mixed blessing, with one negative side effect being the impoverishment of many city centers, due to a migration of the middle class to the suburbs. It is also debatable (and in fact much debated) whether progress in IT will necessarily translate into progress in the delivery of education. We will see several other examples later in the course.

The general form of a hard technologically deterministic statement is

T => S ,
where T is some technological phenomenon and S is some social phenomenon. Similarly, the general form of a hard socially deterministic statement is
S => T ,
which is exactly the converse of that for technological determinism. Each of these two kinds of hard determinism is false, and it is very easy to find counter examples. For technological determinism, these would be technologies that have been integrated with different social environments in quite different ways. (Just to be specific, we could mention nuclear energy in the Ukraine, Japan and North Korea; or television in China, the UK, and the US.) Some counter examples to social determinism are given below.

However, most people, even social scientists, often make statements having these forms, and in fact, it is reasonable to do so when the statement only serves as a "headline," a title, or an abbreviation for a more detailed and qualified statement; it would perhaps be more helpful to say that hard deterministic statements are highly oversimplified and misleading, than to say that they are false (though the latter is true when they are taken literally). Also, we should note that such false statements can be partially true, and can point towards interesting directions for further thought.

In the same style, we can give a precise form for soft technological deterministic statements, as follows

S1 and T1 => S2 ,
where S1, S2 are social phenomenon, and where T1 is some technological phenomenon.

One general deficiency of all these forms of theory is that they do not take account of time, and in particular, of the important fact that both society and technology change over time. It is very easy to give an improved form to (for example) soft technological determinism, simply by letting the indices above refer to time, with S2 at a later time than S1 and T1.

There is of course an analoguous formulation for social determinism,

S1 and T1 => T2 ,
and of course this also has a temporal interpretation.

Although these soft forms are certainly an improvement over the hard forms, they are still oversimplified, misleading, and in fact false, but for the more subtle reason that they fail to take account of the fact that there is really a cycle, or better, feedback loop, in which both social and technological phenomena are both causes and results. Even if we "unwind" above formulae, to get what we may call dynamic determinism, of the form

S1 and T1  —>   S2 and T2  —>   S3 and T3  —>   ... .
where we have replaced the logical implication symbol by a temporal succession symbol, the result is still overly simple and potentially misleading, and in particular, fails to take account of the facts that there are multiple social factors and multple technical factors, that different phenomena evolve at different rates, that there are many complex relationships among both the social and the technical factors, and that all these relationships are also evolving. Moreover, in some cases it is not easy, or even possible, to distinguish between social and technical factors. These points should become clearer when we study actor-network theory in Section 6.1.

Now let's consider some examples of social determinist theories. Politicians often seem to believe that if they want something, and throw enough money at it, then they will get it; such beliefs are socially determinist. One counter example is the congressional push for the so-called Star Wars program, which most responsible scientists have declared to be impossible. But Congress says we need defense from rogue state missiles, and allocates huge sums, apparently in the belief that this will somehow produce the technology that they want. Another example is fusion-based energy research, such as the Lawrence Livermore Labs laser fusion project, which is far over its cost estimates, far behind its delivery schedule, and of doubtful value. Yes, we need alternative energy sources, but we cannot get them from science and technology that do not yet exist.

Both technological and social determinism are forms of reductionism. A reductionist theory reduces some class of phenomena to some (allegedly) simpler phenomena of another class. One of the best known examples of a reductionist theory is the reduction of chemistry to physics. At one time, alchemists mixed substances together just to see what would happen, often with the practical motivation of manufacturing gold. Later, it became known that matter is composed of a number of chemicals, and later still, it became known that all chemicals are molecules composed from atoms, which are the domain of atomic physics. Although this reduction is true in theory, it unfortunately has little practical value, because it is not possible to do the quantum mechanical calculations needed to predict the behavior of molecules, except in a few trivial cases, such as the hydrogen molecule. So even in the hard sciences, even a reduction that has enormous theoretical significance, may have very little practical value; now just think what must be the case for reductions in the social sciences.

