The role that technologies, particularly media technologies, play in our culture has been hotly debated. On one side of the debate, the members of the Toronto School, Innis (1951) and McLuhan (1964, 1998) have influentially argued that as the dominant communication media of the era goes, so goes the human mind and cultures. These media determinists argue technologies have an outsized influence on our daily lives, our connection with one another, our emotions and our perception. On the other side of the divide, the social constructivists place humanity, our cultural imperatives, our motivations and desires in the proverbial driver’s seat. Social constructivists reject the reductive, tool-centred arguments of technological determinism. I will discuss both positions, with an attention paid to how the technological determinists and social constructivists present their arguments. I will argue that media technologies cannot be blamed for for individual and cultural anxieties. Instead, hegemonic vested interests and neo-capitalist imperatives shape the creation, dissemination and adoption of technologies; these tools are born of and serve social, economic and political agendas. Rather than putting media technologies in the driver’s seat, I will argue that technologies are, instead, the handmaidens and foot soldiers of those who yield economic, political and social power. Media technologies are subordinate to the long-standing social, political and economic dynamics that create and pervade our cultures. Yet, regardless of the original motivations that propelled the creation of technological tools, people are creative and industrious, and people will use technological innovations in surprising ways. Using social shaping of technology theory (SST) as defined by Mackenzie and Wajcman (1999), and Baym (2015), I will explore how media technologies have served to enhance our communicative and social power, exclude and subjugate others, and still wind up being used in ways that create community and connection. Wajcman (2002) suggests that “technological change is itself shaped by the social circumstances within which it takes place” (p. 351).
The founders of the Toronto School of communication theory would suggest the answer to our thesis question is that media technologies have altered human minds and our cultures inexorably. These functionalist theories of the Toronto School argue that dominant communication technologies provide the rigid framework, the hard, objectivist walls, within which psychological and sociological states are changed. Feeling anxious or overwhelmed in today’s world? Innis (1951) and McLuhan (1964, 1998) provide a carefully traced and detailed map to the culprit: media technologies. In Innis (1951) the siren call of new communication technologies, such as the written word, began to seduce us, reshaping our thought, changing the primacy of some senses and shifting our perception (Innis, 1951). The written word shifts human societies away from the primacy of the ‘ear’ or a life conducted in primary orality, to the primacy of the eye with the rise of the written word (Innis, 1951, p. 41).
Like Innis (1951), McLuhan (1964, 1998), at times, mourns what was lost in the shift to the written word this “…break between eye and ear” that occurs in the move away from a “tribal” orality, suggesting that “the eye has none of the delicacy of the ear…” (p. 122). McLuhan (1964) picks up on the Innis (1951) painstakingly thorough accounting of communication history, mounting a sturdy indictment against the devastating toll that the electric, modern communication technologies of his era had taken on humanity. Technology wears at our sense of selves, even making us “all nobodies desperate for identity” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 5). For McLuhan (1964. 1998), media technologies appear on the horizon like a violent storm, a great destructive beast, and those that command the beast are “ghouls and vampires” (p. 30). This is a revealing cluster of ideas which demonstrates the sense of powerlessness, and supports the argument that media technologies create anxieties both cultural and individual. In this argument, McLuhan (1964) demonstrates his belief in the primacy and dominance of the technology over humanity. Technology becomes either a “straight-jacket” or an “abstract tyrant” that “carries its ravages into the deeper recesses of the psyche than did the sabertooth tiger or the grizzly bear” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 33). McLuhan (1964) argues that we are rendered powerless in the face of technology’s otherworldly, beastly power. We have no choice but to adapt to it, and harden our nervous systems and emotions in the face of the technological onslaught (McLuhan, 1964).
