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$s$ Hacking and Power: Social and technological determinism in the digital age, by Tim Jorday (Tim Jordan)

How Technological Determinism Shapes International Marketing (James W. Gabberty, Robert G. Vambery)

John Street, Politics & Technology ()

Promotion ()

Technological Determinism in Canadian Telecommunications: Telidon Technology, Industry and government (Donald J. Gillies, Ryerson Polytechnical Institute)

Technopoly, Neil Postman ()

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Technological Determinism in Canadian Telecommunications: Telidon Technology, Industry and government
          Donald J. Gillies, Ryerson Polytechnical Institute #3600   Created 04/17/2014   Updated 05/20/2014

This paper looks at the notion of technological determinism as popularly used by government and industry to generate acceptance of and demand for innovation and its products. 1

..The language and attitudes of determinism, it will be suggested, are embedded in our culture and so are virtually invisible to us. This cultural embedding encourage the application of deterministic rhetoric to processes of technological change by interested agents of that change. Telidon provides the opportunity to probe these issues. 2

[Within DOC, the Social and New Services Policy Division of the Broadcast and Social Policy Branch was responsible for issue analysis and research....designed to make clear "the linkage between individuals and cultures on the one hand and the new technologies and services on the other" (Foote, 1980:37). Further, "the Division's principal mandate [was] to foster a positive social adaptation of altered technological and economic realities" (Foote, 1980:4). ... It was committed to preparing "the intellectual groundwork" (Foote, 1980:8) of policy development to try to avoid "technological determinism and social inequalities in the extent, rate and conditions of media diffusion" (Foote, 1980:1). Evidently some middle-level officials of the DOC were at least aware of the existence of technological determinism as a possible concomitant of technological innovation. 3

The position paper for DOC, Communication and Culture (foote, 1980), cited above, reviewing definitions of culture, concluded "that cultural boundaries are indeed extensive and diffuse, and envelope not only man's spiritual and cognitive selves, but his science and technology as well" (Foote 1980:2). In dealing with communication technology and culture the position paper reminded the DOC of the enduring debate on the dominance of communication by culture as against culture by communication and thus raised the issue of determinism, cultural or technological. 3

Canadian communication media have regularly had assigned to them a central responsibility for providing, preserving, strengthening, enriching, and enhancing the country's cultural life, both historically and currently;. 4

The Minister of communications at this time supported this pattern of attribution when he said, "We are at a critical moment in Canadian history. We can use our technology foster and develop a vibrant culture in this nation, or we can allow the technology to vanquish the dreams of generations of Canadians" (Fox, 1981:16).

We can perceive here a potential conflict within the DOC: on the one hand, the Minister of Communications--the politician--affectively provides the simplistic dilemma of technology-driven utopia or disaster, while on the other hand his departmental officials write of rational analysis and control of technological change. this stage of affairs is very reminiscent of the setting and rhetoric in which technological determinism is debated..." 4

The announcement of Telidon in 1978 described its "terminal-independent system which supported multiple image formats "which would not have to change to accommodate new developments and improvements as new technologies become available in the foreseeable future (Brown et al, 1978). Gillies notes that "the rhetoric here, couched in technological terms, is that of the anticipated future improvements as inevitable, natural, and desirable." 5

[Telidon ended in March 1983].

The most common practice in discussing Telidon ... is to describe it as "a solution looking for a problem" or "a technology looking for a market." The senior official at the DOC at the time of Telidon said in 1986 that the problem with Telidon was a failure of imagination on the part of the Canadian business community (Ostry, 1986). 6

"Expectations for Telidon were high, in business, in academe and especially in government. The media were in full technofuture cry. It is no exaggeration to say that the telecommunications marketplace in Canada was gripped by Telidon fever from late 199 to late 1982. Hope and belief displaced analysis and reason: hope and belief in technology--science-based technology--as an agent of change, a bringer of novelty, and enhancer of life. After all, there was a revolution taking place--the communications revolution. So we were told." 6-7

"Marshall McLuhan, despite his disclaimers that that he did not prescribe by describe in his media probings, must be seen, not least by Canadians, as a central iconic figure in blaming and crediting communications technology for all manner of society good and ill. But he was not alone. There were other powerful voices. The Clyne Commission concluded that telecommunications would

"form the infrastructure of the new industrial society that is now coming into being around the world. No person can totally understand this new society...but it is not too much to say that its birth is an event equal in importance to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. What is happening now in telecommunications will set the terms of life in the 21st Century just a surely as what happened in the 19th century industrialism set the terms of life for the 20th century" (Clyne, 1979:1-2).

The rhetoric includes active rather than passive verbs and an organic metaphor of birth. Technology as nature instead of artifact continues: "In the early 1970s federal and provincial governments became perhaps dimly aware...that the potential for effective policies was being carried away on a rapidly flowing river of technological development; today the ominous sound of the rapids ahead can be distinctly heard" (Clyne, 1979:5). Man is seen as powerless in the face of technology acting autonomously, as if it were a force of nature. 7

Two DOC staff, writing in 1980 on the information revolution, warn that "like the industrial revolution, the information revolution is unavoidable" (Serafine and Andrieu, 1981:13). They go on to point out that the "technological imperative" must also be borne in mind as contributor to the information revolution (Scrafini and Andrieu, 1981:27). 7

Langdon Winner defines the notion of the technological imperative invoked above: "technologies are structures whose conditions of operation demand the restructuring of their environment" (winner, 1977:100). He continues, 7

Technological imperatives appear in public deliberations as generalized 'needs' or 'requirements' -- for example, the need for an increasing supply of electrical power--which justify the maintenance and extension of highly costly sociotechnical networks.... One can assume that each of the technologies in question --systems of communication, energy supply, transportation, industrial production--was originally founded upon some widely accepted purpose: the accomplishment of a particular goal or the continuous supply of a product or service. but the means to the end, the system itself, requires its own means: the resources, freedom and social power to continue its own word (Winner, 1977:258-9).8

Again, for this notion to have operational value, it must be credited with a life of its own. To talk of a technological imperative is to give oneself the right to relinquish control over technology and technological change. 8


Why is technological determinism an issue here? From the standpoint of technological determinism, technological progress is seen as an automatic process which obeys immanent laws and technology is seen as autonomous--out of control by human agency. The link between discovery in science, invention in technics and innovation in society seems automatic. 8

(the notion of technological determinism "stands or falls on two hypothesis: a) that the technical base of a society is the fundamental condition affecting all patterns of social existence, and b) that changes in technology are the single most important source of change in society" Winner 1977:76).

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