Technology is profoundly human, it is what separates us from our biological fore bearers. As a whole, human society has developed technology and to an extent controlled it. However one question you may ask yourself is do you as an individual control the technology around you or does that technology control you. This idea inspired the concept of technological determinism – the belief that technology acts as an independent force in our lives. Two more concepts that are very much related to this idea are the cultural lag concept and the convergence theory. Rudi Volti, an American sociologist is a scholar of these theories and his written the book Society and Technological Change. This book serves as a critical analysis of these theories.
Technological determinism is the idea that technology is an autonomous force within our lives. If this concept is accurate then we are presented with the somewhat matrix-like proposition of humans being the servants technology rather technology serving us. This is not necessarily designed to be taken literally; it is not implying that we will all soon be at the mercy of some robotic task master. However it does imply that society is affected by many technologies in a way that was never intended by its creator. The invention of the communications technology used for the internet is one significant example. The technology behind it was originally invented in 1969 by the U.S military1. It was not until much later that its potential for society was realised when the World Wide Web was established in the early 1990’s. Since then the internet has obviously helped society by giving us instant access to information and instantaneous communication through email. However it has also had a somewhat injurious impact on society as well. With instant access to uncensored information came the rise of internet pornography and the exploitation of children. Another aspect that could be indirectly attributed to the internet would be the rise in obesity levels through inactivity. The technology of the internet was clearly a double edged sword.
There are obviously many other examples of how technology has acted independently from society; often it is not necessarily to society’s detriment. There have been many positive spin offs for society through technologies designed during war. For example the invention of radar today allows for much safer aviation. However the positive consequences of technological determinism are far outweighed by negative ones. Probably the most disturbing example was during the years of the cold war. The well being of the entire world was jeopardised by the destructive power of the nuclear weapon. Surely this is an example of technology holding control over its creator. So to an extent this concept would seem to be accurate.
However this concept also has its flaws. Volti offers the example of the American sociologist W.F. Ogburn, who attempted to use this theory to show that the invention of the automatic stoker in the steam train was responsible for the migration of blacks to the northern states of America, to show that if one is imaginative they may relate almost any change in society to technology to the point where it becomes absurd2.
Closely linked to technological determinism is the theory of cultural lag. In layman’s terms cultural lag is the concept that changes in society lag behind changes in technology. For example Volti gives us the example of medical technology decreasing the rate of infant mortality3. Prior to this, families were forced to have a large number of children to ensure they would have some surviving offspring. However after technology drastically improved an infant’s chance of survival, it still took several generations before society adjusted and birth rates dropped. As a result there was a major population explosion. Cultural lag is closely related to technological determinism, cultural lag requires technology to be seen as independent. Therefore cultural lag is totally reliant on the concept of determinism. Volti states that this concept has three major flaws. He states that the theory does not take into account the fact that technology is also influenced by social change and that inventions are not just carried forward by their own logic. He believes it is therefore a mistake to believe technology is an independent source of social change. He also feels the theory is flawed through the fact that not all changes in society can be gauged. For example how can you measure changes in sexual morality?
Another concept that is closely related to technological determinism is the convergence theory. Like technological determinism it relies on technology acting as an independent force, influencing society. This theory states that the constraints as well as opportunities technology places on society encourage all societies to converge towards a single set of social patterns and individual behaviours4. For example this theory would imply that the introduction of ‘western’ technologies to a ‘backward’ country would result in that country taking on the cultural ideals and social characteristics of the western world. In this theory it seems that western culture is the place other cultures our converging to.
Perhaps this is not truly convergence as it only seems to be the ideals to be the ideals of the backward country undergoing a shift; however it seems the main idea of this theory is that through technology the different societies of the world become homogenised. Superficially there would seem to be many examples of this ‘convergence’ occurring. Japan would be a prime example. For thousands of years Japan was isolated from the outside world living in a feudal state steeped in culture and tradition. In 1868 the Meiji restoration occurred and its ports were finally opened to the west and in turn western technologies5. What occurred in the years following this could be described as the fastest modernisation of history. Yet despite this the people retained much of their culture and tradition. Certainly they became somewhat westernised in terms of social systems however their individual ideals were not greatly changed. Even today in Japan, after what superficially could be described as a total Americanisation, the individual differences in behaviour between the west and the Japanese are very evident.
Clearly Technology cannot be the only influence acting on society. Volti points out that it is too simplistic to expect that all the features of a society will be summarily transformed by society’s requirements6. He is critical of the manner in which this theory fails to take into account social and cultural characteristics of a country prior to the introduction of a certain technology. Often technologies are used differently by different cultures. Volti uses the example of gunpowder being used for fireworks in china as opposed to weaponry in the west to illustrate this point.
All of these concepts are very much related to each other. To be most effective they should probably be viewed as one set of theories that act as to model to predict technologies impact on society. However each one of these theories is also flawed. Technological Determinism is in essence the concept that all technology is independent. And unfortunately what it fails to take into account is that almost nothing in this world, let alone society, is independent. There can be little doubt that technology has some seemingly autonomous characteristics however it is certainly affected by some external factors. The concepts of cultural lag and the convergence theory are also reliant on the independent nature of technology and are thus somewhat flawed. Perhaps if these theories recognised the mutual relationship between society and technology, in that they both influence each other, then these theories would be more pertinent and effective.
1 http://www.scit.wlv.ac.uk/~c9814405/cp2014/howwastheinternetinvented.htm How was the Internet invented? Accessed 12/5/04.
2 Volti, Rudi. Society and Technological change. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1988.
3 Volti, Rudi. Society and Technological change. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1988.
4 Volti, Rudi. Society and Technological change. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1988.
5 http://www.compsoc.net/~gemini/simons/historyweb/meiji-resto.html Meiji restoration, History web accessed 12/5/04.
6 Volti, Rudi. Society and Technological change. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1988.