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June 19, 2007

Technological Determinism or Determining Technology?

by Steven J. Tepper

Many of the postings and reactions to the book vacillate between "technological determinism" and "technological realism." The first group imagines that our patterns of engagement will change dramatically because of the introduction of new technology, alerting us to a number of possible scenarios: death to experts and professionals; rampant choice and diversity; hyper-active and interactive audiences who dictate every detail of their experiences; constant mediation through screens and electronic devices; etc. The others tend to believe that there is nothing truly "new" about "new technology" and that it is simply returning us to habits and modes of engagement that were popular in earlier times. Others simply see technology as a useful tool, but not as transformative of social and cultural life.

Sociologists and historians of technology have long debated these issues. At times, technology has had revolutionary effects on culture (the invention of cheap paper and the rise of the novel or the invention of gas lighting and urban nighttime entertainment). And, at times technology has had incremental effects (after Guttenberg's invention, wide scale, private reading took place side-by-side with earlier traditions of reading out loud in public). And, there are examples when technology was simply incorporated into exiting social patterns and habits (rather than changing them). For example, people feared that the telephone, when first widely distributed, would isolate people from each other - replacing intimate ties with more distant interactions. In fact, the telephone was simply used by people, mainly women, to more efficiently schedule face-to-face visits.

Most likely, technology will play out in all three ways today. I think in the realm of participatory culture, technology might well have a transformative effect (more people will be making more art and sharing it with more people). In other ways, I expect more incremental change (e.g., people will not immediately start wandering off the beaten path to sample music and culture from around the world... this will take place more slowly and will happen along side traditional mass media). And, I think some technology will simply be used as a tool to enable people to do what they have always done, just more efficiently. So, I don't expect that people will hibernate in their own personal cultural cocoons. I think they will use technology to share culture and to enhance the social context and rewards of listening to music, watching films, or seeing great art. If a technological application does not advance an existing social pattern, it is not likely to persist and diffuse broadly.

Posted by stepper at June 19, 2007 7:50 AM


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