The Continuing Allure of Technological Determinism

In many STS (Science and Technology Studies, Science and Technology in Society) circles, the notion of technological determinism is often kindly dismissed as an incomplete understanding of human and world development. With a little more education, explanation, and experience, anyone can see the flaws in technological determinism and steer away from that line of thinking. Why, then, do I read a physics associate professor, Rhett Allain, espousing an unabashedly deterministic view of technological and human progress in early January of 2015? Has Wired magazine somehow corralled all the technological determinists–the faithful–into a bin and forced them to write articles about the future of our world as decided by current and emerging technologies? If not, what else is going on that would allow such highly educated individuals to feel drawn to a theory of human/world development that so brazenly flouts the work of STS scholars over the last thirty years or more? As Sally Wyatt (2008) muses: “Technological determinism is dead; long live technological determinism.” Technological determinism persists, Wyatt claims, because it offers an explanation of human-technology relations that makes sense to many people and offers predictive power (I am struggling to refrain from making connections to religions here, but they, too, make superficial sense at least). Langdon Winner (2004) might call writers of such deterministic work “technological somnambulists”–they are sleep walking through life and not fully aware of the processes and artifacts that constitute their surroundings. Whatever explanation we want to give as to why technological determinism persists, the point is that it continues as a mantra (for instance, see Ray Kurzweil, Nick Bostrom and other transhumanists) for coping with our technologically-infused present and hopeful future.

Technological determinism is the idea that that technologies determine the social, political, economic, environmental, psychological(?), artistic/creative(?), humanistic(?) directions and valuations of life on this planet and beyond. That is a rough, and poor, definition, but hopefully the main idea shines through: technologies determine how humans live/die and interact (with each other, animals and, generally, the world around us). Technologies make possible futures and unmake others. Increasingly, technologies determine what it means to be human–posthumanists and transhumanists are currently wading through such territory. Technological determinism, for those whose specific areas of study are the sciences and technologies, is not only an incorrect view. Its adherents should be rooted out and their propositions refuted and disparaged. The facile claims and explanations of teleological progress espoused by technological determinists have detrimental and flattening effects on the audiences they reach. Audiences will come away feeling both awe and exasperation. Though you likely hear the hyperbole in these typed words, let me state it flatly: most STS scholars likely do not have such strong feelings about technological determinists. I, however, think they should.

Technological determinism offers (often) simple predictions based on extrapolations of gathered data–this is the process of induction; that same process is, despite Sir Karl Popper’s exhortations to the contrary (well, maybe he would accept that it is the process but that it should not be), the skeleton of modern science. Science would not lead humanity astray. Science, and scientists, only want what is best for humans and humanity, the world, and our environments. Strangely, Allain sees a flaw here: what if corporations control the development and distribution of technologies–his example is Taco Bell creating the first fully automated restaurant and the commodification of everything that would ensue (that he uses a conditional here is amusing. Corporations do develop and control technologies; these technologies do have strong impacts on economies, individuals, cultures, etc.). I find his hypothetical situation strange because though he paints it as a potentially dystopian future, he also does not see much that could stop it. And that might be the thing that strikes me as so odd about determinists (social or technological): they stand on the shore and see the massive wave miles out to sea. They describe the wave and the forces that must have pushed it, compelled it to advance on their position. They marvel at its majesty and complexity, its capacity for destruction (and creation–the creation that will come after the destruction). From that destruction they imagine a new world emerging (though they do not state it, they must also imagine the death that would be needed to sustain a world where half the population would be un-employable because robots had taken over the manufacturing, service, transportation, and even creative sectors) that dwarfs our present in terms of efficiency, profit and happiness. Their optimism is so infectious, it is hard not to stand with them on that shore, aware but oblivious/unconcerned to/about the power that approaches them.

Perhaps the determinists are right. The tide is already higher than we think.

Allain, R. (2015). The robotification of society is coming. Wired.
Winner, L. (2004). Technology as Forms of Life. In D. Kaplan (Ed.) Readings in the Philosophy of Technology: pp.104-113. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.
Wyatt, S. (2008). Technological determinism is dead; long live technological determinism. In E. Hackett (Ed.) The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies: pp. 165-180. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


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