CSE 275: Social Aspects of Technology and Science

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 will come to dominate thought; these are widely shared, implicit, unarticulated, and superficially plausible beliefs. 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 found an instance, it probably means that you are only looking at a part of a more complex [feedback] network.)
  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.

Both of these theories 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 irresistible. Both of these determinisms 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; so 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 been a loss of the qualitative character of Euclidean axiomatic geometry.

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 very complex phenomena, but since holism does not actually explain anything, it is not very useful as a theory. For this reason, scientists are 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 various appeals.

Marshall McLuhan introduced a special kind of determinism that he called media determinism; it tries to explain various social phenomena through properties of the media that are employed. His most famous quote 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 extended this to newspapers, radio, and television. The media love this kind of theory. The often heard statement that "The computer is the network" is also an extension of McLuhan's work. Media determinism is a form of technological determinism, and hence a form of reductionism; it may be hard or soft.

To Section 3 of CSE 275 notes.
To Section 1 of CSE 275 notes.
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Maintained by Joseph Goguen
Last modified 14 October 1999