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:
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.
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.