One of the questions which has been debated within media studies since the 1960’s is the extent to which we can understand technology to be something which determines society, or whether technologies are themselves socially determined. Two important theorists who are often used to exemplify both ends of this spectrum are Marshall McLuhan and Raymond Williams.
McLuhan was a Canadian theorist of media and technology who rose to prominence in the 1960s following the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which McLuhan argued that the vast majority of previous works which explored media effectively missed the point. Whereas traditional explorations of media considered the ways that content and production are shaped by ideological factors, which then condition the readings and meanings of texts, McLuhan argued that this focus upon the content of media was entirely misplaced, as the primary meaning or effect of ‘any medium or technology, is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs’ (1964:16). This leads to McLuhan’s famous declaration that the ‘message is the medium’ and that ‘our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how it is used that counts,’ is merely ‘the numb stance of the technological idiot.’ (1964:26)
McLuhan argued that media and technologies in general were used by humans to extend their bodily capabilities into the environment, with different technologies augmenting the capacities of different sensory organs. For example McLuhan argues that the phonetic alphabet and subsequent technologies surrounding the printing press extended human vision, whilst numbing hearing as communication which had previously been verbal and involved listening had become based upon reading and sight. McLuhan additionally argues that the printing press, and the mode of standardising writing which it introduced was responsible for the rise of nationalism and centralised mode of governance and social organisation. This McLuhan contrasts with electric technologies, which he contends extends the human nervous system, and is necessarily decentralising. McLuhan’s insistence that particular technologies necessarily have specific impacts which are direct results of their form exemplify a type of thought which is described as technological determinism – as the technology is said to directly determine society. The link below is to McLuhan’s seminal Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and the first chapter provides a useful introduction to his influential mode of thought.
Marshall McLuhan – Understanding Media pp1-22
While McLuhan’s statements were initially very well received within both academia and popular culture, his arguments were subsequently critiqued by a range of scholars, the best known of which is the British cultural and literary theorist Raymond Williams.
Williams writes from a Marxist position which is concerned with understanding the power relations which are implicit within forms of mediation, and how these power relations promote particular forms of social relationship which tend to support dominant ideological formations within society. Consequently, Williams was highly dismissive of McLuhan’s notion that the ways that media are used is unimportant, arguing that:
The technical abstractions in their unnoticed projections into the social world, have the effect of cancelling all attention to existing and developing (and already challenged) social institutions If the effect of the medium is the same, whoever controls or uses it then we can forget ordinary political and cultural argument and let the technology run itself’ (1974:131).
This would seem to resonate with how we think about media, whereby readers of the Australian tend to have a different understanding of politically charged issues such as climate change to people who get their news from ABC, and consequently are likely to act in very different ways as a result of their different understandings of the issue.If the technology itself was the primary message, then the differences in content which have been shown by empirical studies (eg Philo and Berry 2004) to affect whether or not people will support actions as important as overseas military interventions, are somehow relatively unimportant. Consequently Williams accuses McLuhan of reducing the effects of the social uses of technology which is designed, implemented, regulated and used in differing ways which have a multitude of impacts, to a simple technological essentialism which effectively ratifies the existing political system, as the crucial motor of social change is not human actions, but technological usage. In contrast to McLuhan’s technological determinism, Williams position can be understood as social constructivism, whereby the impacts of technologies are socially and culturally constructed by the ways in which they are employed by humans. The link below presents Williams’s extended critique of McLuhan.
Raymond Williams – The Technology and the Society pp1-23
Whilst Williams’s argument was largely seen to have refuted the claims of technological determinism within media and cultural studies, the societal shifts surrounding digital technologies and networked computing from the 1980’s onwards have somewhat revitalised some of McLuhan’s claims. The technological changes seemed to be creating some of the types of shift in terms of how we experience time and space. McLuhan was named the patron saint of Wired magazine, a publication which explores various issues surrounding digital technologies from a pro-technology and pro-capitalist perspective.
The issue with the straightforward determinism which McLuhan presented, however, was the claim that ‘electricity does not centralise but decentralises’ (McLuhan 1964:55)This was obviously not true in cases such as the use of national electricity grids or nuclear power stations.The simple deterministic consequences which McLuhan ascribes to particular technologies are overly simplistic, just as Williams’s (1974:133) claim that ‘We must reject technological determinism in all its forms’ is equally an over-simplification. Recently there have been a range of approaches which attempt to construct alternative understandings of technology which suggest a form of soft determinism, whereby technology impacts and affects society, whilst society simultaneously affects and shapes technology (Bennett 2011, Terranova 2004, Steigler 1998, Braidotti 2013) Below is a link to Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social, a text which introduces the approach of Actor-Network Theory (ANT), which is a good example of a soft determinism.
Bruno Latour – Reassembling the Social, Introduction pp1-17
In this section we have explored a number of theories which explore the relationships between that technology and agency, considering viewpoints which asks whether or to what extent technology and technological changes can be said to construct or determine society, and conversely exploring the range of ways that societies determine technologies. We finished by thinking about how some contemporary approaches have argued that technology and society are mutually co-constitutive, meaning that technology and society cannot be functionally separated and evolve together.
- Do you agree with McLuhan or Williams on the subject of technological determinism?
- Do you think that technologies which have emerged during your lifetime, such as smartphones and tablets have changed the way that you live?
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press, 2009.
Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Polity, 2013.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding media: the extensions of man.(1964).
Philo, Greg, and Mike Berry. Bad news from Israel. Pluto Press, 2004.
Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and time, 1: The fault of Epimetheus. Vol. 1. Stanford University Press, 1998.
Terranova, Tiziana. Network culture: Politics for the information age. Pluto Press, 2004.
Williams, Raymond. “Television: Technology and cultural form.” (1974).