[Humanist] 23.702 technological determinism?
Humanist Discussion Group
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Mar 13 10:14:51 CET 2010
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 702.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Sat, 13 Mar 2010 09:11:14 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: technological determinism
I am looking into the question of technological determinism -- the idea
that our technologies determine the shape and direction of our lives
absolutely or to a large degree. This question turns out to be much more
interesting and various than I had expected. I am persuaded by Raymond
Williams' argument in Television: Technology and Cultural Form
(1990/1974), which considers both poles of the determinism -- in his
terms "technological determinism" and "determined technology". Both, he
argues, are one-sided oversimplifications of limits set and pressures
exerted, by people and their inventions, “within which variable social
practices are profoundly affected but never necessarily controlled” (p.
133). That is, in a particular instance independence of humans and their
technologies may be compromised but is never in principle ruled out.
Within that case for a non-absolutist view, Robert Heilbroner's classic
article "Do Machines Make History" (1967) and his revisiting of the
topic in "Technological Determinism Revisited", both published in Does
Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, ed.
Smith and Marx (MIT Press, 1994) provide additional refinements. And
Thomas Misa's "How Machines Make History, and How Historians (and
Others) Help Them to Do So", Science, Technology & Human Values 13.3/4:
308-31, related to Misa's piece in the Smith and Marx volume,
"Retrieving Sociotechnical Change from Technological Determinism", helps
to relativise determinism by showing how the arguments about it tend to
vary by discipline and disciplinary specialism. (For example, as he
argues, military historians tend, or perhaps tended, to favour strong
determinism, I would suppose for the obvious reason that better hardware
tends to win wars -- until, perhaps, the close, dirty wars now in
progress demonstrated otherwise. Will they as a result become less
Anyhow, does anyone here know of writings on the topic, with or without
a view to computing, that it would be good for me to take a look at? Has
anyone considered the deterministic argument for computing?
Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.
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