Is Determinism Too Determined?
Ong (1982) poses that the technology of writing enables us to reach our full potential, that we can gain a higher consciousness, and to “live and to understand fully, we need proximity but also distance” (Ong, 1982, p. 81). While much could be said about how this view establishes literate cultures above oral cultures, the deterministic views on writing as a technology must first be discussed. Technological determinism arguments that follow this line of thought can be too simplistic a viewpoint on how cultures and communities interact. Other factors must be considered when trying to understand how a technology’s creation and adoption impact society.
Chandler (1995) expresses concerns over theories of Determinism in regards to technology. Technological Determinism is evident in Ong’s (1982) views on how writing as a technology has changed how we think, behave, and interact with others. Determinism may not take into account the full scope of how technology is created. This type of thinking focuses too much on the technology itself and not the driving forces that helped create the need for and completion of the technology’s invention (Stackhouse, 2012).
Technological Determinism regards technology as the “agent of social change” (Murphie & Potts, 2003, p. 11). Technological determinism, in forms like Ong’s (1982) views on writing, proclaim that the technology itself changes all aspects of a society, from its institutions down to the individual level (Chandler, 1995, Technology-led Theories section, para. 2). Murphie & Potts (2003) describe this as the idea that technology development is progress and considers the technology as an “independent factor, with its own properties” they go on to add that the development of the technology is “removed from social pressures, it follows a logic or imperative of its own” (p. 12).
Murphy & Potts (2003) point out that this view can be too focused on one side of the issue. This narrow focus looks at technologies separately and that they come into being “of their own accord and proceed to mould societies in their image” (p. 17). The authors discuss that some may criticize Determinism when they mention critics of Baudrillard and his extreme views on Determinism. However, they do say that even he can be used as a reminder of how technology has had an impact on culture, “an effect, largely beyond social control” (Murphie & Pots, 2003, p. 17). This theory views the technologies as a driving force in changing society. It also looks, as Murphie & Potts (2003) put it, “to the present, projected onto the future” (2003, p. 12).
The idea that society only responds to technology and how it changes society does not allow for the cultural (work, social, communication) demands of society that made way for technologies to be created in response to these demands. Nor does it consider how humans choose to use and interact with the technology available (Chandler, 1995, Theoretical Stance section, para. 14). While the use of technology (writing, texting, social media, etc.) has altered our culture; it was also created as a response to how people wanted to be able to work, communicate, and interact. So, in this sense there is a teeter-totter, give and take between the technology and society. Societies have changing needs and demand changes, the technology provides them, and then society and culture adapt to the new technology (Stackhouse, 2012). This view may align more closely to other theories such as Socio-Cultural Determinism rather than Technological Determinism.
Socio-Cultural Determinism may be a more fitting stance on writing and its determining factors. This view would look more to other aspects involved when dealing with a technology. Winston and Williams (as cited in Murphie & Potts, 2003) were two historians that were interested in the “pre-existing social formations in which technological developments occur” (p. 19). Chandler (1995, Theoretical Stances section para. 14) acknowledges that the critics of Technological Determinism try to emphasize other factors that lead to the development of technology.
In this sense then we would have to look at the history of orality and what led to the development of literate societies. Ong (1982) does present historical implications of how writing as a technology came to be and how it has developed. From here though he moves to the Determinism mindset that can be easily shown in his statement, “More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness” (Ong, 1982, p. 77). Ong is giving the technology (writing) the power to transform us without our control. This gives the technology its own autonomy. Chandler (1995) cautions that this belief in ‘technological autonomy’ may lead to a “self-fulfilling prophecy” (Technological Autonomy section, para. 20). This could mean that the arguments that Ong (1982) uses in declaring writing as a technology that acts on its own to create social change may be circular and it would be difficult to know which caused one or the other to happen.
Determinism focusing on technology to determine how we think and act ignores how we came to that point. What was the cultural climate or the needs of a society that led to the point of the technology (in the case of this commentary, the technology of writing) being created? In Chandler’s (1995) conclusion he states that technology is a factor that impacts human behaviour and society, and we must consider that any great technology has the potential to impact society. We cannot ignore the impact that technologies, including writing, have had on literate societies. We must also realize that the technology is a tool that is developed through human need and innovation. In this sense humans are the determining factor in how a technology will be adopted and impact society.
Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or Media Determinism [Online]. Retrieved, 20 September, 2012 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html
Critiquing Ong: The problem with technological determinism. [Course notes].
Retrieved from Lecture Notes [Online]. Retrieved, 19 September, 2012 From: https://www.vista.ubc.ca/webct/urw/tp9275170934161.lc9275170913161/cobaltMainFrame.dowebct
Murphie, A. and Potts, J. (2003). Culture and technology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Ong, W. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.
Stackhouse, K. (2012, September 10). Determining determinism [Forum Posting, ETEC 531]. Retrieved, 14 September, 2012 From: https://www.elearning.ubc.ca