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Technodeterminism

This article appears in the issue June 2013 [Volume 22, Issue 6]


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Cyberutopians are taking a beating these days, in part because we deserve it and in part because the media find that sort of controversy appealing. Mixed into the critique, often confusingly, is a thrashing of technodeterminism. It deserves criticism also, but for different reasons.

Cyberutopians believe that the Internet may or will lead to a better world. I don't know any who at this point actually believe that the Web is the promised land that will solve all our problems. Still, I certainly count myself among the cyberutopians because I think the Net has already humanized many of our institutions and our behaviors, and that we've only begun to realize its positive potential—which remains merely a potential.

Hopeful excitement

And that means that I am not much of a technodeterminist—someone who believes that the Internet has its effects independent of our action and behavior. The only pure technodeterminists I can think of are the cyberpessimists who believe, for example, that merely using the Internet negatively affects our brains.

Cyberutopians deserve to be slapped down when they overstate the goodness the Net will bring. But we need cyberutopians to keep us in the state of hopeful excitement that leads us to look for new possibilities. We also desperately need them in order to engage us in the political struggle for the soul of the Internet: The day we concede that the Net is just another communication network is the day that it will become just another communication network.

True technodeterminists need to be countered when they assume we are helpless in the face of the Internet. From my point of view, the main reason to do so is not that they're wrong—more about that in a minute—but that a foolish technodeterminism hides too much about the Net. If we think that the Net determines how it affects us and what it means to us, then we stop looking for differences in how different cultures and subcultures are taking up the Net, just as you wouldn't look for cultural differences in the effect a falling boulder has on a human foot.

Cultural variations

But technodeterminism doesn't have to be foolish. It can say that technology does have effects, but those effects depend on how a culture or subculture takes it up. To give one of an infinity of examples: When Google decides that it wants to move toward a "real name" policy for Google Plus, that may (may!) improve the quality of conversation in Western democracies, but it may kill honest conversation in countries with repressive governments. In fact, it might change the nature of discussion among groups that feel vulnerable within Western democracies. Technology has effects, but those effects will vary from culture to culture.

Keep the debate open

If we reject technodeterminism entirely, we will be unable to investigate the effect our technology has on us. But we want to be able to do so. To take a very old example: The spread of e-mail shortened meetings in many businesses. I believe this is true, and it's conceivably testable. And the phenomenon (if real) has an explanatory hypothesis: Workers were able to distribute their communication over the course of a week rather than depending on a weekly status meeting. As far as I know, no one maintaining that that was an effect of the Internet is also saying that it was an inevitable effect, that businesses were powerless to prevent it, or that it was an effect that occurred regardless of culture.

We give an ear to the bashing of technodeterminism because we don't have a general theory explaining how technology affects us. Through what it lets us do and what it makes hard? By how our social milieu takes it up? And how directly or indirectly? How much of it has to do with changes to brain function, to retraining our small motor movements, or even to our adopting technologies as metaphors by which we understand broader topics? Nevertheless we should not let our lack of a theory let us give in to the gleeful and excessive pounding technodeterminism is taking. Technology doesn't dictate how we'll use it or understand it, but it also is not nothing.

It would be a shame and a scandal if the anti-technodeterminists were to close down debate and thought about how technology affects us in general, and how the Internet is affecting us in particular.


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