Monday, September 24, 2012

Post 6: Technological Determinism vs. Cultural Materialism

When it comes to the roots of technology diffusion, there are two competing theoretical perspectives: social shaping of technology and technological determinism. Which of these two perspectives makes more sense to you and why? Can you provide an example with a specific communication technology to support your argument?


Sicong Zhao said...
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Sicong Zhao said...

Sorry, put up a wrong one, have deleted it.
I consider myself as a firm Cultural-Materialism. Because based on what I know, it's hard to imagine that how Technology-Determinism was brought up at the first place. Anyway, I'm going to express my reasons as follow.
Back in 11th century, during the Song Dynasty of China, a worker in a printing factory had a thought. As he and his colleagues were carving the whole page of a book on stone, and throw it away because it only fitted one certain book. "Why can't we have multiple single Chinese characters and use it flexibly instead of carving a a whole piece of stone for one page?" With that thought, the young inventer finally managed to come up with a new type of printing, known as the movable-type printing, 400 years earlier than Guttenberg's Western type of movable printing. His name now is well known by almost every Chinese people, his name is Bi Sheng(毕昇).
Unlike Guttenberg', whose innovation set up a wave of western technology revolution, Bi Sheng's innovation remained only on technical level. Although his innovation met a rapid diffusion both inside and outside the country, the innovation didn't bring up any type of social change. If any, people use it more often to print more government-approved books to teach people stuffs rather than spreading free ideas.
Moreover, back in 1410, during the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor of China had this most elite soldiers of the whole country, called "ShenJi Battalion"(神机营). The battalion has a some 5000 soldiers, all equipped with the most advanced fire guns, as well as 3600 long fire guns, 400 short fire guns, 120 multiple-barrel fire guns and 160 cannons. It was the most powerful battalion then, and was never defeated by any enemy. It was the crown jewel of the Empire.
Not to mention Zheng He(郑和), the most famous navigator back in 1405. Zheng navigated a total of 7 times, until 1430, and reached furthest to Kenya. His fleet had a total of more than 3000 ships tops, which made the Ming Dynasty the strongest country in the world by then.
However, all these didn't lead to any change of China's political structure. Unlike the later European navigators, the high frequency overseas treading didn't lead to colonization nor capitalism. Zheng actually went to those places to demonstrate the power and wealth of his Emperor. So, as a result, none of these innovations led to any form of social change.
No need to bring up more examples, I think it's good enough to say that technology development was a technical level innovation. It sure did something to the society, but certainly not enough to stimulate or initiate any form of social reform. There is no single key factor here but all factors are relevant like the productivity; relationship of productivity; culture; religion; economy and scientific technology etc.
Accordingly, I am thinking that neither the situation nor the condition between western and eastern society were different, so maybe Technology-Determinism could be applicable in the West, but it is definitely not helpful in China. And I think even if the theory is true, there has to be more factors influencing behind the technology itself. For example, there were many countries in Europe which were independent for the most of times in history, while in China were unified for the most of times. I assume that one innovation denied by an European Emperor may finally survive and develop in another country, while in China the innovation would be denied and fade away because of the highly unified and integrated society. So in general, I think technology had never been an decisive factor, and never will be, if without the correspondence development on the other fields.

Amber Knutson said...
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Amber Knutson said...

While I generally waiver between the two camps of thinking, I suppose if I had to pick one to align myself more with it would be social shaping of technology.

While I do believe that technology shapes society, I don't believe that technology can be created without a need, a want, or a reason that is offered and created by the society it is developed in.

The space race, for instance, created a need for space ships, space stations, which in turn eventually created the internet, satellite tv, laptops, and more. Before Sputnik was created, the Soviets wanted to track the U.S. and, thus, Sputnik was created. There was a need and then scientist developed the technology.

Saying this, however, I don't believe that there are two camps. Because no matter how you explain it, people HAVE to develop the technology. Without people, there is no technology. Technology by definition is created from a person. To that end, though, technology, when diffused, changes the society that developed it. Sputnik changed the way Americans saw themselves, the way that people connected. Televisions became more and more popular because of the Space Race. From the Space Race came the internet and we all know how much that has changed the world.

My point: there is only one camp. And it's a circle. Let's call it: The Social and Technological Change Circle.
Society's needs and wants begets technology begets social change begets needs or wants begets the whole thing over again.

Sarah Wiley said...

I agree with Amber's last part here about a technology circle. I don’t you can have one without the other, really. You must have human agency to create and disseminate these technologies (cultural materialism) but the technology too shapes how we function. There is something to be said how these technologies reprogram our relationships, our cultures, our morals and norms, and our very brains.

Chicken or egg? Both are necessary

To reference Bill’s discussion about technological innovation and lack of social change – to be the devil’s advocate, one could argue that the reason there was no social change was because the government squashed much of the potential for change. In the case of Zheng He and long-distance navigation, navigation was closely regulated by the Emperor and later on was discouraged. Perhaps the court knew afterall the problems that would be created with people wanting to come and go from the country (ie he knew of the potential social change that could be brought on by technology) so he controlled it. But I’m sure the nuances of Chinese history are a bit off topic here.

Anonymous said...

If I have to pick one of them, I would choose McLuhan’s side. This is not because I am a big fan of Matrix which predicted a horrible future for our human beings, but I really believe technology is pushing us to run on an unprecedented way which is beyond our experience.

Sorry folks, again, I am using Chinese history as an example since Bill started on it.

