Whither Technological Determinism in a Recession?

30Sep09

One of the first topics presented in the undergraduate social informatics course (I202) that I have been helping to teach for the last couple years is technological determinism – a perspective that views technology as an almost unstoppable force that impacts society and forces it to conform to the technology. While it is understandable how someone who lived through the industrial revolution might have this view, research in the last few decades has roundly refuted it as a theory and restored human agency as a crucial dynamic in technological development. However, remnants of technological determinism are still visible in advertising, technophilic magazines like Wired, and even sometimes in academic research.

One of the first assignments in I202 asks students to find one of these examples of technological determinism. So a few weeks ago I flipped through my latest issues of Wired to find some good examples that I could talk about in class to illustrate what they needed to do. To my surprise, this turned out to be an uncharacteristically difficult enterprise. Instead of the typical portrayals of the latest and greatest technology taking over the world, I saw technologies that empowered humans to meet their goals (although there were still a few with overtones of technological world domination). Most of the technologies were positioned as subservient, not assertive or demanding.

Television commercials for big tech companies, like Intel and IBM, have also recently been showcasing the people who work there more than specific technologies. Employees and human needs take center stage; the technologies are almost incidental.

The latest Intel commercials are particularly interesting (not to mention brilliant and amusing). One shows the co-inventor of USB technology being treated as a rock star as he walks through the office at Intel. Another shows a room full of people on their hands and knees looking for an extremely small dropped device.

The USB commercial places a quite dramatic emphasis on the human agency that brought the technology into existence – the technology itself doesn’t appear at all.

In the lost device spot, there is also an interesting relationship between people and the technology. First, the device itself is physically tiny in relation to humans. Instead of the technology looming over people, it is rather the people who loom over the technology and actually have to take care of it in a way.

After noticing this general tendency in the technological zeitgeist, I started wondering what brought it about. My theory is that it is related to the recession. There is now a diminished faith in the ability of the free market to (on its own) bring prosperity. One of the stronger strands of technological determinism is related to this logic of the free market, asserting that the free market will ensure that the best and most efficient technology wins. It seems logical that our skepticism about the free market might then carry over to a skepticism about technology as well, or at least technology that exists as part of a natural trajectory of development independent of human needs, goals and consequences. If this is in fact the case, hopefully this human-centric attitude toward technology will persist even after the recession.

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