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  • Writer's pictureRussell E. Willis

Technological Determinism: Ambivalent Technology 1

Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones

Episode 5

In an age of pervasive technology we function within, and are inexorably bound to, the complex web of relationships that are determined in various ways by technological modes of human being. This suggests the need to develop an "ecological" frame of reference when considering the scope of responsibility in terms of technology.

An ecological view of responsibility in an age of pervasive technology

Ecology is the relationship between organisms and their environments. The ecological dimension of technology encompasses the myriad ways technology relates to the human condition and to the environments within which human beings exist. The ecological dimension of technology is the evolution of a "second nature." One way to describe this relationship is with the concept of order. From this perspective we can describe the ecological dimension of technology as a form of life. This technological form of life alters the capacity for human agency, and thus responsibility, in very deterministic ways.

Melvin Kranzberg, an historian of technology, has identified a crucial characteristic of the technological order. In what he (no doubt humbly!) refers to as "Kranzberg's First Law of Technology," Kranzberg states, "Technology is neither good nor bad - nor is it neutral." (xxiv) By this statement he rejects three basic views of technological determinism. First, although technology has produced much good, he argues that technological progress, and the ultimate creation of a technological utopia, are not inevitable. Second, he argues that the specter of "autonomous" technology, where technology becomes the master and humanity the slave, is an illusion that misinterprets the nature of technological determinism and under-values the role of human agency. Yet, he also rejects the notion that technology is "simply a means that humans are free to use, as they see fit." (545)

Ambivalent technological determinism

Kranzberg claims that technology does indeed have a deterministic character. Technology orders life, often at the expense of human control. Technology, he claims, is not simply ambiguous -- equivocal, uncertain, or susceptible to multiple interpretations, though it is certainly all of these things. Rather, technology is ambivalent. It involves conflicting factors and embodies various and competing values. Some of these factors are healthy, productive and life-affirming. While others are debilitating, destructive, and life-destroying. These factors and values create an ordering of human life and the world within which humanity exists. This ordering affects, but does not necessarily overwhelm, human agency and responsibility. This deterministic quality is what I call ambivalent technological determinism.

The Internet and widespread cellular communications technologies are prime examples of this ordering quality of contemporary technology. Compared to even the 1980s, communication via cellular technology and smart-device technologies is not only more immediate, it is also more compelling and life-ordering.

How often do you see people peering at their screens walking the streets, sitting in buses (or even behind the wheel), at the table in restaurants or homes, in movie theaters (during the movie!)? This was unheard-of, and in fact even impossible, a generation ago! Now it is not unusual to see two or more persons sitting at the same table, or in the same room, conversing with each other via their devices. Social media also orders communication much differently than traditional modes of education. Contemporary social media renders communication much more immediate, intrusive, and informal (note what has happened to the art and practice of spelling and grammar!).

Human activities other than communication are now being substantively ordered by technology. Education, for example, is changing dramatically. Not only are traditional modes of education offered in "online" versions. Nontraditional content sources, like YouTube, Ted Talks, blogs, and the like, are now used for on-demand educational purposes. This has morphed the traditional role of teacher into "coach," or has bypassed the active role of teacher altogether. It has also dramatically changed the "socialization" dimension of education. This new form of life substitutes students and teachers interacting in physical proximity in classrooms, lunch rooms, playgrounds and dormitories with an individual interacting with "smart" devices.

We can see what Kranzberg imagined, the technological form of life is neither necessarily good nor bad. In many ways, all the examples I gave above embody both healthy, productive and life-affirming and debilitating, destructive, and life-destroying factors. But this technological ordering is certainly not neutral. This mode of life is increasingly inescapable and ubiquitous. It determines in qualitative ways the options we can take, and the costs and benefits of our choices.

Next time in Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones -- "Ambivalent Technology 2: The Political Dimension of Technology"


This is an updated version of a portion of "Complex Responsibility in an Age of Technology," in Living Responsibly in Community, ed. Fredrick E. Glennon, et al. (University Press of America, 1997): 254-255. Buy at Amazon.


"Kranzberg's Law: is introduced in Melvin Kranzberg, "Introduction: trends in the History and Philosophy of Technology," in The History and Philosophy of Technology, ed. George Bugliarello and Dean B. Doner (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 19769), xxiv.

Melvin Kranzberg, "Technology and History: 'Kranzberg's Laws'" Technology and Culture 27/3 (July 1986): 545.


In this series

Introduction: Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones - June 1, 2018.

Episode 1: "What Does It Mean To Be Responsible? "- June 5, 2018.

Episode 2: "Technology Revealed as a Mode of Human Activity" - June 16, 2018.

Episode 3: "Homo technicus as the Responsible Self" - June 30, 2018.

Episode 4: "The Scope of Responsibility in an Age of Pervasive Technology" - July 12, 2018.

Episode 5: "Ambivalent Technology 1: Technological Determinism" - August 10, 2018.

Episode 6: "Ambivalent Technology 2: The Political Dimension of Technology"

Episode 7: "Ambivalent Technology 3: Forced Options

Episode 8: "Ambivalent Technology 4: The Ideological Dimension of Technology"

Episode 9: "Ambivalent Technology 5: The Ethics of Self-Limitation"

Episode 10: "The Responsible Self as Homo technicus: Complex Responsibility"

© 2018 Russell E. Willis



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