Technological Determinism

I am absolutely, positively determined to have the most advanced technology versus anyone in the whole universe. My life will be more enhanced, more organized, more socialized, and just plain better. Those were the thoughts that raced through my mind when I first read the term technological determinism. Joking aside, in order to really think about this definition, I dusted off my Theories of Human Communication book to see if I could get at the root of the definition. In this book, Littlejohn and Foss discuss ontology – the “branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of being,” focusing on the nature of social interaction. One of the important issues of ontology is answering the question as to what extent people are making their own decisions, or as they describe real choices. The two points of view that are considered are whether or not a person is a pragmatist or a determinist. A person is a pragmatist if the belief is that humans are active decision makers who can control their destinies. On the other side of the spectrum are the determinists who believe that prior conditions will cause human behavior, and that humans are passive and reactive individuals.
In terms of defining technological determinism, this theory examines the relationship between technology and its effect on society. This theory states that technology will determine social change including the degree of that change. Relating this theory back to the deterministic way of thinking, the person would not be an active participant in creating change. The person would act according to the conditions set before them. In this case, a change in technology would cause a change in the social conditions. One of the issues with this way of thinking is that it is seems to take an all or nothing approach. The technology, which technological determinists consider as being autonomous, would cause the social change, giving little regard to other factors such as economic, political, or religious factors that could also contribute to a particular change. The theory forces simplistic thinking meaning there could be more complex reasons for a particular change.
In terms of applying this theory to a particular technology, a well known example is the Segway. The Segway was first unveiled in 2001 after months and months of hype. Before giving away any real hint of what the Segway was going to be, Ginger (its code name) was touted as the “it” that would change a person’s life. Ginger was going to change transportation in a way that no one could ever imagine. The question, what was that mode of transportation going to look like? The public speculated that Ginger could be some kind of personal jet pack, or something straight out of the Jetsons. This Segway was supposed to present itself as something so different and fascinating that it would cause society to change. There was so much hype with this product that once it was unveiled, it proved to be disappointing. The Segway was expensive, it was bulky, and in many places it has been banned from sidewalk use. The annual sales target of 40,000 units was too ambitious, as only 50,000 is the total number that has been shipped since its inception. The Segway is a niche product with a high price tag (starting price at approximately $5,000), and it did not catch on the way the company thought it would. However, there are many Segway tours in bigger cities and vacation spots such as Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Naples, Florida. Critics have said that one of the biggest issues with the Segway is that it was a “solution looking for a problem.” The Segway was supposed to change society as we knew it, but that kind of change never occurred.
Another technology that was kind of plopped in front of us and did cause a change is Facebook. Founded by students at Harvard, the original intent was to allow college students at the university to stay connected with each other. Its usage quickly expanded to include other colleges in the Boston area, the rest of the Ivy League schools, and Stanford. It quickly spread to high schools and finally to anyone who is age 13 or older. Social networking and “friending” people that you may or may not know is the catalyst behind this phenomenon. Facebook enjoys over 200 million active members worldwide. Its mission as stated on its web site is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to keep in touch with their friends, upload pictures, and share videos. Where technological determinism comes into play is where the technology was disclosed and people took that technology and began to change the way they communicate. I have a Facebook account that I never visit. I don’t have the time to deal with it and I don’t really care that much about keeping in contact with 300 people that I know from a friend of a friend, of a friend. I try to be private in my life and will only be open with close friends. I recently ran into a former classmate of mine and she told me she got engaged. She said that if I had a Facebook account and used it then I would have found out when everybody else did. I told her, that if she felt her news was so important, she would pick up the phone and call people. Facebook should not be a substitute for face to face or telephone communication. It should enhance what we have, not replace it.

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