Determinism

It is one of the main topics in cultural understanding of technology. In this perspective, technology is represented as the key driver or governing force of the main social changes and values. One of the first formulations of this view of social development came from the German philosopher Karl Marx (who considered transitions to the feudal system or to the capitalist system as determined by particular technologies such as the hand-mill or the steam-mill). His conception was embedded in his philosophical premises, in those that assume that all major transformations in the social superstructure and in the cultural practices depend on the material conditions. Technological determinism assumes that all patterns of social existence are conditioned by technical factors. Nevertheless other versions of this theory reject this vision of explaining social change and development and stress a distinction between two approaches: technology as a necessary and sufficient condition, and technology as a necessary but not sufficient condition (soft determinism). Technology then supplies opportunities or occasions to a social transition but it would be a matter of discussion that material factors were the unique cause of the transformations alluded to. In the following lines we reproduce a fragment of Karl Kautsky’s paper “Nature and Society” (December, 1929), where the autor, a revisionist of Marxist orthodox interpretations, expresses the inadequacy of a strict technological deterministic position.

Technology by itself, however, does not suffice to explain the entire working of society. One must not understand what I just said to mean that the same mode of production and the same form of society always and under all circumstances correspond necessarily to a certain technology […] I specially emphasize the difference between technology and the economy and that different economic formations can be linked to the same technology […] A large-scale enterprise can assume different economic forms that are independent of its technology: it can be the enterprise of an individual capitalist or of a corporation or of the state or of a workers’ cooperative. How a particular technical apparatus is applied at any one time depends not only on its technical characteristics but also on the nature of the society in which it appears […]

A knowledge of a particular technology is not sufficient for our understanding of a particular form of society. But it is always technical innovations that provide the impetus for a movement of the society. What is new in society is in the last analysis always traceable to a new technology that produces new economic conditions and social relations. In society and its economy there is no moving force through which it could by itself continue to develop without the impetus of technical innovations […]

[“Natur und Gesellschaft”, Die Gesellschaft, (Berlin), vol. 6/2, No.12 (December 1929), pp.481-505, publ.: International Journal of Comparative Sociology XXX, 1-2 (1989)]

The acceptance of a strict technological determinism implies that technology is out of human control; that progress is inevitable; that every culture follows the same developmental path, and that technology is neutral. Melvin Kranzberg discusses the latter assumption in the statement presented as his first law of technology: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral”, which condenses the idea that technology has numerous social, moral, ecological consequences that go beyond its most immediate scope and applications. Present times provide us examples of alternative versions of technological determinism. Just to mention one case, this mentality is assumed in the projects intended to improve third world socio-economic status through the deployment of technologies that facilitates free access to information (internet).