Hard vs. Soft Determinism

Authors such as Walter Ong, Daniel Chandler, Martin Oliver, Jay Bolter and Neil Postman have written extensive works on the implications of introducing new technology on society. These writings serve to discuss the notion of a technological determinism and the implications this has on human thoughts and conscious understanding. Daniel Chandler (1995) defines two levels of technological determinism. The highest level of determinism called “hard determinism” (p. 1) is the result of only one catalyst causing some form of radical change. The second level of technological determinism, according the Chandler (1995), is “soft determinism” where the “presence of a particular technology is an enabling or facilitating factor” (Chandler, 1995). In response to soft determinism, the change in society and human consciousness is a result not only of the new technology, but a collection of all factors that are acting upon and within a culture to create this change. A third possibility exists when there is no function of determinism at play in deciding society’s reaction to the inclusion of new technology. This commentary will explore some of the literature available to discuss these three levels of determinism.

Ong (1982) supports the idea of hard determinism in his exploration of writing and its effects on human cognition. Ong (1982) defines two types of people; non-literate (oral) and literate (p. 50). These categories support the idea of hard determinism as those that are of the non-literate (oral) group have not gained the knowledge that those within the literate culture have (p. 50). Ong (1982) claims that “writing has transformed human consciousness” (p. 77), suggesting that writing has caused a drastic change in society’s thinking. This supports the notion that the outcome was predetermined when the technology was introduced to society.

Chandler (1994) also refers to a division between people, however; he focuses on those who have benefited and those who have not benefited from the introduction of a technology (p. 1). He refers to this as the “Great Divide” (p. 1) and continues to draw examples from opposites in societies (e.g ‘primitive vs. civilized’, ‘simple vs. advanced’, etc.). In summary, a divide is created between groups when people either adapt to the introduced technology or not. This divide also creates different modes of thinking and understanding. To support this, Ong (1982) recalls a research experiment conducted by A. R. Luria during the years 1931-1932 (p. 49). In this experiment, the researcher found significant differences between the thought processes of individuals that were classified as literate and those classified as non-literate (Ong, 1982). This adds credibility to Chandler’s “Great Divide” explanation of differences (1994) and shows Ong’s (1982) support for a hard deterministic explanation.

Postman (1992) introduces us to the story of Thamus (p. 1). The story of Thamus explains concerns over the divide that happens between people when a new technology is introduced. In Postman’s (1992) writing we see that there is clearly a hierarchy created between those fluent in technology’s use and those that are not (p. 9). Accordingly, this supports the “Great Divide” theory discussed by Chandler (1994) and the divide which separates oral from literate as discussed by Ong (1982). However, this hierarchy between people forms from gradual societal adaptation (p. 12) and therefore supports the notion of “soft determinism” (Chandler 1994) as the technology is not working singularly to produce societal change, but rather acting as one factor from within society to bring about change.

As Oliver (2011) notes, when studying the effect of technology on learning, conclusions about the technologies direct effect on individuals is difficult to measure (p. 377). This supports the idea that society is not in fact responding to a predetermined path in response to the introduction of technology, but rather reacting to its inclusion in society along with other elements within the environment. Technology therefore does not have a straightforward impact on an individual’s learning (Oliver, 2011). Oliver (2011) also discusses the introduction of technology in terms of Vygotsky’s “Activity Theory” (p.377), which studies learning in terms of interactions with individuals within a social setting. Accordingly, individuals learn from interactions with others thereby integrating and using the technology within their own relative setting. This idea of interactions between individuals determining the success or failure of a technology’s integration supports a non-deterministic theory. Individuals are acting their will upon the technology to integrate, rather than technology forcing itself on individuals to achieve change.

Bolter (2001) also addresses the issue of technological determinism and argues that “technologies do not determine the course of culture or society, because they are not separate agents that can act on culture from the outside” (p. 19). This supports the idea that the technology is an integral part of the culture and not an outside force. In this argument, Bolter (2001), attempts to show that technological determinism is non-existent, and that technologies are not agents of change (p. 19). This is a contradictory stance to the “hard technological determinism” Chandler (1995) and Ong (1982) provide. However, Bolter (2001) does concede that “it is possible to understand print technology is an agent of change without insisting it works in isolation or in opposition to other aspects of culture” (p. 19). This stance then supports the idea of a “soft determinism” as described by Chandler (1995), where print technology is one of several possible factors that have brought about a change in human thoughts and understanding.

Technology has the ability to influence all spheres of human interactions. Whether or not this influence is predetermined, partially predetermined or completely random, we must understand that there will be changes in society in response to new technologies. Whether these are for the better or worse will not be easily determined, however; it will be society that must adapt.



Bolter, J. D. (2001) Writing Space: Computers, hypertext and the remediation of print. New York, NY: Routledge.

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” theories, phonocentrism, graphocentrism and logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/litoral/litoral.html

Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or media determinism [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html

Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and literacy. London: Routledge.

Oliver, M. M. (2011). Technological Determinism in Educational Technology Research: Some Alternative Ways of Thinking about the Relationship between Learning and Technology. Journal Of Computer Assisted Learning, 27(5), 373-384.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

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