A good example of a practically successful reduction is Descartes's reduction of plane geometry to numbers, through the introduction of so called Cartesian coordinates, which are pairs of numbers. In many cases, it is possible to prove difficult theories in plane geometry with fairly routine calculations. This reduction also takes us from a qualitative theory to a quantitative theory. However, it can be argued that there has also been a loss, namely of the qualitative character of Euclidean axiomatic geometry. Moreover, certain new complexities have been introduced, such as the need for many new hypotheses to eliminate special cases, as rather dramtically demonstrated by computer theorem proving algorithms for geometry, like Wu's method.

It is worth mentioning that Descartes also wrote what are perhaps the most influential arguments ever given for reductionism, in his famous Discourse on Method.

The direct opposite to reductionism is holism, where a holistic theory says that some process or phenomenon cannot be broken into parts, and can only be understood as a whole; it follows that such phenomena can never be explained by reduction. In general, holism is probably true of all complex phenomena, but since holism does not actually explain anything, it is not useful as a theory. For this reason, scientists are much more attracted to reductionist theories, even if they are only partially successful.

Today social scientists almost universally reject determinist and reductionist explanations of complex social phenomena, despite their popular appeal. They also reject empty holism. Social theories of science and technology do not in general attempt to be predictive, like physical theories; they play a different kind of role. For example, one important role of recent social science theories of technology, such as Actor-Network Theory, is to serve as an antidote, or vaccine, against naive theories such as technological determinism; if you achieve a better understanding of the social aspects of technical work, then you are less vulnerable to confusion, deception and manipulation.

Marshall McLuhan introduced a special kind of determinism called media determinism; it tries to explain various social phenomena through properties of the media that are employed. McLuhan's most famous slogan is "The medium is the message." Claims that writing, and later on printing, changed society have been around for a long time, and are still popular. McLuhan applied this idea to the newspaper, radio, and television media, with a certain flair and precision. The media love this kind of theory. The recent slogan that "The computer is the network" can be seen as related to McLuhan's slogan. Of course, media determinism is a form of technological determinism, and hence a form of reductionism; it can be hard or soft; and it is oversimplified, misleading, and in fact it is wrong.

An interesting counter example to media determinism is the BBC radio and television network in the United Kingdom, which provides extremely high quality non-commercial programming, paid for by British citizens through a system of taxation. The social input, which includes state sponsorship and a special tax, leads to very different content than in the American system; the BBC also has a different technical form, since its programs are broadcast on standard frequencies throughout the entire country. (BBC radio programs are also available over the internet; BBC Radio 3 is perhaps the best classical music station in the world, and BBC Radio 1 is perhaps the best pop music station, espeicially John Peel's program.) So media determinism is false. American radio and TV could have been completely different if there had been different laws, different norms, etc.; technology is not the only factor.

2.1 Summary

Technological determinism is completely false as an empirical theory; it exists as a folk theory or social myth. There are no real world examples of technological determinism and there never can be any: technology is always a product of society, and therefore technology is never autonomous; moreover, technology and society are always mutally interacting, always mutually co-arising. Any alleged example of technology "having an effect on society" can actually become a counter-example to technological determinism, because with a little thought you can always find ways in which society also influenced the technology. (That technology has social effects is obviously true, but an instance of this is not an instance of technological determinism, because there will always effects in the other direction as well. Technology does not come from nowhere, it does not drop from the sky, or grow from the earth, it is created by complex human social organizations.) Nevertheless examples of assertions that have the form of technological determinism are very common, especially in advertising and mass media journalism. Sometimes such assertions are merely shorthand for what the author and audience know is a more complex phenomenon, but often such assertions are deliberately misleading and manipulative, exploiting our unconscious implicit folk theory belief in technological determinism.

In case you doubt that appeals to technological determinism can be a problem, here are some further examples. A while ago in the local paper, I saw the sentences "Cloning is inevitable once it is possible" and "Fusion power just doesn't have the impetus to succeed." These articles were written as if the projects involved had nothing to do with their contexts of people and other things, but had a unstopable momentum of their own. A simple example of an assertion that probably we've all heard, and that embodies technological determinism, is the aphorism "If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door." It is very easy to find counter-examples to this assertion, but it still can sound plausible.

To Section 3 of CSE 190B notes.
To Section 1 of CSE 190B notes.
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Last modified: Thu Mar 1 16:48:26 PST 2001