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We live through most of our modern lives with the assistance of technology. Since the industrial revolution, people have ‘worship’ technology and innovation as a tool of progress that will bring mankind to easier and better way of living. Some even consider that technological development is itself a form of ‘good’ that must be maintained throughout human existence. In short, no one living in a modern country could question the powerful influence of technology toward human lives.
However, people often stop at the conclusion that ‘technology is important’ or that ‘technology has a powerful influence to human lives’, without understanding the actual process of how technology influence social changes in the modern community. Others however, have performed studies and produced a number of theories that represented different perspectives regarding the relationship between technology and social changes.
Within this paper, we will discuss the theory of Technological Determinism and its critiques. There are actually numerous critiques regarding the theory, but one of the most notable is the critique by Raymond Williams. In this paper, we will also elaborate Williams’ perspective toward the relationship between technology and social phenomenon, and how they would apply to several communication technologies.
II. Technological Determinism Theory
Technological Determinism is a term coined by an American sociologist, Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) that has developed into one of the most dominant views in news media and popular culture. It is a reductionism doctrine that a society’s technology solely determines its cultural values, social culture, or history. It is a view that suggests the existence of a direct causal relationship between technological development and social change.
Merrit Rose Smith (1994) described Technological Determinism as ‘the belief in technology as a key governing force in society’. Other describes the concept as ‘the belief that social progress is driven by technological innovation, which in turn follows an inevitable course’ (Smith, 1994). The shortest definition describes Technological Determinism as the view of people who said ‘technology determines history’ (Williams, 1990). Despite the abundant definitions, we are able to underline two general ideas of the term Technological Determinism:
· The development of technology follows a part beyond cultural or political influence
· Technology has an inherent effects on societies
Beside these two basic characteristics, the term technological determinism has other important traits. According to this view, science and technology are autonomous, which mean that they develop only according to their own internal logic. Furthermore, once they are ‘released’ into the world, they will have an irresistible impact on the social world. In other words, as mentioned before, history itself is largely a result of the impact of new technologies (‘Introduction’, 2005).
The logic that can be concluded from the statements above is that the changes of society have no other determinant except that of technology. Other factors whether they are political, economical and cultural in nature, are excluded. According to technological determinism, all events within our social world begin with technological innovation that leads to chain reactions that produces changes in other aspects of the society. Supporters of the theory even stated that technological development has a profound psychological influence, transforming the nature of human consciousness. As some business managers would say,’ build them, and people would come’ (December, 1996).
III. The Nature of Determinism
To further grasp the concept, we need to understand related terms to technological determinism. One term that related to technological determinism is determinism itself. Determinism is the belief that humans are passive objects that acts based on influences they receive. According to this view, investigating a social phenomenon in a society means investigating the factors that influence humans within that society, and not the ‘internal conditions’ within the humans themselves. This is a rather bold perspective that has received numerous critiques, especially from supporters of the voluntarism theory.
According to the voluntarism theory, humans are active agents and not helpless automatons. They make deliberate choices and exercise control over change based on free will and choices. According to voluntarism, humans’ choices can be explained through individual beliefs, intentions, preferences, etc. In regards of this factor, the elaboration of technological determinism theory is generally divided into two types:
· Strong technological determinism is the type of the term that does not compromise with the voluntarism perspective. This type contains the extreme stance that a particular technology is the sole factor that influences social changes and it is a ‘necessity’ in nature. This type of the term receives a great deal of critique because of its no-compromise nature. There are a lot of flaws that people use to attack supporters of the theory.
· Weak technological determinism is the more friendly type of the term to the voluntarism concept. According to this view, the presence of a particular technology is enabling the factors leading to the opportunities for social changes. In other words, the influence I sin the form of suggestion rather inevitable result. Lynn White stated that technology open doors, but no compelling anyone to enter it. This is a more acceptable of the concept of technological determinism because it does not a provide rooms for other perspectives to grow.
IV. Raymond William’s Critique
One of the most notable critiques of the technological determinism concept is that of Raymond Williams. According to Williams, technology is not the sole factor that influences all other factors in social changes; instead, technology is created to fulfill the need of the society. Williams indicated that new inventions and creations in technology is the result of various needs from the society (Williams, 1990, pp. 9-10). This is in line with the concept ‘social construction of technology’. According to this concept, the path of innovation and consequences of technology for humans are strongly shaped by society itself, through culture, politics and economical influence.
There is much contrast between the technological determinism concept and the view of Raymond Williams. In a way, technological determinism concept sees technological development as an external cause. This is described by the Ogburn’s billiard ball-model, in which inventions and innovation rolls-in from outside and impacts one or more element of the society which in turn impacted other elements (Williams, 1990, pp. 13). Therefore, it strengthened the autonomous nature of scientific as preferred by supporters of the theory.
On the other hand, Williams (1990, pp.13) does not see technological development as an autonomous external factor which is beyond the influence of any other factors. Raymond stated that instead of being an external intrusion toward culture, technological development would appear to be an expression of it. Furthermore, Williams (1990, pp.13-14) indicated, in response of the notion that technology shapes history, that it is struggles and negotiations among interested parties that has a more powerful influence toward the shape of history.
