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Avoiding Technological Determinism: Aspects and Challenges Essay

Technological determinism is a simplistic view on technology that regards the latter as a vehicle for change, which is typically considered to be unidirectional and unavoidable (Nye, 2005; Vaidhyanathan, 2012). While simplicity can occasionally be regarded as a merit, the case of technological determinism can hardly be viewed as positive since it tends to reduce complex events and phenomena to trivial schemes that cannot provide a sufficient description or offer efficient solutions to related dilemmas (Nye, 2005). Guided by the idea that the study of technological determinism can help one to avoid using simplistic views and solutions, the present paper is devoted to the analysis of the phenomenon in its various manifestations.

The need to avoid technological determinism can be explained by both the dangers of simplified views on technology and the fact that it is a relatively popular approach. For instance, Volti (2001) specifically warns the reader that the perspective on the technology that is presented in the chapter “Winners and Losers” may be “a bit negative” and makes sure to mention the positive effects of technological advancement before proceeding with the negative ones (p. 19). It may be suggested that even researchers can be reasonably wary of reducing the complex system of technology to a one-sided phenomenon or being accused of doing so. As a result, the study of technological determinism appears to be worthwhile.

One of the typical forms of determinism involves reducing technology to an either positive or negative phenomenon; these approaches can be defined as the optimistic and pessimistic forms of determinism (Vaidhyanathan, 2012). Being excessively hopeful about technology and its ability to fix societal problems can be as harmful as regarding technology as an inherently evil phenomenon that needs to be avoided even if it can improve one’s quality of life. For instance, technology is not likely to be perfectly effective in resolving societal problems due to their complexity. Volti (2001) uses the example of addiction and emphasizes the fact that it is caused by multiple issues, including discrimination and unemployment. While technology can be used for addiction treatment (in particular, for Methadone maintenance), the issues that provoke the problem cannot be resolved by a single technology.

At the same time, avoiding the use of technology, for example, because it appears to contradict one’s religion may restrict a person’s access to methods that are capable of improving the quality of human life. In this respect, medical technologies can be used as an example. At the same time, as pointed out by Postman (1992), the interventions that are employed in modern medicine are becoming more and more hazardous while also being exceedingly costly. While Postman’s (1992) work appears to be relatively pessimistic, the point can be illustrated with the help of birth control technologies. Indeed, while it is apparent that initially birth control was regarded as a most important part of women’s liberation, the issues that are caused by them are brought into consideration nowadays (Wacjman, 1991). The negative effects of using birth control technologies and their costs sufficiently undermine their reliability and ability to resolve the issue of unplanned pregnancies.

It is apparent, therefore, that considering the technology as either a positive or negative phenomenon is a form of technological determinism. Another example can demonstrate that the effect which technology can have on persons, individuals is far from being deterministic. Vaidhyanathan (2012) describes the positive and negative effects of the use of Google (focusing on the negative ones since positive ones seem to be apparent). Among other things, the author demonstrates how through the facilitation of the search for information and its accessibility Google can mislead people into trusting sources that are not to be trusted. Moreover, the author mentions the way the information that is never forgotten can be misused and abused or used for fabrication, raising the ethical challenges that are connected to modern information technologies. This issue is similarly highlighted by van Dijck (2013) and Boyd (2014) who consider it in connection to social networks (Facebook) and the notion of sharing personal information with each other and third parties, which does not correspond to the traditional idea of privacy protection.

To expand the discussion, Volti (2001) highlights the fact that the comprehensive idea of technology as a simultaneously positive and negative force is often subjected to other forms of reductionism. In particular, it can be reduced to the discussion of its purpose or users as the sole predictors of its impact. For example, technology has been regarded as a vehicle for change and the infrastructure for social movements (Castells, 2013). For instance, in Morocco, the Facebook group “Youth for the Separation Between Religion and Education” exists to spread information and push “the boundaries of what can and cannot be said in this conservative society” (Morozov, 2012, p. 214).

