Bruce Bimber, Social Studies of Science, Vol 20, (1990), 333-351.
#3629 Created 04/24/2014 Updated 04/24/2014
'Technological determinism' is a somewhat elusive concept, for several reasons. The term is used to describe what is really a variety of distinct views about the relationship of technological enterprise to other aspects of human activity. These view may employ different theoretical assumptions and explanatory approaches which are often not made explicit. Accounts labelled 'technological determinism' range from positive descriptions of an inevitable or autonomous technological order based on certain laws, to claims that technology is the dominant factor in social change but that its influence derives from the cultural meaning or importance given to it by people. The literature reveals surprisingly little agreement about what the concept means and about its underlying causal mechanisms. Yet despite this rather poor conceptualization, the idea that the course of human history is determined by technological developments has remained a subject of attentional. 334
On one side of this debate are contributors such as Robert Heilbroner, who associates 'the basic Marxian Paradigm' with technological determinism. Another is Langdon Winner, who argues that Marx established the first 'coherent theory of autonomous technology'. William H. Shaw ties Marx's argument about the forces of production to technological determinism. Alvin Hansen's 1921 article, "the technological Interpretation of History', offers a more explicit case, claiming that Marx conceived of social processes not in economic but in technological terms. No less a figure in the study of technology that Lewis Mumford tells us that Marx assigned technology 'the central place and directive function in human development'. Mumford claims that 'Marx erroneously assumed that technical forces evolved automatically and determined the character of all other institutions." 334
Three types: Norm-based accounts
Logical sequence accounts
Unintended consequence accounts 335
..There is little doubt that, for Marx, whatever significance technology has derives from its relationship to economic activity. 335
All interpretations of the term emphasize, for one reason or another, the significance of technology to social change, but they differ as to why and how technology is so influential. 336
(Richard) Miller understand technological determinism to mean that social structure evolve by adapting to technological change: that is, given a specific state of technology, 'the subsequent development of society would be the same no matter what people thought or desired." 338 ...
This approach is articulated eve more explicitly by Robert Heilbroner. He describes a fixed sequence of technological development prescribing the evolution a path over which society must travel. He believes that the steam-mill follows the hand-mill not by change but because it is the next stage in a technical conquest of nature that follows one and only one grand avenue of advance. 338
History is predetermined by scientific laws which are sequentially discovered by people and which, in their inexorable application, produce technology. Only within the limits imposed by this logic may people exercise their own collective or individual agency and will.
(Langdon Winner focuses on the) "observations of the uncertainty and uncontrollability of the outcomes of actions." (Bimber calls it the Unintended Consequences Account") is based on upon the observation that technology is generally accompanied by unintended consequences which even willful interveners are unable to anticipate and control. This phenomenon is interpreted to mean that technology is at least partially autonomous, and that it is responsible for determining certain social outcomes. 339-340
This approach shared with logical sequence accounts the claim that technological outcome are independent of human will. They differ in that Unintended Consequence Accounts do not rely upon over-arching laws or patterns. 340