A Map of Typical Positions on Technology and Culture

In this post, I want to step back a bit from historical details in order to do some broad-stroke theory. I want to build a map for you that should help give you some orientation when wading into various writing on the technology and culture relationship. Those of you who study this all the time will probably find this post a bit of a review, and if that’s the case, feel free to skip it. But if you tend to find yourself getting more and more perplexed when reading conflicting perspectives on technology, this post should help you get your bearings.

Let’s start our map by laying out a spectrum on the horizontal axis.

Whenever an author theorizes the technology and culture relationship, that author must deal with one of the most basic questions in the field: in what direction do the influences flow? That is, does technology “impact” culture, does culture shape technology, or do both happen simultaneously? How an author answers this question can be plotted on this spectrum.

At one extreme is the position of technological determinism. People who ascribe to this believe that technologies impact an adopting culture culture in a kind of one-way, deterministic relationship. Technologies are seen as a powerful, non-neutral forces that carry with them moral consequences, and produce deterministic effects. Extreme technological determinists also tend to think of technology as an autonomous force that actually guides and determines its own development. As one of my professors used to say, a strong technological determinist believes that once someone invents the techniques for radar, it’s really only a matter of time before we get the microwavable burrito.

On the other extreme is the position of social determinism, which is sometimes called instrumentalism by philosophers of technology. Extreme social determinists see technologies as completely neutral artifacts that can be used for good or for evil depending on the desires of the adopting individual or culture. This kind of position is wonderfully summarized using that well-known motto of the National Handgun and Rifle Association (NHRA): “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

I’ve portrayed these positions as extreme ends of a spectrum because it’s important to realize that very few authors subscribe to either of these positions wholeheartedly. Some certainly lean farther to one side or the other, but we should avoid labeling any author as being strictly a technological determinist or a social determinist. Most sit somewhere in between the extremes, which leads us to that position at the center: the social-shaping perspective.

The social-shaping of technology (SST) perspective acknowledges what is obviously true about both of the more extreme positions: technologies certainly do affect an adopting culture in significant ways; but historical cases also show quite clearly that engineers and adopting cultures play important roles in reshaping those technologies to better fit with their existing social values. SST sees technology and culture as “mutually constitutive,” (MacKenzie & Wajcman 1999) each creating and shaping the other. In other words, “guns don’t kill people, but they sure make it a heck of a lot easier.”

To complete our map, we need to add a vertical dimension to our existing horizontal one:

This vertical axis represents the moral attitude an author takes towards technological change. At one extreme is techno-optimism, a belief that our technologies are making the world a better place. In its most extreme forms, techno-optimists elevate technology to the position of savoir, the ultimate tool with which we can save ourselves and create a utopia on earth. This position is excited about the possibilities of new technologies and says “full steam ahead” to any and all technological development.

At the other extreme is techno-pessimism, a position that sees technology not as a savoir, but as a destroyer. Techno-pessimists think that technology is making the world a worse place, and that it might just end up killing us all (think nuclear holocaust, genetic engineering gone awry, sentient robots that turn against us, etc). This position tends to pine for the simpler days before industrialization, and is sympathetic towards  Romanticism.

As with the other axis, this is of course a spectrum and most authors situate themselves somewhere in between the two extremes. At the very middle is a position I’ve called “double-edged sword.” This position argues that every technological change brings with it a wide array of consequences, some of which can be considered ‘good’, others ‘bad’, depending on your perspective. The costs and benefits of an innovation are never equally distributed in a given society, so whether you think a given technology is making the world better or worse largely depends on whether you received more of its benefits and less of its costs, or vice-versa.

Putting it all together, we get a map that looks something like this:

Most critics of technology (Christian or secular) tend to sit somewhere in the lower-left quadrant. They lean towards technological determinism, and they are generally pessimistic about future technological change. Jacques Ellul seems the most pessimistic to me—his book The Technological Society is almost fatalistic. Neil Postman is closer to the double-edged sword position, but he is still overall more pessimistic than optimistic. Marshall McLuhan is an unapologetic technological determinist, but he is far less pessimistic than other Christian critics.

In the upper-left quadrant we find people like Ray Kurzweil, who is extremely excited about the potential for a full human-machine integration. His belief in the inevitability of the “singularity” puts him on the technological determinist side, but unlike McLuhan or Ellul, he sees technology as a potential savoir of humanity.

At the extreme corner of the upper-right quadrant would be the NHRA sentiment I discussed earlier. The Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) position is probably the most social determinist theory I know of, but it takes a very neutral view on whether technology is making the world better or worse. The Social Shaping of Technology (SST) position is on there twice because the first edition of MacKenzie & Wajcman’s book in 1985 was far more social determinist than their second edition in 1999, which took a much more balanced tone.

Interestingly, I don’t know yet of any author that would fit into the lower-right quadrant, probably because those who lean towards social determinism rarely have an overly pessimistic view of technology.

Does this help you navigate your way around the various positions you may have encountered? Where would you place your favorite authors on this map?


22 thoughts on “A Map of Typical Positions on Technology and Culture

  1. C.

    This post is great… it really helps me “plot” the various opinions I hear on technology.
    Are there any female theorists in the world of technology/culture? Just curious.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Thanks Christine! Good question about female theorists. There are very few unfortunately. Sherry Turkle is perhaps the most well-known. She started out in the upper-right quadrant with her first books, but has since drifted down into the lower-left, but is still maintains a social-shaping position.

  2. margaret

    Yes, Dave! Thank you for taking the time to help a techno-novice like myself navigate this fascinating world and discussion. Your blog is most helpful.