Extending from the Toronto School, we see the further refinement of media determinism with the radical structuralism of Postman (1968, 1993, 1995) and an evolved theory of media ecology. Postman (1993, 1995) plots a course of societal and individual change which is being directed by technologies and particularly, the dominant communication technology of the time. The preeminent communication technology of the era changes us (Postman, 1993, 1995). However, in Postman (1993, 1995), technology is no hard wall, it is mutable and becomes the evolving infrastructure in which we interact, and have agency within, but only up to a point. It is a softer form of media determinism that we find in Postman (1993, 1995). Our veneration of technologies and the rise of the technopoly, or a culture that revolves around and worships technology, have caused humanity to now view the world and ourselves through the prism of machine values such as the intelligence quotient (IQ) or letter grades for essays (Postman, 1993, 1995). Love of technology has blotted out the North Star of what it means to be human, prevented the metaphysical contemplation of reality, our cultures and an introspective understanding of ourselves (Postman, 1995). Technology deadens our feeling for one another, creates anxieties and degrades our discourse. If not for the fog of technology, Postman (1993, 1995) argues, we might once again glimpse that which is true, good and natural.
While not the functional and, oft-times, hard determinism we find in the early Toronto School, the humanist determinism of Turkle (2011, 2015) still calls to the same ideals of a naturalistic human state of communication as in McLuhan (1964) and Postman (1993, 1995). Turkle (2011, 2015) offers a nostalgic recall of humanity’s tribal, primitive purity of oral communication. Turkle (2015) frames her argument to reclaim conversation around the ideals of transcendentalist and naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1849), inspired by his return to the simple life of solitude in nature. Turkle (2015) admits that she comes at the question of the media impact on communication as a social psychologist, noting she venerates eye contact, intimacy, quiet introspection and unmediated, uninterrupted talking. Her argument is “not anti-technology. It is pro-conversation” (Turkle, 2015, p. 25). Businesses, social movements, political parties, friendships and romantic partnerships are harmed by an over-reliance on computer-mediated communication (Turkle, 2015). Technologies aren’t as fearsome as McLuhan’s “tyrants” or “sabretooth tigers” in Turkle (2011, 2015) but technologies are tools to be circled cautiously; she exhorts the reader to simply select the “right tool for the job” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 33; Turkle, 2015, p. 322). While unmediated communication is “messy and demanding” it can also be “rich” and rewarding (Turkle, 2015, p. 21). The face, the magic of eye contact is privileged in Turkle (2011, 2015) drawing upon the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas in which the face-to-face encounter with another is the moment of ethical and spiritual epiphany, even eliminating the impulse to harm or murder (Levinas, 1969). Technologies can change us, per Turkle (2011, 2015), into anxious, disconnected and alienated individuals.
Social constructivists believe technologies do not rise out of the oceans like the Venus Anadyomene, nor are technologies made from whole cloth. Bijker (1995) offers a nuanced view of the role that technologies play in cultures from his vantage point as an engineer with insights into how technologies are developed. Technologies are themselves created and commanded by the “societal structures, power relations, but also by the ingenuity and emotional commitment of individuals” (Bijker, 1995, p. 4). Bijker (1995) and his social construction of technology theory (SCOT) is an exercise in bringing a more integrated view of the symbiotic interplay between technology and the cultures in which they are made. Which came first: the chicken or the egg, or, in this case, the engineer or the invention? With Bijker (1995), a culture makes an engineer who creates the human network that then creates the technological invention. In Bijker (1995), it takes a whole society to create and adopt a bicycle.
Baym (2015) argues against a deterministic divide between the ‘real life’ of face-to-face communication, and the so-called cyberspace of technology-mediated communication. Her solution to the thesis question lies in a complex, intersectional view of how technology is integrated into our cultures and our individual lives. How does technology change our relationships, our discourses and daily lives? For Baym (2015), the answer is, resoundingly: It depends. As Baym (2015) argues, through the prism of social shaping of technology theory, how technologies impact us depends on race, gender, socioeconomic status, digital literacy, one’s physical and cognitive abilities to engage with tools, one’s relative introversion or extroversion, and finally, on an individual’s place in the world, whether they reside in technologically advanced or developing countries. That intersection of privilege and deep-seated personal choice determine whether technology changes us, our culture and our relationships for good or ill. The ability to answer the question of how human relationships or our psyches have been altered by digital media lies in our ability to “wrestle with messy nuances” (Baym, 2015, p.134). In this, she argues against the orthodoxy that face-to-face communication is somehow the ideal. Again, it depends.
