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NATS 1775 Lecture Notes - Jacob Bigelow, Technological Determinism, Determinism

Natural Science
Course Code
NATS 1775
Vera Pavri

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2009 © Vera Pavri
Introductory Lecture: Questions Concerning Technology, Part One
- Today we will look at how technology is defined and some common myths
associated with technology and technological development. Lastly, we will
explore some of the major themes that will be examined throughout this
I. Defining Technology
- While the term technology can be found as early as the 17th century, used
to describe treatise or study of industrial (practical) arts
- Term technology only popularized after WWII but use of technology (or
material) items can be traced to almost 2 million years ago
- prior to this, terms used were “practical arts,” “applied science” and
- 1831 – Jacob Bigelow – book entitled “Elements of Technology…on the
Application of Science to the Useful Arts”
- he equated technology with invention and creativity; science as process of
- breaking down term: teks is Indo-European root word meaning to fabricate
or weave; in Greek, tekton refers to carpenter or builder and tekhne to art,
craft or skill
- In this class, you will begin to understand that the history of technology is
not just about focusing on particular “revolutionary” technologies or “great
- most technologies are not created by just one individual; ideas about
technology are often taken from older sources
- also important to understand that social and cultural factors play a KEY
role in the success or failure of new technologies; why are some
technologies successful in one area and not in another
- also important to distinguish between invention and innovation (making a
technology commercially successful)
II. Popular theories of technological development that we will RE-EXAMINE
***One of the main things we will be doing in this course is to RE-EXAMINE (i.e.
question or critique) some popular ideas about the relationship between
technology and society. These theories below will be re-examined and
questioned throughout the term so please make sure you understand them as
you will refer to them throughout the term:
A. Technological Determinism
i. Defining Determinism
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2009 © Vera Pavri
- Technological determinism is a viewpoint that regards technology as the
prime agent of social and organizational change
- Technology is seen as an independent entity that changes and shapes
society. It is an “autonomous force” that once invented, appears to have a
“life of its own.”
- Once an object is invented, this artifact then transforms society and the
way humans interact with one another; central to this idea is that human
agents have almost no control over a technology once it has been built
- Technological determinism thus offers a linear account of technology
development that is inherently progressive
- Historian Heilbroner explains that determinists assume that technological
change follows a roughly ordered sequence of development and imposes
certain social and political characteristics upon the society in which it is
- The idea that technology is the “cause” of social, political, economic and
cultural change is the central element in determinist theories of
technological change
- Technology is thus the “driving force of history” that can have a
revolutionary impact on relatively passive societies
ii. Popularity of Theory and Problems with Determinism
- Ideas of technological determinism are most pervasive in popular
- According to historians Marx and Smith, “It is typified by sentences in
which “technology,” or a surrogate like “the machine,” is made the subject
of an active predicate: “The automobile created suburbia.” “The atomic
bomb divested Congress of its power to declare war.” “The mechanical
cotton-picker set off the migration of southern black farm workers to
northern cities.” “The robots put the riveters out of work.” “The Pill
produced a sexual revolution.”
- In each case a complex event is made to seem the inescapable yet
strikingly plausible result of a technological innovation
- Ironically, what makes determinist accounts of technological change
frightening is also what makes them appealing: while technologies may
appear to be out of control, humans are in turn absolved of their own
responsibilities regarding the impact of technological development
iii. Alternative theories
- technological determinists have been criticized for simplifying what is a
far more complex relationship between society and technological change
- Theories such as the social construction of technology and the social
shaping of technology have been developed to refute the notion of
technological determinism
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