Technological Determinism

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Technological determinism is the theory that technology is the driving force behind cultural changes and behavioral norms, rather than society itself.[1]. The theory emerged as a direct response to the development of revolutionary communication technologies, such as the Internet and the iPhone.[2]. With more and more advanced technology, the society begins to prune out more and more careers, and replaces them with jobs that maintains these new technology. An example of this phenomenon is, before the age of internet and portable mobile devices, software engineer is not a job title. Those who code, are regarded as merely mathematicians or computer engineers, but now software engineer is one of the most sought after job. Examples such as job evolution is just one of many societal change spawning from technological advancement, there are numerous more societal changes such as education system, societal norm, or even laws etc. As a result this concept spawned several schools of thought surrounding technology artifacts and their relationship to humanity.


Technological determinism as a mass communications and technology theory was first fully developed by Canadian media researcher Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980)[3]. McLuhan, while a professor at the University of Wisconsin in 1936, discovered that media and technology of the time influenced the way his students perceived his lectures and class material. In an effort to understand this gap in perception between himself and his students, McLuhan launched his research into the field of technology and media, which lead to the publication of Understanding Media (1964), where he theorized that these artifacts functioned as extensions of the human body[4][3]. McLuhan’s technological deterministic view and the publication of his text lead to the development of academic works centered on an extremist view of technology and how it can mold a dangerous society[5][6]. Scholars post-1980s, however, reject this extremist notion of the effects technology can have on society and have, instead, branched McLuhan’s definition of technological determinism into other schools of thought to interpret the extent of ICTs’ impact on individuals and their behavior[5][6].

“Technology and its various manifestations have become virtual obsessions in discussions about politics and society on a wide variety of fronts. Social scientists, politicians, bureaucrats, corporate managers, radical students, as well as natural scientists and engineers, are now united in the conclusion that something we call "technology" lies at the core of what is most troublesome in the condition of our world.” – Langdon Winner (1977)[7]


Paragas and Lin's version of Burrell and Morgan's Four Paradigms for various technological determinist ideologies[2].

Hard and Soft Technological Determinism

This discrepancy in understanding the effect of technology on societal behavior between two different eras of academics leads to the distinction of a “soft” technological determinism and “hard” technological determinism. While the latter focuses on the traditional notion of technological determinism as developed by McLuhan and his peers, pre-1980s, to be: a strict worldview that theorizes that technology influences society and its norms without the opposite occurring[8][5]. On the other hand, a “soft” technological deterministic view suggests that society and individuals have the capability to influence the development of technology and, consequently, culture as a whole.

Four Paradigms

Various prominent scholars of technological determinism are mapped according to ideology using Burrell and Morgan’s 1985 “Four paradigms for the analysis of social theory.[2]” This map (pictured left) aids in the understanding of various schools of thought related to technological determinism and academics’ position on the concept’s soft and hard interpretations.


Social Determinism

Technological determinism is often dismissed by contemporary scholars for the complete autonomy and power it gives technology over humanity. At the stark opposite end of technological determinism stands the concept of social determinism, a concept that places the individual in full authority over technology—giving society the autonomy to influence technology culture and norms[8][9]. However in its bid to place control and influence back into the hands of humanity, social determinism instead neglects to discuss scenarios and situations in which technology does catalyze cultural change[8][5][2].


The contentious and narrow perspective offered by both deterministic theories led to the development of the social constructivist theory, which helped scholars create a framework to understand the relationship between society and technology devoid of strict definitions[8][5][2]. Instead, the social constructivism places emphasis on cultural and historical context in the development of technology and its relationship to society. This perspective differs from technological determinism—which gives authority strictly to technology—and social determinism—which gives authority strictly to society. Instead, the constructivist theory incorporates elements of both to account for a variety of scenarios in the history of technology. The constructivist view finds it origins in Raymond Williams’ critique of technological determinism place emphasis on an outside force exerting change onto society and would give greater importance machines, computer, and other technology artifacts rather than free thought and democracy[8].

Ethical Implications

The technological deterministic view and practices have lead to widespread criticism for not only its limited application, but also its potentially harmful effects on communities where projects are implemented using this concept as a framework. This is because while technological determinism may push the boundaries of a particular organization or group, it does not always take into account their particular needs and values[10].


Some argue that while MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, pioneered at universities—one of which is the University of Michigan—do not adequately reflect technology needs in higher education[10]. While MOOCs were advertised as a force for change due to their mission for accessible higher education and aimed to change the university landscape through their development, their implementation did not have the desired effect. There was not, according to surveys and studies surrounding education, a need for MOOCs in higher education and—because there was no societal need—the technology was not able to mold the university community in the way it wanted.


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  1. University of Kentucky: Definition of Technological Determinism
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Paragas, F. D., & Lin, T. T. (2014). Organizing and reframing technological determinism. New Media & Society, 18(8), 1528-1546. doi:10.1177/1461444814562156
  3. 3.0 3.1 Who was Marshall McLuhan? – The Estate of Marshall McLuhan. (n.d.). Retrieved February 17, 2017, from
  4. Technological Determinism. (2011, September 09). Retrieved February 17, 2017, from
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Dafoe, A. (2015). On Technological Determinism: A Typology, Scope Conditions, and a Mechanism. Science, Technology & Human Values, 40(6), 1047-1076. doi:10.1177/0162243915579283
  6. 6.0 6.1 Winner L. 1977. Autonomous Technology—Technics-out-of-control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Google Scholar
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Soderberg J (2013) Determining social change: the role of technological determinism in the collective action framing of hackers. New Media & Society 15(8): 1277–1293.
  9. University of British Columbia - "Social Determinism"
  10. 10.0 10.1 Kirkwood, A. (2014). Teaching and learning with technology in higher education: blended and distance education needs ‘joined-up thinking’ rather than technological determinism. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 29(3), 206-221. doi:10.1080/02680513.2015.1009884