The term “determine” is often used rather lightly by those who write about the political dimension of technology. At the same time the accusation of “technological determinism” – albeit sometimes right on target – is being used as a means to exclude discussion of technological parameters from the humanities and the social sciences. But what is actually meant by “technological determinism”? In my view, there are three basic forms of thinking about determinism when it comes to technology:

The first is very much connected to French anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan and holds that technological evolution is largely self-determined. His notion of “tendance technique” takes its inspiration from evolutionary theory in the sense that the technology evolves blindly but following the paths carved out by the “choices” made throughout its phylogenesis (this has been called “cumulative causation” or “path dependency” by some). Leroi-Gourhan’s perspective has been developed further by Deleuze and Guattari in their concept of “phylum” and, most notably, by philosopher of technology Gilbert Simendon (who’s work is finally going to be translated into English, hopefully still in 2008) who sees the process of technological evolution as “concretization”, going from modular designs to always more integrated forms. “Technological determinism” would mean, in this first sense, that technology is not the result of social, economic, or cultural process but largely independent, forcing the other sectors to adapt. Technology is determined by its inner logic.

A more colloquial meaning of technological determinism is, of course, connected to the Toronto school, namely Harold A. Innis and Marshall McLuhan. This stuff is so well known and overcommented that I don’t really want to get into it – let’s just say that technology, here, determines social process either by installing a specific rapport to covering space and time (Innis) or by establishing a certain equilibrium of the senses (McLuhan). You can find dystopical versions of the same basic concept in Ellul or Postman: technology determines society, to state matters bluntly.

I would argue that there is third version of technological determinism which is, although not completely dissimilar, far more subtle than the last one. Heidegger’s framing of technology as Gestell (an outlook based on cold mathematical reasoning, industrial destruction of more integrated ways of living, exploitation of nature, etc.) opens up a question that has been taken up by a large number of people in design theory and practice: is technology determined to follow the logic of Gestell? In Heidegger’s perspective, technology is doomed to exert a dehumanizing force on being itself: the determinism here does not so much concern the relationship between technology and society but the essence (Wesen) of technology itself. A lot of thinking about design over the last thirty years has been based on the assumption that a different form of technology is possible: technology that would escape its destiny as Gestell and be emancipating instead of alienating. Discourse about information technology is indeed full of such hopes.

Although “technological determinism” refers most often to the second perspective, a closer examination of “what determines what” opens up a series of quite interesting questions that go beyond the vulgar interpretations of McLuhan’s writings. For those who still adhere to the idea that tools determine their use, here is a list of possible remedies:

  1. Look at design studies where determinism has been replaced by the quite elegant notion of affordance.
  2. Read more Actor-Network Theory.
  3. Think about what Roland Barthes meant by “interpretation”.
  4. Dust off your copy of Hall’s “encoding/decoding”.
  5. Work as a software developer and marvel at the infinity of ways users find to use, appropriate, and break your applications.

Post filed under epistemolgy, technological determinism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tech support questions will not be answered. Please refer to the FAQ of the tool.