1. As Harold Innis indicated, the emerging of language and character was the major factor to lead to the successive civilization. In China, the main effect of language and character is the thousands of years of the rule of feudal dynasties. With the development of communication, people came to realize that the centralized feudal system was able to keep a relatively stable society and it could be the best choice we can have at that time. Confucius was the most famous person to build this idea up, expanding and fulfilling it. Confucius was running in different states to lobby each nobility to accept his idea, but his idea was not accepted and promoted until he died. Han Dynasty, one of the most powerful Chinese dynasties, established the Confucianism as a ruling ideology. Also, there is another historical event happened in Han Dynasty: the invention of papermaking. The promotion of Confucius’s idea reached to its first historical peak with the prevalence of papermaking.
2. As Billed described, Bisheng invented printing in Song Dynasty. I would like to point out that there was another important and dynamic event in Song: the advocacy of Confucianism reached to another peak. Confucianism was sorted out as five principles that influenced the whole society deeply and continually.
3. The collapse and fading of Confucianism came with the rising of communication technologies in 1910s, which may not be a coincidence. The spread of western culture of democracy and science impacted Chinese society politically and economically, along with Marx’s radical and influential idea. In result, China entered a period in which China looked more like a laboratory used to test several different philosophies in its unique and complex society.
4. The widespread of the Internet, especial the rising of social network, challenges Chinese government’s online control and censorship. The inspiring phenomena are the surge of unprecedented amount of critical information and the increasing political participation. Where the communication technologies will lead us to is still unclear, I am holding an optimistic thought that technology will help us realize the value of individualism politically and economically.

Raeann Ritland said...

For me, social shaping of technology makes more sense than does technological determinism; though, I think both have their weaknesses. I would have to agree with the criticisms pointed out in the article we read. That is, determinists seem to give zero credit to any external factors contributing to technological innovations. They say technology is autonomous, or independent; it just is. I disagree. Perhaps I take the belief too literally, but technology doesn’t just come into being. Someone has an idea (which likely stems from an observation of a society lacking in some aspect), makes plans, creates a prototype (sometimes), and then develops the actual technology. So much thought and time goes into the process that it’s impossible for me to believe a person creating a technology cannot be influenced by outside sources. It just seems illogical to me. While I do agree with McLuhan, that the channel of communication can be just as important, if not more, than the message, I do not think it renders the message inconsequential.
As for technology determining the changes within society, the main tenant of technological determinism, again I disagree. I think my favorite example from the article was the printing press because it made step back and think. The press did fundamentally change almost every aspect of culture. However, a person (part of society) had to create the printing press, and people (society) had to choose to implement it. What would cause people to use such a contraption? The supposed benefits it had for society had to outweigh the negatives. Again, people, even if they were a small, elitist group, were responsible. Thus, I think technological determinism gives too much credit to technology and not near enough to people themselves.
However, I think social shaping of technology also has its faults. I do not think that social pressures determine all technological advances. Rather, I think I prefer the cyclical relationship we hinted at toward the end of class last week. Technology influences social change which influences technology, which then again influences society. Looking again at the printing press, I see this kind of relationship (and I do not pretend to know all the history surrounding it, so forgive me if I’m not completely accurate or if I gloss over or leave out important details). There was a need for some kind of change (the inclusion of lay people in education and religion), so a technology was developed. This then acted as a sort of catalyst so social change could happen. From here, other technologies developed.

Aimee Burch said...

I tend to go back and forth, like many of us have mentioned on here. I think we have seen how technology can shape a society. Our phones, computers, televisions, and other gadgets have certainly seeped into our lives in such a way that it is hard to imagine a time when they weren't around, though I know at one point we did. But at the same time, I see how there have been some new technologies and gadgets created for really no rhyme or reason. The examples that come to mind here are mostly children's toys, things that aren't necessarily needed in society but for some odd reason are wanted by members.

It is hard to tell what came first the majority of the time. Did the technology come along first and change things, or did we as a society recognize a need and develop a technology to satisfy it? I think that is an area in which I struggle to understand. Being someone who likes order and reason, I don't like the feeling of not understanding why things happen. But, as with many things, that is not how the world works.

Maybe it can be looked at on a case by case basis. Is this something that is really "one size fits all?" Again, I'm not sure. But it's something I have thought about many times in reading the materials for class.

Raeann Ritland said...

I think Sarah's comment about "the chicken and the egg" sums up our discussion in class. It's really difficult to determine if one precedes the other because the two seem so intertwined. I also like Aimee's question asking whether this is a "one size fits all" theory. I lean toward no because in any situation, there's going to be the exception to the rule, and I think this is no different. In some cases, it may seem that technology came first, but in other cases, the social materialist aspect sounds more plausible. Again, I think it all goes back to the cycle idea..that there really is no right answer.

Amber Knutson said...

Di/Mary - couldn't you argue though that the Chinese people have been wanting these types of technologies. It's not always possible for a people to develop technologies, especially when the government controls so much. The Chinese people wanted/needed many of these technologies and thus they were diffused and then this diffusion changed society? I feel that the important aspect of it would be people, not really the technology.
This reminds me of the "Arab Spring." After it all happened, so many people pronounced technology to be the spark that created the revolution - it was hotly debated -, but the technology was only a way to unite the people's wants and needs. It may have been a "catalyst" ( ) but it was still just a tool.

Amber Knutson said...

Di/Mary - couldn't you argue though that the Chinese people have been wanting these types of technologies. It's not always possible for a people to develop technologies, especially when the government controls so much. The Chinese people wanted/needed many of these technologies and thus they were diffused and then this diffusion changed society? I feel that the important aspect of it would be people, not really the technology.
This reminds me of the "Arab Spring." After it all happened, so many people pronounced technology to be the spark that created the revolution - it was hotly debated -, but the technology was only a way to unite the people's wants and needs. It may have been a "catalyst" ( ) but it was still just a tool.