Technology, Williams (1990, pp.13-14) said, is a search and development made with certain purposes and practices already in mind. The pre-determined purposes and visualized practices are developed from known social needs. Again, this is similar to the ‘social construction of technology view’. Nevertheless, in rejection of the technological determinism theory, Williams also stated that we must be careful not to replace the technological determinism theory with the notion that technology is determined. In other words, Williams acknowledged –to some level-, that technology has its ‘active’ roots because a directed innovation could lead to the creation of something else.
V. Application to Television and Radio
In order to have a further understanding toward the critiques of Raymond Williams, I will elaborate the application of the technological determinism theory in two of the most popular communication media, television and the radio.
Television is the most powerful symbol of how technology can influence society in these modern times. It is also one of the strongest incidents that displayed the technological determinism theory, or so the proponents of the theory argue. There are two ways f how technological determinism can fit into the development of television as a social change:
· First, the creation of television is considered accidental and its effects are accidental also, in a sense that it is derived from internal development of technology and nothing else. According to this view, if television has not been invented, the chain reaction of social changes would have otherwise not occurred. This view belongs to the previously explained ‘strong technological determinism theory’.
· Second, television is a technological accident but its level of importance depends on its uses. This level of importance is influenced by various determined social factors. According to this view, in the absence of television, we will still find other instrument to fill the role of television, but most likely with less influence and power.
(Williams, 1990, pp.11-12)
The first scenario fits perfectly into the realm of technological determinism, while the second is influenced by the view of Raymond Williams. The debate between these two views has been performed for considerable amount of time. Experts have been stating their opinion whether they believe that the ‘intention’ of social change begins from the invention of television itself, or whether they believe that the intention or direction of invention has been around before the process of inventing television.
In the specific history of the development of television, we can see that there is a lot of stages and previous inventions that lead to the actual process of developing the television itself. The search of electricity, telegraphy, photography, motion pictures and radio has all contributed to the creation of television. Therefore, one might say that the creation of television is the result of various factors instead of one. This is against the technological determinism theory.
However, technological determinist can still argue that the creation of electricity, telegraphy, photography and radio are all categorized as technological invention. Thus, the beginning of this chain of reaction, and the factor that continuously encouraging its development is technological invention. In simpler terms, the first creation led to another (Noble, 1994).
Another turn however, has appeared against the technological development theory. Studies indicated that the development of electricity, telegraphy, photography and the others have socio-cultural implication within them. Despite the fact that some of the most influential discoveries are made by isolated persons, all of them are the result of a certain phase of social transformation, especially within the information technology where group of organizations have considerable influence in encouraging innovations (Williams, 1990, pp.18).
An example of how technological innovation is encouraged by social phenomena is the creation of radio and photography. Radio is widely utilized as an entertainment tool more than anything else today, but it was generally developed from the need to communicate in the in wars. The military has a great role in the development of radio as a communication tool. Photography, on the other hand, is largely the work of the press community. As the business of deploying public information becomes profitable, the need for a better way to deliver recognition and recoding information spawned the technology of photography.
In terms of television, besides receiving support from previous inventions, the broadcasting society was mentioned to have a great deal of influence toward its creation. The first form of broadcasting was made from the radio. As the industry developed, broadcasting became a major social institution that contains various controversies. The colorful world of broadcasting unites various elements of the community, even politicians and capitalist. It is then not a big surprise when this social phase leads to the invention of television. Television broadcasting was then became the next big phenomenon in the history of social transformation (Williams, 1990, pp. 29-30).
Taking account of the studies above, there is an obvious tendency toward the perspective of Raymond Williams. As displayed, the development of television is –to some level- generated by the social need to have a better information technology. Various social elements that take part in the broadcasting society contributed to the process of developing television, including political elements and industrialists. Therefore, television is an example of how Williams’ sentiment –the social construction theory- triumphed over the technological determinism.
In the case of radio, studies indicated that similar stages of social phases occur prior to its invention. The radio is also developed by the power of the broadcasting industry. However, its original invention was inspired by telegraphy. The original application of the radio was to send simple message back and forth between two distant locations, in other words, an advanced mode of telegraphy. The development gain speed as the first world one take place (John 1989, pp.13-14).
Because the incident involved all elements of most nations of the world, efforts of invention was also correlated with war necessities. The original messaging tool of the first world one was the telegraph, but as the needs grew stronger, better forms of telecommunication was also created.
The shift from simple warfare equipment into a public broadcasting tool took place around the 1920’s. At the time, the transformation of radio technology, and the conception of radio’s social role has a close relationship to changes in society. Within the broadcasting buzz, a number of small companies manufactured and distributed simple radio receivers. After the 1920’s radio was marketed as the new range of electronic technologies which were transforming the home. Radio sets began to take place beside home appliances, in the living rooms and inside motor cars (John, 1989, pp.13-14).
The radio was also responsible for social grouping of political, economic and ideological forces, and they also play their roles as groups that oversaw the transformation of the new invention. It is not long before radio is used as a media in international negotiations and in educating the youngsters of nations (John, 1989, pp.15). Within all these stages, the capacity and capability of the radio as a communication tool changes as required.
From the elaboration above, it was clear that the development of radio as a communication tool has also justified the perspective of Raymond Williams instead of the technological determinism theory. Instead of the social changes being dictated by the creation of radio, it is the radio that is created from the need to have a better form of communication in war times. The transformation of radio into a better and more sophisticated form was also encouraged and overseen by various social interests at that particular time.
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Noble, David F. (1984) Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation. Oxford University Press: New York.
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