The term 'technological determinism' was coined long ago by the American sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen (d. 1929) (I'd be glad to hear from anyone who knows exactly where in his writings this term first appears). Nowadays, the term is used to refer to the common assumption that new technologies are the primary cause of:
Extreme forms of technological determinism are widely criticised for various reasons by modern social scientists. I will allude to such criticisms shortly in order to strengthen the guard of the unwary against the hype of rampant technophilia (or indeed technophobia). Although technological determinism is most commonly associated with broad claims about social and historical change, I will focus here on theories of influence at the level of individual use. I will argue that adopting a more moderate and socially-inflected version of this perspective may shed some light on what most people would call our 'use of tools', but which (for reasons which I hope will soon become apparent) I prefer to refer to as our 'engagement with media'. I will begin within a framework which is broadly applicable to both the macrocosmic and microcosmic levels.
It may be useful to try to 'map' differing attitudes to technological potency so as to 'know where we stand'. Four main standpoints are found amongst commentators on various technologies (though there is, of course, terrain in between).
Whatever the specific technological 'revolution' may be, technological determinists present it as a dramatic and 'inevitable' driving force, the 'impact' of which will 'lead to' deep and 'far-reaching' 'effects' or 'consequences'. This sort of language reflects an excited, prophetic tone which many people find inspiring and convincing but which alienates social scientists. Most famously, it pervades the writings of the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan (d. 1980), who argued that communication technologies such as television, radio, printing and writing profoundly transformed society and 'the human psyche'. The technologies (or media) which he discussed in such books as The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media reflected his very broad use of the terms, making his famous claim that 'the medium is the message' even more dramatic. Such broad claims are open to the criticism of 'reification' (treating the referent as if it were a single, undifferentiated object).
Technological determinism is, of course, particularly widespread at present with regard to computers and the InterNet. Many enthusiastic users of such technologies drift unquestioningly into the assumptions of technological determinism. In its pessimistic form (as in the writings of Jacques Ellul) technological determinism involves a sort of conspiracy thesis in which 'technology' (or a particular technology) is seen as a totally autonomous entity with a will of its own. In its optimistic form (as in the propaganda of countless technophiles) it involves a naive faith in 'progress' (and in those initiating technological change). Either way, extreme forms of technological determinism have been criticized for leaving us feeling politically helpless, suiting the purposes of those with real power in society by performing the conservative function of preserving the socio-political status quo.
Attitudes towards technological potency are inextricable from the debate over 'technological neutrality' (see Winner 1977, Bowers 1988). Some critics of determinism argue that the tools themselves are 'neutral' - for them bias can arise only from the ways in which tools are used, not from the tools themselves (remember the folklore saying, 'it's a bad worker who blames the tools'). It is doubtful, of course, that anyone would dispute that bias may arise in the process of use, but determinists of various hues argue that particular technologies or media themselves embody (or dispose users towards) biases of various kinds.
Although I'd distance myself from hard determinism I do feel that there is some truth in a more moderate stance, at least on the level of the regular use of particular kinds of tools by individuals. In my own view, it is a mistake to regard any tools as 'general-purpose' or 'content-free': all tools and media - from language to the computer - embody basic biases towards one kind of use or mode of experience rather than another. The word processor, for instance, may seem to be 'content-free', but it embodies someone's idea of what writing is, and its use may sometimes involve a degree of compromise (a theme I have treated at length in a recent book on The Act of Writing). As someone once said, when you are holding a hammer the whole world can look like a nail, and giving a twist to a remark by Neil Postman, one might fruitfully speculate as to what the world might look like to someone regularly using the InterNet (though I'd stress the need for an explicit comparison with some other mode of experience).
My argument is that all media give shape to experience, and they do so in part through their selectivity. In the context of 'a phenomenology of human-machine relations', Don Ihde, a philosopher, has analysed the selectivity of technology, arguing that human experiences are transformed by the use of instruments, which 'amplify' or 'reduce' phenomena in various ways. As he put it: 'Technologies organize, select and focus the environment through various transformational structures' (Ihde 1979, p. 53). Prior to Ihde, Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis had also explored the selectivity of media, although their focus had been primarily on the social 'effects' of various media of communication. Innis had argued in The Bias of Communication (1951) that each form of communication involved a 'bias' in its handling of space and time (see Carey 1968, & 1989, Ch. 6). And McLuhan, in books such as The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and The Medium is the Massage (sic, McLuhan & Fiore 1967) had asserted that the use of particular media 'massages' human 'sense ratios' (allusions to which are also found in Innis). More recently, Neil Postman has reinterpreted McLuhan's aphorism that 'the medium is the message' as meaning that 'embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another' (Postman 1993, p. 13).
The selectivity of a medium arises from the way in which it formalizes phenomena within its own constraints. Any medium facilitates, emphasizes, intensifies, amplifies, enhances or extends certain kinds of use or experience whilst inhibiting, restricting or reducing other kinds. Of course, our use of any medium for a particular task may have advantages over 'the alternatives' (such as 'saving' time or labour), but use always involves a 'cost'. There are losses as well as gains. A medium closes some doors as well as opening others, excludes as well as includes, distorts as well as clarifies, conceals as well as reveals, denies as well as affirms, destroys as well as creates. The selectivity of media tends to suggest that some aspects of experience are important or relevant and that others are unimportant or irrelevant. Particular realities are thus made more or less accessible - more or less 'real' - by different processes of mediation.