However, the same technology can similarly be used for illegal or harmful activities and, in fact, is widely employed for that. An illustration of the point is the censorship of the Internet, which, apparently, contradicts the freedom of expression and has been used by authoritarian governments to discourage or suppress the opposition (Morozov, 2012). Thus, the user and purpose of the technology do matter. However, they are not the only aspects that define the effect of the use of technology. For example, censorship is not a simple phenomenon, and one of its applications is aimed at the improvement of people’s quality of life: it is used to avoid turning the Internet into a playground for pedophiles, “terrorists, sadists, or some dangerous fringe movements” (Morozov, 2012, p. 215). However, in the process of creating a safe Internet, the freedom of expression often gets violated by mistake or on purpose. As a result, Morozov (2012) insists that the notion of freeing the Internet from censorship is, unfortunately, reductionist in simplifying the issue and often hypocritical (as the case of the US government and Hillary Clinton’s approach shows).

Morevoer, Volti (2001) insists that considering the purpose of technology as the predictor of its positive or negative influence means failing to take into account the subtlest effect that technology tends to have, that is, its ability to disrupt the existing state of events. A vivid illustration is a disruption caused by the Industrial Revolution that resulted in growing inequality, poverty, and eventual uprisings (Nye, 2005). It is apparent that the purpose of the Revolution was more positive than negative; it definitely did not aim to result in growing poverty and, eventually, political revolutions. Another example of disruption is even more subtle: the changes in the notion of human identity, which are described by Palfrey and Gasser (2008) and Boyd (2014). In particular, the authors discuss social networks as another ground for self-presentation that is very different from the ones that used to be available, for example, because the audience is invisible and occasionally even unintended while amounts of information that can be shared are especially massive. It is also noteworthy that this information can be transferred to group identities or their perception, for example, ethnical groups identities (Chow-White, 2008), which magnifies the extent of the change.

Nye (2005) warns against another deterministic approach to technology which considers it to be inescapable and unavoidable or even “natural” for human society. Given the fact that technology is artificial by definition, it apparently cannot be natural. Apart from that, technology, even if it sufficiently improves human life, is not unavoidably and necessarily adopted by people. Nye (2005) uses a number of examples, including the rejection of guns by the Japanese or machinery by the Mennonites and Amish for apparently cultural reasons. McChesney (2013) describes a similar deterministic approach to technology, which states that technology is capable of normalizing the market either by ensuring consistent competition or by leading it to the state that may be different from competition but is natural and inherently good. McChesney (2013) demonstrates that technologies have been rather inadequate at producing competition.

For example, the Internet has led to increased consumer power, but it also contributes to the development of monopolies, for instance, that of Windows (about 90% of all computers have it installed), and oligopolies, in particular, that of Apple and Samsung in smartphone industry (McChesney, 2013). Similarly, Facebook is currently one of the oligopolies in the field of social networks (Van Dijck, 2013). McChesney (2013) insists that development of these monopolies in not natural for the market and does not reflect the interests of the consumers; in fact, it is enabled through governmental policies and investments of interested parties, which do not include consumers. Thus, the belief that technologies are or must result in something natural can be regarded as a form of optimistic determinism.

As was mentioned above, some of the works that have been discussed here occasionally appear to have adopted an excessively negative view on technology. In fact, it is possible that despite the precautions, the present paper focuses on the negative aspects of technology. It should be pointed out that many challenges of technology are not unmanageable; at the very least, people search for the way to manage them. For example, the problem of the balance between security and safety on the Internet is still not resolved, but the visionary agenda of promoting the notion of “freedom via the Internet” as opposed to the “freedom of the Internet” has been developed (Morozov, 2012). Van Dijck (2013) points out that updated regulations can handle the new understanding of privacy that is being changed by technology. In general, the complex interactions of technology, society, and politics result in both issues and solutions for them or other issues. However, it is unlikely that any of these solutions could be developed with the help of determinism. As a result, the topic of technological determinism may be among the most significant ones in the study of technology: it helps one to avoid making the mistake of simplifying the phenomenon.


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