In the developed world, we’re hyperaware of the prominent role technology plays in our lives.
The term ‘technology’ is complex and Murphie and Potts (2003) suggest it has now been generalised to the point of abstraction, as ‘an overarching system that we inhabit’ (p. 4). In any case, technology is dynamic, as is culture. Culture – another term with many intricacies and social attachments – might be seen as a reflection of a society’s views, values and ideas. Yet as Murphie and Potts note, ‘the internet is at once a technological, a cultural, a political and an economic phenomenon’ (p. 9).
This is because technology and culture are interdependent and two major schools of thought have emerged out of the many discussions and theories on their relationship.
‘…treats technologies in isolation, as if they come into existence of their own accord and proceed to mould societies in their image’ (Murphie & Potts, 2003, p. 17).
Commonly known as the view of Marshall McLuhan, technological determinism is both a popular attitude and theoretical position in which technology is seen as the agent of change. Coined by social scientist Thorstein Veblen in the 1920s, technological determinism sees technology as an independent factor with its own properties, course of development and consequences, and technological change as autonomous and removed from social pressures. Furthermore, technological determinism suggests the successful implementation of technical innovation can generate a whole new type of society.
Thought of as a prophet of digital networking, McLuhan’s basic premise is that all technologies are extensions of human capacities. His infamous statement ‘the medium is the message’ suggests the cultural significance of media lies not in their content, but in the way they alter our perception of the world. While still defining history by technological change, Josh Myrowitz added that the key to a medium’s cultural effect is in the way it conveys information. He suggests that the Victorian era culture – print culture – was a time of secrets, which now has become a culture of exposure where society is perhaps more excited by the act of exposure than the secrets actually exposed. This, of course, has been perpetuated by digital networking and technological change.
Alternatively, cultural materialism situates technologies in their social and culture context. A pioneer in this school of thought is Raymond Williams, who suggests McLuhan’s ‘reductionist’ version of cultural history is ‘an attempted cancellation of all other questions about it [technology] and its uses’ (cited in Murphie and Potts, 2003, p. 18).
Williams looks for the particular circumstances into which technologies are introduced and at the political and economic decision-making behind new technologies.
MacKenzie and Wajcman (1988) agree, saying ‘a new device merely opens a door; it does not compel one to enter’ (cited in Murphie and Potts, 2003, p. 20). They identify the relationship between technology and society as not simply cause and effect, but rather an ‘intertwining’ of the two.
Personally, I quite identify with Stephen Hill, who in his 1989 publication The Tragedy of Technology writes:
‘Technological change… is not, by itself, productive of social change. Instead, the direction of change is a product of the particular alignment between the technological possibilities and the society and culture that exists.’
The preexisting culture would take into account patterns of ownership, class relations, gender relations, the role of advertising and public relations, and the flux of social attitudes and beliefs, each contributing to the way in which technologies are developed, introduced, used and even resisted.
Murphie and Potts (2003) also make reference to ‘technophobia’, an anxiety towards new technologies which Mark Bosnan estimates affects up to a third of the industrialised world. I think this is a critical point as the extent to which and ways technologies are welcomed by different groups and individuals is inherently related to the age, stage of life and state of mind one is in when new technologies are introduced.
The other critical point within the first chapter of the Murphie and Potts publication is the question of whether technology in itself, is neutral.
They note ‘Technologies operate and are operated upon, in a complex social field’ (p. 22), each bringing great possibilities for both destruction, and innovation and progress. However, to further question technology’s neutrality, the authors propose the example of gun control.
The conservative argument that ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people’, is a political position proposing that gun technology itself is neutral; that it is the way it is used – either responsibly or irresponsibly – that counts. The counterargument is that the gun’s very presence alters (and I’d add, escalates) a situation.
Finally, Murphie and Potts consider ‘machinic’ thought as a certain technological ‘flow’ we become a part of.
Technologies are as much relations between cultural and physical forces as they are objects [which] means that technologies can be studied not only in terms of their specific form, but also in terms of their function and their various contexts (p. 31).
‘Flows’ have emerged and sustained themselves throughout history in accordance with new technologies. But Murphie and Potts say that it is in our contemporary world that ‘our thought and culture have finally aligned themselves with flow… that which technology does best’ (p. 32).
While this is just the bare bones of theoretical understandings of technology and its relationship to culture, I’m certain each school of thought has its own merits and downfalls, as do individual technologies. However, I’d suggest one only has to travel – perhaps not as far as you’d think – to experience the difference living in a culture less-goverened by technology, has upon one’s way of life.