  3. John Dyer (http://j.hn/)

    I love these axes, because really make thing clear, and it allows you to start simple and then build in complexity when you’re presenting to a new audience. The only catch is that even though there are four quadrants, I think you’re always going to end up with three poles rather than four.

    The reason is that the SCOT position has already decided to emphasize “social” over “technological” and once they’ve done that they aren’t going to really fit on the vertical axis since it emphasizes technology which the right side has already de-emphasized.

    This is where I ended up when I tried to break these views down into something simple for my little book. Rather than try to introduce all the technical views like SCOT and SST, I just split people into determinists and instrumentalists and then split determinists into positive and negative. In the end, I still argued that we should be somewhere in the middle, but I couldn’t articulate more than three clear extremes.

    I suppose if you change the vertical axis to just “optimism” and “pessimism” then you could split out social determinists into those who are more positive or more negative about human nature 🙂

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Good point. I was thinking that one could be a social determinist and feel that due to corrupt human nature, we’d end up killing ourselves via our technology. It’s been a long time since I read Kurt Vonnegut Jr, but I wonder if he might fit into that kind of category. I seem to remember that Player Piano was pretty tech-determinist, but I think he backed off of that in his later books, although he remained very pessimistic about human nature!

      1. Krokos

        I think that for a social determinist “via” (the medium) doesn’t matter. So there could not be techno-optimism/positivism rather “human-optimism/positivism”..

        A question..
        Why do you apply technology neutrality, strictly to social determinism?
        What about this:
        “accepting the proposition that… technology… [is] neutral… means accepting the technological imperative’ (Shallis 1984, p. 95)

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  5. Adam

    Thanks, Dave, for this great outline. Very helpful.
    Here’s my question: Is it fair or legitimate to evaluate technology’s bias (or “non-neutral,” as you say) tendencies apart from society? Is it worthwhile to understand technology’s intrinsic rationale without evaluating its social influence? If so, I think that’s where a person can really be prone toward techno-determinism–when they look at technology in isolation.
    And while technological influence is placed opposite social influence, technology and society are in a symbiotic relationship really. They need each other, and increasingly so.
    I also find it interesting, as you revealed in the comments here, and in discussing SST 1985 v 1999, that the drift is toward determinism, and not the other way. Why do you think that is?

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Hi Adam, thanks for the comment and questions. Technological determinists do see technology as something quite separate from society, and sometimes that’s because they define the word ‘technology’ to encompass only modern (post-industrial) innovations. Thus, there was a time when there was just society, then technology (their definition) is introduced to it and radically changes it (typically for the worse). The solution then is to reject the technologies that have bad “impacts.” This is essentially Borgmann’s way of looking at technology. Ellul has a broader definition, but also argues that modern technology is fundamentally different from pre-modern.

      The shift in SST was the result of critique that they got about their overly social-determinist position in the first edition (see the preface to the second edition). I studied with Donald MacKenzie (one of the SST book editors), and he believes that technology and culture are mutually constitutive, so much so that it’s really not accurate to talk about them as two separate spheres that interact. In this way he’s much closer to the Actor-Network Theory position.

      A nice addition to the SST position has been the application of Domestication theory. They argue that artifacts are “inscribed” with particular values and suggested patterns of use by their designers. These will influence those who adopt these devices, but maybe not in a deterministic way. A common contemporary example is the relationship drop-down in Facebook. Domestication theorists say that it is inscribed with only a few possible choices, which don’t really reflect all the possible ways in which one might describe their relational status. To use it is to be enrolled into the way Facebook views relationships–the user has to conform to this somewhat arbitrary reduction in possibilities. But of course, one doesn’t have to provide a value for that field, or one can choose the catch-all “it’s complicated.”

      Anyway, hope that helps. Feel free to ask more questions if it doesn’t.

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  8. yy

    hey what is the difference between scot and sst? and if you were to add in actor network theory into the spectrum would it likely to end up in the middle?

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Hi yy,

      Thanks for the comment! SCOT tends to emphasize the “interpretive flexibility” of new devices (that different social groups have different ideas about what the new device is and what it’s good for), and the active role that users play in shaping new devices during their early years. This causes many people to characterize SCOT as being more towards the social determinist side than other theories, but their more recent work is (I think) drifting back towards the middle. The first expression of SST (1985) was close to SCOT on that spectrum, but after receiving some critique, they put out a second edition (1999) that tried to strike more of a balance between tech and social determinism, recognizing the obvious truths of each and seeking to hold them in tension.

      Actor-Network Theory (ANT) goes through the middle of that graph, through a wormhole, and out into a wholly different sort of theoretical topology. See my post on ANT for more details. ANT challenges the very assumption that ‘technology’ and ‘culture’ are separate things that merely interact from time to time.

      1. David Stearns Post author

        I should also add that SST tended to focus more on the producers of technology, while SCOT tends to focus a bit more on the consumers. But it’s important to realize that the SCOT and SST people were all working together on this topic, attending the same conferences, and exchanging ideas, so there is quite a bit of overlap between them.

      2. yy

        hi, thank you so much for the enlightenment:) i’m just wondering if you have any books to recommend, regarding technological determinism and SCOT? academic articles will be fine too.

      3. David Stearns Post author

        The classic article introducing SCOT is Pinch & Bijker, “The social construction of facts and artefacts: Or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other,” Social Studies of Science 14: 399–441. They then did an edited collection of essays with Thomas Hughes called The Social Construction of Technology Systems.

        A great book on technological determinism is Does Technology Drive History? edited by Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx.

        Hope that helps!

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  11. luiz adriano borges

    fantastic blog. I’m loving. I’m new in the area of history of technology here in Brazil, and now I’am reading all that I find. Thank you for your posts, I’ll be following you for sure!


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