Technological Determinists vs. Cultural Materialists

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Word: Machinic

With the growing dependence our generation seem to have on technology, it seems appropriate to discuss how this phenomenon is to be interpreted within our cultural, political and economic sphere or not, as Technological Determinists including Marshall McLuhan argues.

According to McLuhan, “The medium is the message” and as such, technology holds the power to change our behaviour and force us to adapt to it. Therefore, all the information and ‘messages’ carried through said mediums, such as television, are used as a facade distracting us from the truth that is that this content keeps us in a state of denial as to technology’s influence. Technology is seen as autonomous and independent – out of our control. An example of this would be the influence the invention of the light bulb had on changing society’s perception of time. Television as a revolutionary technology would be that light bulb with its content merely adding, yet not changing, its autonomous nature. This is said to have increased exponentially with the concept of ‘globalisation’ and the formation of the ‘global village’.

Alternatively, another school of thought argues that social, cultural and political factors are intertwined and therefore cannot be removed from technology. With this, Cultural Materialism argues that Technological Determinism is one-sided with Raymond Williams arguing that, “… if the medium is the cause, all other causes, all that men ordinarily see as history, are at once reduced to effects.” One example of this would be the political interests that are held behind radio broadcasting in terms of controlling the message through regulations and censorship and controlling the reach this message has through its frequency.

Through this, Cultural Materialists attempt to answer the questions Technological Determinists left unanswered. One such question was that regarding the control of this ‘global village’. Here, the Uses and Gratification Theory comes into play whereby certain technologies are adopted and others are soon forgotten. As the name suggests, this theory argues that only the mediums viewed as having significant use or providing great satisfaction will be taken up. Therefore, as Pierre Levy suggests, “Technologies don’t determine, they lay the groundwork.”

Still, I believe that while it may be foolish to believe wholly in Technological Determinism’s claim that technology is removed from social, political and economic forces, Cultural Materialism fails to acknowledge the growing power technologies generate in modern society. For instance, the techniques society is required to develop in order to make use of these technologies are a clear form of our adapting to these mediums. From understanding how to read and compose text messages, to learning how to code within computer engineering, technology’s hold on society and its influence in the formation of the ‘global village’ is undeniable. Consequently, viewing technology as being only ‘neutral’ would prevent society from appreciating the wonderful complexity of that which is technology.

 

References:

Murphie, Andrew and Potts, John (2003) ‘Theoretical Frameworks’ in Culture and Technology London: Palgrave Macmillan: 11-38

Parikka, Jussi (2012) ‘Introduction: Cartographies of the Old and New” in What is Media Archaeology? Cambridge: Polity: 1-16

Levy, Pierre (1998) Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age University of Michigan: Plenum Trade, cited in Murphie and Potts (as below), p. 23

Williams, Raymond (1990) Television Technology and Cultural Form (ed. Ederyn Williams), London, Routledge

McLuhan, Marshall (1964) Understanding Media, New York, Signet Books

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