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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Event: not your average party.

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Event.

Upon first encountering this term, the thoughts of most individuals, including myself, immediately turn to the Mardi Gras parade or your best friend’s 21st birthday party. However, when one delves further into the notion of ‘events’ and more specifically, ‘media events’, this definition becomes increasingly blurred.

The difficulty we find in pin-pointing, let alone defining, a media event is primarily based on the ever-changing nature of said processes in a world where, as Andrew stressed, changing changes. This is particularly true in today’s media environment where traditional mediums including newspapers no longer solely claim monopoly on creating and publicising media events. Rather, new mediums including the vast array of social media and other online domains has meant that even everyday events such as going to school have the capability of becoming media events. Whereas previously, an event was only recognised and awarded credibility through the attention it garnered through traditional and broadcast media, the way news moves is no longer linear. As such the likelihood of an original source of an event being found through a video gone viral online is equal to that of a media event that has been promoted through video footage played on the nightly news broadcast.

With the term ‘event’ having been defined generally by Foucault as something that has a beginning and an end: “Every human experience, activity, idea and cultural form can be analysed as an event or as a series of events”, a ‘media event’ may be more specifically viewed as this same event that has been published in print or online with the aim of garnering attention, promoting discussion and gaining publicity. Furthermore, not only can everyday events become media events but another phenomenon termed ‘Weird Global Media Events’.

According to Ken Wark, such events are, “’Events’ in the sense of singular irruptions into the regular flow of media [and everyday life].” In layman terms, this refers to a break in how we would normally associate political, economic or cultural events and the ‘weirdness’ of this event attracts global attention and publicity. The proliferation of this category of event may also be attributed to the concept of globalisation whereby the world is shrinking due to rapid technological advancement. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is one such example of ‘Weird Global Media Events’ where the whole world stood still watching the break in the political conventions of that particular period.

Therefore, the term ‘media events’ is becoming gradually difficult to pin-point and will continue to do so as the lines between users and producers online become blurred and the hierarchy of media used to promote events are gradually disappearing.

 

References:

Wark, M 1994, Virtual Geography: Living with Global Media Events Indianapolis: Indiana University Press