#EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the past (part 2)

As well as the videos covered in my last post, the resources for the first week of Edinburgh University’s E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC included a paper by Daniel Chandler about technological determinism. Ultimately the paper is a rejection of technological determinism, with the author describing the theory as ‘reductive’ and technocentric.

I haven’t done enough supplementary reading to feel well-informed about the theory and criticisms of it. But I thoroughly agree with the sentiments in Ryan Tracey’s blog post prompted by the course, and he articulates them far better than I could hope to do. So instead, I spent a bit of time revisiting the short films from last week in light of this paper.

Technological determinism appears prevalent in Bendito Machine III in a few ways. It posits technology as a prime driver of changes in the primitive society depicted: the move from individualised characters to homogeneous groups, for example, is shown to have strong causal links to the arrival of new technology. Certainly this is reductionist, in Chandler’s terms. More interesting for me is the film’s suggestion of technological autonomy: as I noted last week, the TV appears to take on a life of its own. It is not a product of society, having been sent down from the skies above, and it is not under human control. To use Chandler’s language, it is ‘independent, self-controlling … seen as out of human control, changing under its own momentum and ‘blindly’ changing society’. The film is also showing a linear evolutionary view: each new technology resolutely replaces what came before, leading to the identification of clearly delineated ‘eras’. The film shows a society moving through the age of the radio, to the age of the TV and then to the age of computers (much like technological determinists would define social progress through eras such as the machinery age, through the space age, into the electronic age). There is no acknowledgement, in this theory as in the film, of the ways in which older and newer technologies work together and complement one another as much as they replace one another.

Inbox, on the other hand, appears to be less deterministic. I suppose the technological imperative is there in that Priya and Karthi communicate through this new means of technology simply because it presents itself to them and they can. But it never becomes an end in itself: the human aspect of the interaction is very much the driving force after the initial impetus presents itself. There is much more interplay between the technology and the people using it than suggested in Bendito Machine III. I already noted last week that this film was harder to categorise as either utopian or dystopian, and it seems there is a connection here. The films that are more firmly in one of those camps also tend to display a more deterministic perspective. Inbox, which is more ambiguous and open to interpretation, takes a more neutral view of technology. It is neither good nor bad in itself. There is the potential for Priya and Karthi to use it in a variety of ways, some harmless and others harmful. The way they choose to use it is what’s important and what shapes their experience, just as the way we choose to use technology on a larger scale shapes its impact on society.

The arguments behind technological determinism seem fairly flimsy. While we all have moments of anthropomorphising machines (Chandler uses the example of not letting the photocopier know how urgent your need is because that’ll make it break down), the idea that technology is self-controlling seems fairly absurd. As Ryan says, ‘any given technology – whether it be a tool, a gadget or a methodology – is merely a thing. It can not do anything until people use it.’ Similarly, the whole deterministic theory seems destabilised by the fact that numerous technological ideas and inventions fall by the wayside. It may be true that smartphones and tablets, once a fantasy, quickly embedded themselves in our lives to the point of now feeling indispensable and influencing and changing our habits. But for every technology that makes such an impact, how many more have failed to reach the marketplace or, once there, have failed to make any kind of impact? Social change is not driven purely by technology; it’s driven when need or appetite coincide with the right technology. Again, I defer to Ryan’s phrasing: ‘Technology is a driver of change in society, but not always, and never by itself. In other words, technology can change society when combined with social demand.’

2 thoughts on “#EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the past (part 2)

  1. MAnnis

    Great point about how technology can change society when combined with social demand. Well worth reading is the conclusion to Julian Bleecker’s article “A Manifesto for Networked Objects.” In the last couple of paragraphs, Bleecker sets out how people can leverage technology to create “more habitable worlds.” Rather than technological determinism, for me, Bleecker’s “manifesto” calls for technological opportunism.

  2. Pingback: #EDCMOOC: being human – reasserting the human | Good To Great

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