Technological Determinism Theory (5 Examples, Pros & Cons) (2022)

Technological Determinism Theory (5 Examples, Pros & Cons) (1)

Technological determinism is the idea that technology shapes social change. It determines our future.

Technological determinism believes that advancements in technology are the moments that bring on each new phase in human history.

For instance, the invention of the wheel revolutionized human mobility, allowing humans to travel greater distances and carry greater loads with them. Thus, a technological advancement changed the course of human history for all time.

Other technological advances that caused great leaps in human history include:

  • The invention of language,
  • The discovery of various metals (bronze, iron, copper, etc),
  • The introduction of double-entry bookkeeping, and
  • The invention of the steam engine.

Each were technological breakthroughs that altered the course of human history forever.

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Definition of Technological Determinism

The term ‘technological determinism’ was coined by the American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929).

In the words of Merrit Roe Smith (1994), technological determinism can be summarized as:

“Technology decides history.”

Examples of Technological Determinism

The following are examples of how technology has determined and altered the future of human history:

1. The Invention of Writing

Walter J. Ong (1982) argued that writing fundamentally changed human society forever allowing it to break free from the limits imposed by the oral transmission of knowledge.

Walter Ong believed that oral culture tended towards rigidity and hierarchical control of society. Knowledge was held exclusively in the mind and human history was shared through the generations like a big game of telephone.

Writing, Ong believed, allowed easier access to knowledge to a large number of people. It also freed up the human mind from the need of constantly storing information in their minds – now, it could be recorded on paper (Ong, 1982).

Thus, one technological breakthrough altered the course of human history forever, making possible everything else that followed it.

2. Stirrups and European Feudalism

The Princeton historian Lynn Townsend White Jr. in his book Medieval Technology and Social Change argues that the invention of the stirrup enabled the establishment of feudalism in Europe.

Feudalism remained the dominant mode of political and social organization in European society for nearly a millennium (White, 1962).

(Video) KM Discussion 8: Technological Determinism

The stirrup, according to White, allowed combatants to engage their opponents from the advantageous position of being seated on horseback using weapons such as the lance and the longsword.

Thanks to horseback conflict, there emerged a class of cavalrymen who were rewarded for their services in combat with land grants, resulting in the development of feudalism.

3. Gunpowder Empires

The term ‘Gunpowder Empires’ refers to three Islamic empires of Turkic origin – the Mughal Empire in South Asia, the Safavid Empire in Persia, and the Ottoman Empire in Turkey.

These empires flourished between the 14th and 18th centuries on account of being early adopters of gunpowder-based artilleries.

This gave them greater military might and control over their own vast territories.

The things that made the Gunpowder Empires different from other empires were:

  • The vast territories they controlled,
  • The great degree of centralization they achieved, and
  • The concept of the entire state as a unified military force. (Hodgson, 1974)

All these were the result of the advantage they enjoyed on the battlefield on account of their early adoption of gunpowder-based firearms.

Gunpowder had a lasting impact on the societies of the regions in which these empires flourished. In many cases, it laid the foundation for the modern nation-states that were to emerge as the successor states to these empires.

So, the national imagination of modern Turkey looks back at the Ottoman Empire as its cultural and spiritual predecessor, as witnessed by the phenomenal popularity of the Turkish TV series Dirilis: Ertrugrul that is based on the life of the founder of the Ottoman Empire (Khan, 2020).

Similarly, the Mughal Empire directly inspired Islamic nationalism in South Asia, leading to the formation of modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, and leaving a deep and lasting influence on the culture of India ( where, for instance, the Mughal-era Taj Mahal is one of the most instantly recognizable visual icons)

Each of the three states still persists with many administrative, political, and cultural practices of the Mughal empire, thanks to the invention of Gunpowder.

4. The Printing Press and the Modern Nation-State

The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) was one of the foremost proponents of technological determinism.

In his influential book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, McLuhan argued that the invention of the printing press was a decisive technological breakthrough that changed human society forever.

It changed humanity by allowing the rapid and economical replication and dissemination of books and printed texts, allowing ideas, news, thoughts, and ideologies to spread at a pace never witnessed before in human history.

Expanding on McLuhan’s ideas, Benedict Anderson (1983) used the term “print capitalism” to describe how the printing press allowed for the creation of a cohesive society with a common language and common culture.

Weekly newspapers allowed for everyone within a nation to receive the same news in the newspaper every week. In turn, people started to see themselves as being part of the same shared culture (McLuhan, 1962).

This cohesive society then began to think of itself as an “imagined community”. Such imagined communities, according to Anderson, became the modern-day nation-states marking a radical departure from the way in which human society was organized in tribes (rather than nations) until now.

Anderson called nations ‘imagined communities’ to explain that most members of a nation will never meet each other, but through the technologies of mass media shared a culture.

