Technological Determinism – What’s Your Framework for Thinking About Emerging Technology?

I have literally only just finished reading the introduction of Danah Boyd’s book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens”. She works very hard in that introduction to lay an open minded framework for reading the book and to challenge the perspective adults often have when evaluating technology. Danah raises the term “technological determinism”, discussing how people tend to default to either a Utopian or Dystopian perspective of technology.

Technological determinism is a reductionist theory that assumes that a society’s technology determines the development of its social structure and cultural values. The term is believed to have originated from Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929), an American sociologist and economist.

I pretty much slammed the brakes on right there, so deep was the resonance. Yes! I thought – this explains how mixed up my feelings got about virtual and augmented reality. Perspectives on those technologies felt so skewed – most people in the social media networks I fell into could be described as having an extreme Utopian perspective. Often times these technologies were their livelihood, hence it was their job to be positive about them, but the seemingly blind adherence made me uncomfortable. I reacted with Dystopian leanings, thinking about all the negative outcomes of society adopting these technologies.

I fit the stereotype – in Danah’s words “Technologies are often heralded as the solution to major world problems. When those solutions fail to transpire, people are disillusioned. This can prompt a backlash, as people focus on the terrible things that may occur because of these same technologies.” A Utopian perspective would describe a newly adopted technology as transforming the world in magnificent ways – a Dystopian perspective would focus on all the terrible things that would happen.

I have to thank Danah for laying this framework down so early in the book. She was speaking of these concepts in relation to adult perspectives on teen use of social media, and it was timely – sometimes we have to check our gut reactions and realize that how groups and societies adopt and use new technologies is complicated, varied and hard to describe using default, broad theories. We have to seek a deeper level of understanding and look at things from different perspectives.

In the introduction to her book, Danah discusses how society has changed and teens are largely isolated compared to previous generations – they are busier, have a harder time getting places, and have fewer opportunities for unstructured time with their friends – from that perspective, social media becomes the new “hang-out” spot that fills an important void.

As I continue to read “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” I will be keeping the theory of technological determinism in mind, and will try to maintain an open, balanced perspective – not just for this book, but for all the material and discussion I become involved with during my exploration of the interaction between humans and technology.

As I explore these technologies, I’m working up a hit list of topics to cover and concepts to explore – comment below with concepts and theories that are a “must research” for me.


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