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Technological Determinism Vs. Social Constructionism: A Face-off
In a comparison between technological determinism vs. social constructionism, the main difference lies in whether society plays a primary or secondary role in its own progress. Techspirited compares the two in more detail.
Did You Know?
Karl Marx, the founder of Communism, is said to have been a supporter of technological determinism.
One thing which is common from the time of human existence on Earth to the modern age is man’s love for technology. The earliest tools made by our ancestors were fashioned from wood, bones, and stone. Tools from the later period were made from bronze. Finally, the discovery of iron meant that man could make better and stronger implements. The tools made in each stage were more sophisticated than the previous ones.
Based on the use of these materials, archaeologists have divided the prehistoric period into the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages respectively. But did the development of better tools cause the progress of mankind? Or, did human progress bring about such technological advancement? This question sums up the dilemma between the theories of technological determinism and social constructionism, the differences between which are explained in the sections that follow.
Technological Determinism: It is an ideology that considers technology as being the primary reason for the growth and progress of a society.
Social Constructionism: It believes that technology develops as a result of social, cultural, or economic factors, rather than being the reason for social growth. It is the exact opposite of technological determinism.
Technological Determinism: Being a type of determinism, it believes that the growth of our civilization is beyond human control, which has attracted significant criticism.
Social Constructionism: This philosophy believes that humans can play a main role to actively shape their history, culture, and politics.
Autonomy of Technology
Technological Determinism: The development of technology is regarded as an autonomous process that occurs independently of society, because of scientific and rational factors.
Social Constructionism: Technology does not develop autonomously, but is a result of discussions between influential social groups, who reach a compromise between their varying opinions to produce the final product or design.
Effects of Technology
Technological Determinism: It believes that technology has a predictable impact on society, its characteristics determine its final impact, and it is unbiased and nonpolitical in nature.
Social Constructionism: It believes that technological impacts cannot be predicted, but depend on how technology is utilized. The opinions of social groups determine its final impact, and technology is routinely used for political and economic benefits.
Technological Determinism: It has been greatly criticized because it places more faith in technology than mankind, especially after the usage of atomic bombs and the Nazi experimentation on prisoners in World War II.
Social Constructionism: It completely ignores the overwhelming role that technology plays in modern society. Besides, it ignores those social groups who are not relevant, while designing a technological product, but will still be affected by it.
► An example of technological determinism would be how the invention of the stirrup (foot-support for horse-riders) brought about the development of feudal societies (military rule by nobles) in history. Before its invention, riders weren’t able to use swords or spears on horseback, as they risked losing balance. However, the invention of the stirrup at the turn of the 8th century AD enabled armored knights to fight on horseback, and ensured the development of cavalry. Ancient feudal societies were guarded by such well-armed knights.
► Some historians believe that the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus at the turn of the 15th century was largely due to advances in shipbuilding technology preceding this period.
► The invention of the automobile brought about the development of suburban US. The first models were restricted to the wealthy and researchers, without affecting the general public. However, after they became more common, the government had to step in, lay and widen roads, and make licensing laws, which had a permanent effect on the society and landscape.
► An example of social constructionism would be the use of the Internet in recent history. From being restricted to military purposes, it was later adapted by software programmers. Today, it is used for many more purposes, like personal chatting, by governments to monitor their citizens, corporations for advertising their services to customers, and even for unethical purposes like hacking of bank accounts. This proves that the use of technology varies with need.
► While the manufacture of the male contraceptive pill has been possible for science since a long time, its production and use is rare, because of contraceptive usage and responsibility being restricted to women by social norms.
► The 1980s saw a tussle between the Betamax and VHS formats of video recording, known as the ‘Videotape Format War’. Technically, the former was superior, and was expected to capture the market. However, the VHS format would eventually become more popular, because certain social and economic factors, such as better advertising, played their role.
To conclude, technological determinism believes that society is shaped by technology, while social constructionism says that it is society itself which shapes technology. However, both theories indicate extreme ends of the spectrum, and are one-sided by themselves. In recent times, sociologists have moved towards a combination of technological determinism and social constructionism, where societies play their role in shaping technology, but the importance of technology in bringing about social change is also considered.