The mass media is controlled by the state, and disseminates nationalist propaganda. So, it spread the idea of a shared culture across a single community.

(Video) Technological determinism | Wikipedia audio article

Thus, one technology (printing press), determined the most prevalent form of political organization in human societies (the nation-state).

5. The Internet

The internet and the microprocessor-based computer are the most disruptive technologies that have revolutionized the human experience on earth in the past century.

Think of how we can now communicate instantly with millions of strangers spread out in all corners of the planet. We can use our smartphones to capture pictures, listen to music, order food, and everything in between.

The internet has transformed our lives – and according to technological determinism, social change was inevitable after the invention of the internet.

Our lives, to a great extent, revolve around our smartphones and tablets connected 24×7 to the internet. It’s so ubiquitous in our lives that it is now replacing physical interaction as the preferred mode of communication.

New media and digital media have also become a means of mass mobilization, impacting politics, and in turn the organization of human society.

This is a technological transformation that is still unfolding, and its full impact will perhaps be known only to future generations. Can we imagine what the history of the 21st-century would look like had it not been for the internet?

Related: Advantages and Disadvantages of New Media

Strengths and Weaknesses of Technological Determinism Theory

StrenghtsWeaknesses
1. Wide Historical Coverage – It can explain technological changes from the beginning of human history.1. Reductionism – It only explains complex changes in societies in relation to technology. There are other factors to consider.
2. Adaptability – It can be adapted to include and acknowledge the role of free will. People who do this are called ‘soft determinists’.2. Ignores Free Will – It tends to underplay the importance of human free will in choosing how to use technology.

Strengths

1. Wide Historical Coverage

As a grand theory, technological determinism covers the entire sweep of human history, right from prehistoric technologies such as the invention of the wheel to 21st-century changes such as cryptocurrencies. It provides a theoretical explanation for the evolution of all human societies.

2. Adaptability

The technological determinism theory is not rigid and can be adapted to explain complex phenomena.

For instance, the theory admits the possibility of 2 kinds of technological determinism – hard and soft.

Hard determinists hold that technology plays a complete and totalizing role in shaping human society.

Soft determinists believe that while technology is an important factor in shaping the course of human history, the manner in which humans interact with society also needs to be considered.

Criticisms of Technological Determinism

1. Reductionist

A reductionist theory is one that reduces a complex, multilayered phenomenon to a neat, oversimplified narrative.

Human interactions with technology and the effect of such interactions form a complex process that cannot always be reduced to a simple cause-and-effect relationship as envisioned by technological determinism.

2. Ignores the Question of Free Will

Like environmental determinism, technological determinism overlooks the role that human free will plays in the use of technology.

Any technology can have an impact on human society only in relation to the human will to use it, and the human will to submit to its influence.

For instance, while the internet and smartphones are ushering in a technological revolution, many people are choosing to undergo what is popularly known as “digital detox” or a wilful avoidance of technology.

Technological Determinism Theory (5 Examples, Pros & Cons) (2)

Social Construction of Technology vs Technological Determinism

Social construction of technology is an approach that is the exact opposite of technological determinism – it holds that human actions decide which technology gets adopted, rather than technology shaping human actions.

(Video) What is Reductionism?

1. Writing did not Progress All Societies Equally

In the words of Langdon Winner (1980), the social construction of technology states that “what matters is not the technology itself, but the society in which it is embedded”.

As an example, consider the case of the invention of writing. According to classic technological determinism, the invention of writing should have led advanced societies down a trajectory of scientific and social progress. Societies that gained more widespread literacy should have advanced while those with restricted literacy would lag behind. However, this has historically not been the case. Clearly, some societies benefitted more from writing (Western Europe) than others (African nations).

2. Hot and Cold Societies

Similarly, R.W. Niezen (1991) draws attention to the fact technology doesn’t determine society by comparing ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ societies.

In societies such as medieval Christian Europe that Niezen characterized as ‘hot’, restricted literacy, confined mostly to the priestly class produced nonetheless a spirit of critical reform and questioning of religion that in turn resulted in enlightenment and the scientific revolution.

On the other hand in ‘cold’ societies such as Islamic west Africa that possessed widespread literacy, no criticism or revision of basic tenets of religion occurred, leading to a concomitant stalling of societal and scientific progress (Niezen, 1991).

Niezen concludes that the mere presence of widespread literacy does not define a society as being more progressive as had been hypothesized by Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan.

Claude Fischer (1992) summarized the social construction of technology with the analogy of the billiard ball: technology is not something that comes from the outside and sets things in motion. It is born from within society.

Related Theory: Agenda Setting Theory

Implications for Researchers, Educators, and Workplaces

Today, researchers regularly examine the extent to which technology determines outcomes.

1. Uptake of New Technologies in Classrooms

For example, if you give every child a laptop in school, will it cause them to be more technologically literate?

