[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
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        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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