The Human Donkey and the Technological Carrot

You might be reading this on your phone or tablet. Half-heartedly paying attention, watching your favorite television shows stream on Netflix. Biding your time until you Skype with your best friend in another state or country, posting status updates and tweeting random thoughts. This is the shape of modern society. Inundated with technology. Connected through an array of devices and social media and apps. A pervasive, all-consuming digital landscape, shaping and constructing our daily lives. And who’s really running the show? Are we still in control or is technology controlling us? There’s a donkey and a carrot, to be sure, but which is which?

Technological Determinism would have us believe that we are the unthinking donkey, led inexorably down the path by the enticing orange carrot of technology. The argument goes like this:

1. Technology develops independently from society.
2. When a technology is taken up and used in a society, it determines the character of that society.
3. Therefore, Technological Determinism is true.

We are not in control. Instead, we are supposed to be lorded over by a self-aware, self-perpetuating, omnipotent entity commonly referred to as technology.

There’s no way we should accept this, right?
Well, maybe.

In order to understand this argument, let’s look at the premises one by one.

The first tenet of Technological Determinism asserts that technological development follows a logic of its own, with one invention building on the next. The Determinists would bestow upon technology its own brand of Darwinian evolution by removing it from the realm of the artificial and relegating, assimilating, and reifying it in the realm of the natural. But this conceptualization is inaccurate; the classification insulting. This mythical beast called technology, this superstructural overseer, is said to exist, grow, and exert power outside of and wholly uninfluenced by social forces.

Reject this.

Scientific and technological developments do not exist in a vacuum. Technology is not a sentient, extra-dimensional being. Instead, it is very much something created in and by a collection of human beings, by a society. The nature, character, and development of technology are influenced by a wide range of social forces. Market forces check new technologies through the simple economic concept of demand. Government agencies and regulations encourage or curb development through regulation and funding. Cultural sentiments and prevailing moral sensibilities commend or condemn scientific research and technological advances through the time-honored and culturally constructed notions of right and wrong.

So while it may be true that technological development progresses in a logical manner, it is certainly not true that the logic of this progressive development works of its own volition, uninfluenced by the society which developed it and in which it progresses.

So much for the first premise.

It is not, however, as easy to refute the second premise, which states that when technologies are adopted by a society, that adoption determines social arrangements and patterns of behavior. In other words, a society which adopts a certain technology also adopts a certain way of life. As inclined as we may be to deny determinism outright, this premise has fortitude. Firstly, it’s a little bit of a chicken and egg scenario. Which came first, technology or society? Was there ever a non-technological society? Keep in mind that basic, rudimentary tools should be considered technology. Secondly, can we really say with any degree of honest reflection and sage conviction that social media and smart phones and streaming television and GPS haven’t fundamentally altered our way of life? Isn’t Twitter a lifestyle choice?

Still, critics argue that the terminology is too strong. They say that while technology shapes society, to say that it determines it is overstating the issue. Society can, the critics claim, affect technology in some ways, as in the case of form and design. I would argue that this is trivial. A rose by any other name, and so on. What substantial difference does it make if society pushes back on technology and demands, for instance, a smaller, thinner smartphone? It is, functionally speaking, the same piece of technology. The detractors of technological determinism want to view the situation in a sort of call and response conception. Technology calls out with what is technologically possible, and society responds with what is technologically desirable. I’m just not convinced that this argument, while superficially appealing because it reinforces our innate desire to perpetuate the notion of free-will, is of any substantive merit. Furthermore, the detractors appear to be accepting the first premise of technological determinism, by acting as if society and technology were both to be thought of as sentient entities, capable of agency. We have already shown this to be manifestly false.

So what, then, is the solution? I think we can find the answer if we look to the Ethical notion of Determinism. In moral theories, Determinists deny free-will. Everything in nature is the result of a cause and an effect. Human beings, or moral agents, are part of nature. Therefore, every action a moral agent performs is the result of a casual chain. The action was determined. Therefore, there is no free will.

Now, there are Hard Determinists and Soft Determinists. Hard Determinists assert that there is no reconciliation with the fact of this natural causal chain and the notion of free will. The notions of praise and blame should be jettisoned. Soft Determinists, however, make a distinction between external causes and internal causes. An action is performed freely and of the agent’s choosing if and only if the causes for that action are internal causes. External causes equal coercion or force; internal causes do not. Therefore, it is still appropriate to speak of moral culpability.

We should adopt this distinction when speaking of Technological Determinism. We should classify those who accept both the first and second premises as Hard Technological Determinists. We should also view this position as untenable. Those that reject the first premise while accepting the second premise, we should classify as Soft Technological Determinists. And we should hold this view as true. Technological developments are the result of a causal chain, a chain of which we are an integral part. Our desires, needs, and wants fuel new technology, while new technology generates new desires, needs, and wants. Society creates technology based on a collective need or desire, and these needs and desires are determined by a causal chain. Desires could be subsumed under the category of internal causes; needs as external. Whatever the case, there is no escaping causality; there is no escaping determinism. We find ourselves propelled frenetically forward down a path of technological progression.

The human donkey forever chasing the technological carrot.




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