Often, politicians will promise new technologies to schools and expect great results.

But the truth is that it’s not the technology that matters, but the uptake of that technology. If teachers choose not to implement the laptops in the classroom (or they don’t have the technological literacy to do so), then the laptops will simply serve as expensive bookends on the shelves!

Similarly, in workplaces, new technologies do not necessarily lead to innovation. Sometimes, they might stifle creativity or lead workers down the wrong path.

Thus, technological determinism theory fails to understand the complex ways humans interact with technology.

2. Digital Natives

We tend to believe that children who grow up with technology are more likely to be ‘digital natives’ than children who do not. We consider them more competent and capable with technology and therefore get a leg-up in life.

Often, we look at the different levels of access to technology between middle-class and working-class children as a moral concern. It may be disadvantaging those children from the start.

Here, the digital natives concept relies on technological determinism theory for its validity because it assumes availability of technology is sufficient to impact competence with such technologies.

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Conclusion

The theory of technological determinism has pros and cons. It does show us how technologies can dramatically change the course of human history. And, particularly in today’s climate, we can see how the internet is changing the economic, political, and cultural makeup of society.

(Video) Karl Marx & Conflict Theory: Crash Course Sociology #6

But we also run the risk of over-stating the impact of technology on the future. It’s not technology that determines our futures, but our uptake and use of technology. We as a society and individuals still have the free will to choose how to use technology and determine how it will and will not shape our own futures.

References

Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso.

Fischer, C. (1992) America calling: A social history of the telephone to 1940. University of California Press.

Hodgson, M. G.S. (1974). The Venture of Islam: Conscience and history in a world civilization. University of Chicago Press.

Khan, A.J. (2020) Ertugrul: How an epic TV series became the Muslim Game of Thrones The Guardian.https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/aug/12/ertugrul-how-an-epic-tv-series-became-the-muslim-game-of-thrones

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man. University of Toronto Press.

Niezen, R.W.(1991). Hot literacy in cold societies: A comparative study of the sacred value of writing. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 3(2), 225-254. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0010417500017023

Ong, W.J.(1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the world. London: Routledge.

Smith, M.R. (1994) Does technology drive history? The dilemma of technological determinism. United States: MIT Press.

White, L.T. (1962) Medieval technology and social change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Winner, L. (1980). Do Artifacts Have Politics? Daedalus, 109(1), 121–136.

Chris Drew (PhD)

Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.

FAQs

Is technological determinism good or bad? ›

Determinism can appear on all levels, even the micro level. Thirdly, like its counterpart social/societal determinism, technological determinism is not necessarily a “bad” thing, but a natural result of design being a balance between what is societally desirable and technically possible.

Which of the following is the best example of technological determinism? ›

One of the best examples of technological determinism in media theory is Marshall McLuhan's theory "the medium is the message" and the ideas of his mentor Harold Adams Innis. Both these Canadian theorists saw media as the essence of civilization.

What is technological determinism group of answer choices? ›

Technological determinism is the theory that a society's technology determines its cultural values, social structure, and history. According to the theory, social progress follows an inevitable course that is driven by technological innovation.

What are the 5 examples of technology? ›

6 common types of technology
  • Television. Television sets transmit signals over which we can listen to and view audio and visual content. ...
  • Internet. ...
  • Cell phones. ...
  • Computers. ...
  • Circuitry. ...
  • Artificial intelligence. ...
  • Software. ...
  • Audio and visual technology.

What are the 4 example of technology? ›

Types of technologies include: mechanical technology, medical technology, communications technology, electronic technology, and industrial and manufacturing technologies. Examples include: electronic devices, simple machines, and factories.

Why is technological determinism wrong? ›

Making a technologically determinist statement, such as 'Computers have changed the world' misses the point that it was cultural forces at work in the world that resulted in computers. It is culture that drives technological change and innovation. As societies, we get the technologies that our culture determines.

What are the benefits of determinism? ›

One advantage of taking the deterministic outlook is that it attempts to identify the causes of behaviour by studying variables in isolation. By studying the variables in isolation cause and effect can be established, along with general laws about behaviour.

What are the three types of determinism? ›

  • Issues & Debates.
  • Soft Determinism.
  • Psychic Determinism.
  • Hard Determinism.
  • Free Will.
22 Mar 2021

What is an example of technological change? ›

What are examples of technological changes? Automobiles, smartphones, laptops, and wind turbines are some examples of technological changes.

What do you think of technological determinism? ›

Criticism of Technological Determinism

A critique of technological determinism is that technology never forces itself on members of the society. Man creates technology and chooses to use them. He invents television and chooses to view it.

What is technological determinism and how does it apply to social change? ›

Explanation of Theory: Technological Determinism state that media technology shapes how we as individuals in a society think, feel, act, and how are society operates as we move from one technological age to another (Tribal- Literate- Print- Electronic). Theorists: Marshall Mcluhan.