The routine use of a medium by someone who knows how to use it typically passes unquestioned as unproblematic and 'neutral': this is hardly surprising since media evolve as a means of accomplishing purposes in which they are usually intended to be incidental. And the more frequently and fluently a medium is used, the more 'transparent' or 'invisible' to its users it tends to become. For most routine purposes, awareness of a medium may hamper its effectiveness as a means to an end. Indeed, it is typically when the medium acquires transparency that its potential to fulfil its primary function is greatest.
The selectivity of any medium may lead to its use having influences of which the user may not always be conscious, and which may not have been part of the purpose in using it. We can be so familiar with the medium that we are 'anaesthetized' to the mediation it involves: we 'don't know what we're missing'. Insofar as we are numbed to the processes involved we cannot be said to be exercising 'choices' in its use. In this way the means we use may modify our ends. Amongst the phenomena enhanced or reduced by media selectivity are the ends for which a medium was used. Since it may be impossible to foresee all the consequences of our use of a medium, such use tends to be accompanied by 'unintentional side-effects' (Winner 1977, pp. 88-100). In such cases, our 'purposes' are subtly, and often invisibly, redefined. Langdon Winner refers to this as reverse adaptation, or 'the adjustment of human ends to match the character of the available means' (ibid., p. 229). This is the opposite of the pragmatic and rationalistic stance, according to which the means are chosen to suit the user's ends, and are entirely under the user's control. How much it matters to us that our ends are transformed by our media depends on whether such transformations seem to us to be in general harmony with our overall intentions: 'side-effects' can, of course, be 'positive' as well as 'negative'. But we are seldom (if ever) so detached in our use of media that we can assess the phenomenon in all of its complexity. Since side-effects can also be immediate or delayed (short-, medium- or long-term), they may need a historical perspective too. And as dynamic processes which are enmeshed with others they elude our attempts to identify them. Subtle side-effects of our use of media may escape our notice, but they may nevertheless be profound.
An awareness of this phenomenon of transformation by media has often led media theorists to argue deterministically that our technical means and systems always and inevitably become 'ends in themselves' (a common interpretation of McLuhan's aphorism, 'the medium is the message'), and has even led some to present media as wholly autonomous entities with 'purposes' (as opposed to functions) of their own. However, one need not adopt such extreme stances in acknowledging the transformations involved in processes of mediation. When we use a medium for any purpose, its use becomes part of that purpose. Travelling is an unavoidable part of getting somewhere; it may even become a primary goal. Travelling by one particular method of transport rather than another is part of the experience. So too with writing rather than speaking, using a word processor rather than a pen or a telephone instead of a letter. In using any medium, to some extent we serve the purposes which are frozen within it as functions as well as it serving ours. When we engage with media we both act and are acted upon, use and are used. Where a medium has a variety of functions it may be impossible to choose to use it for only one of these functions in isolation. Who has not experienced unanticipated shifts of purpose in using The Web or in watching television? The making of meanings with media and technologies must at least sometimes involve some degree of compromise. Complete identity between any specific purpose and the functionality of a medium is likely to be rare, although the degree of match may on most occasions be accepted as adequate.
The significance of media transformations to those involved depends on resonances deriving from the nature and use of a medium rather than from explicit 'messages'. Postman has employed the term in the context of media; I use it to refer to any kind of significance which may be attached to the use of one medium rather than another. The comparisons by those involved might be conscious or unconscious, explicit or implicit. And such significances might be experienced by an individual, a group or more broadly in a particular culture or sub-culture; they could be enduring or transitory, current or retrospective, incidental or primary, subtle or dramatic, intended or unintended, related to a particular occasion or more generally applicable. Openness to such resonances, of course, is likely to vary according to task, personality, role and so on - to such an extent that to some of those who read these words the very idea of being influenced by their tools will be simply inconceivable!
All of these features - selectivity, transparency, transformation and resonance - are associated with every process of mediation. And such features and processes exist in dynamic interaction. Traditional academic disciplines attempt to fit the practices of everyday life into frameworks which are primarily sociocultural, psychological, linguistic or technological. But, against the tide of academic specialization, I would suggest that those who seek to explore processes of mediation should attempt to move as readily as possible between such interpretative frames. Such frame shifting is essential for gaining insights into the 'ecology' of processes of mediation in which we are all inextricably enmeshed - in which our behaviour is not technologically determined but in which we both 'use tools' and can be subtly shaped by our use of them.
Dr Daniel Chandler is a lecturer in Media Theory at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth (UWA) whose primary interest is in the phenomenology of engagement with media. A fuller treatment of this theme can be found at: http://users.aber.ac.uk/dgc/tecdet.html. A discussion of the act of writing in the light of this perspective can be found in The Act of Writing.