What is technological determinism essay? ›

Technological determinism is a term developed by Marshal McLuhan, a theorist in the study of new media. By technological determinism, McLuhan refers to technology having the power to change societies and influence our cultures.

Is technological determinism true? ›

Unfortunately, this theory is 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 the complex social network that supports the technology. Social determinism is the theory that society is an autonomous force that changes technology.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of technology? ›

It enhances the usefulness of goods and services and helps in creating value. It helps make any work easier and helps us in multiple ways. Technology has both positive and negative effects. Many people use it for their growth, and some use it to harm society and the ecosystem.

What are 3 examples of information technology? ›

Examples of Information Technology

Traditional computer applications that include data storage and programs to input, process, and output the data. Software and support for office automation systems such as word processing and spreadsheets, as well as the computer to run them. Users' PCs and software.

What are the technological advancement in our society give at least 5 examples and briefly explain? ›

Social media, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence radically changed our day-to-day lives. iPads, smartwatches, fitness trackers, true wireless earphones, electric cars—the list of innovations from this decade is a long one.

What do you think of technological determinism? ›

Criticism of Technological Determinism

A critique of technological determinism is that technology never forces itself on members of the society. Man creates technology and chooses to use them. He invents television and chooses to view it.

What is technological forces and examples? ›

The influences that developments in technology have on consumers, business and society in general. Some positive technological forces include increased leisure time, improved communication and better management information systems, while some negatives might include increased unemployment and information abuse.

What is an example of a technological revolution? ›

The most well-known examples of a technological revolutions were the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the scientific-technical revolution about 1950–1960, the Neolithic revolution, and the Digital Revolution.

Which is an example of technological convergence? ›

Using a smartphone to make calls and take digital photos and using your digital TV to perform computing tasks, such as surfing the web while watching a movie, are two more examples of technological convergence. High-bandwidth Wi-Fi data networks to power intelligent sensors embedded in: Household appliances.

Why technological determinism is wrong? ›

Making a technologically determinist statement, such as 'Computers have changed the world' misses the point that it was cultural forces at work in the world that resulted in computers. It is culture that drives technological change and innovation. As societies, we get the technologies that our culture determines.

What is technological determinism in simple words? ›

Technological determinism (TD), simply put, is the idea that technology has important effects on our lives. This idea figures prominently in the popular imagination and political rhetoric, for example in the idea that the Internet is revolutionizing economy and society.

Is technological determinism true? ›

Unfortunately, this theory is 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 the complex social network that supports the technology. Social determinism is the theory that society is an autonomous force that changes technology.

What are the advantages or disadvantages of technology? ›

It enhances the usefulness of goods and services and helps in creating value. It helps make any work easier and helps us in multiple ways. Technology has both positive and negative effects. Many people use it for their growth, and some use it to harm society and the ecosystem.

Why are technological factors important? ›

Technological factors are variables that are being used for evaluating available alternatives with respect to technological capabilities. Organizations consider it an important tool for improving operations and functions.

Which of the following is not an example of technological factor? ›

Answer: Technology is not an example of social environment. The social environment refers to the environment which is surrounded by a social setting in which the people act upon. Thus technological factor does not come under the social environment.

What are the 10 technological advances? ›

In This Article
  • The Telephone.
  • The Light Bulb.
  • The Television.
  • Personal Computers.
  • Global Positioning System.
  • The Internet: ARPANET.
  • GPS Navigation.
  • The Digital Camera.
25 Jun 2020

How has technology helped the world 10 examples? ›

Without these advancements, everything from deadly illnesses to identity theft would be much more prevalent.
  • Improved healthcare. ...
  • Safer online payments. ...
  • Online grocery shopping. ...
  • The rise of smart cities. ...
  • Reduce wasted resources with used items. ...
  • Exercise incentive. ...
  • Telecommuting opportunities. ...
  • Instant answers to everything.

What are three examples of technology that have changed lives? ›

Here are four examples of disruptive technology over the past decade or two that changed the way we live in 2022.
  • 3D Printing Transforms Multiple Industries. ...
  • All Hail Ride-Sharing Apps. ...
  • The Rise of Streaming Video. ...
  • Forget Hotels, Book an Airbnb.
7 Sept 2022

What are the 5 elements of technology convergence? ›

The five major elements of media convergence—the technological, the industrial, the social, the textual, and the political—are discussed below.

Is TV an example of technological convergence? ›

Technological convergence includes devices and systems that interface with end users. For example, a user interacts with converged devices, such as a smart television (TV), to access the contents that are distributed over a network.

What is the advantages for using technological convergence? ›

Technological convergence results in greater benefits from increased diversity in products and services in the telecommunication industry. Using IP technology that connects all telecommunication services with a single network, companies can add services to their previous ones, without new investments in infrastructure.

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