Malin (2014) provides a historic sweep of the link between mediated-communication and human affect. In the same way that technology determinists might argue that digital media are alluring, bewitching and unnatural like a drug that hijacks the mind and our world, Socrates argued against the pharmakon of the written word (Malin, 2014). Like Socrates, 19th century commentators and pundits worried that the railroad, telegraph and the burgeoning adoption of the motorcar was cursing modern society with “hyper-emotional stimulation” and “speed mania” (Malin, 2014, p. 35). Consalvo (2002) influentially documented the rhetorics that sought to bring women into the early frontiers of the Internet. Cyberspace, per Balsamo (1996), rather than being a brave new world, became a mirror image of our existing societal divides, with technology reinforcing sexism, racism and classism. Consalvo (2002) concludes that the composition of the technologists, most often male, white and of middle or upper-class economic backgrounds, create the conditions whereby the “reification of the norm of masculinity” is transferred into the digital technologies themselves, and onto the earliest versions of the Internet (p. 119). Like Consalvo (2002), Noble (2018) identifies the ways in which technologies have been shaped, molded and hijacked by vested corporate interests and the long-standing inequities of North American culture. Examining the raw power of machine algorithms in the hands of neoliberal, capitalist forces, Noble (2018) argues that these tools “reinforce oppressive social relationships” (p. 1). It is the neoliberal imperative that has shaped and continues to drive the construction of purportedly neutral online information portals, selling search placements to the highest bidder, and distorting and manipulating information access for hegemonic and corporate gains (Noble, 2018). Sexism, racism and the exclusion of marginalized populations, shape the production of communication technologies (Noble, 2018). Digital spaces then become a mirror, for good and for ill. Communication technologies are made to exclude some publics as much as they are made to attract and empower others.
In this same way, Phillips (2015) argues technology mirrors our culture. In her look at toxic online movements such as the troll culture of 4Chan that spawned GamerGate and early Anonymous surrealist hacktivism, Phillips, a folklorist, identifies that tricksters, anarchists and thugs in beer hall putsches and pogroms have always existed, it is merely the tools that have changed. It is not technology that is to blame for cultural rifts and the coarsening of discourse, but rather that bad behaviour exists quite certainly with or without the aid of technology. Phillips (2015) argues the affordances of tech are greater today but the underlying human impulses are the same. While Phillips (2015) is focused on the digital excreta of the industrialized world’s culture, authors like Bolter and Gromala (2003) look at how digital technologies, while still holding up a mirror to our terrestrial culture, afford us with new ways in which we can communicate with each other and express ourselves. Hypertext communication allows for a greater sophistication of expression and interactivity with affective stories (Bolter and Gromala, 2003). Jenkins (2009) is also points to the transformative, empowering impacts of digital communications, arguing that our digital tools give more communicative power, and the ability to organize and mobilize for social change. Jenkins (2009) argues online digital worlds have democratized access to publishing and storytelling in ways that can have a transformative impact on society. What links this cluster of theorists, Baym (2015), Jenkins (2009), Bolter and Gromala (2003), and even Phillips (2015) is that we as human beings, at our core, are fundamentally creative, adaptive, flexible and mutable beings capable of incredible expressive power, intrinsic empathy and grace. As Malin (2014) reminds us, humanity has always struggled with anxiety, inequity, political and economic oppression, and bullies throughout our recorded history.
The media determinism of Innis (1951) and McLuhan (1964, 1998) suggest that media technologies can fundamentally alter human thought and perception, and generate large-scale cultural change. Theorists such as Turkle (2011, 2015) and Postman (1993, 1995) embrace the kernel of this media determinist notion, arguing that technologies block us from a more natural state of affairs; technologies are an obscuring veil that we struggle to pierce. Theorists such as Bijker (1995), and Mackenzie and Wajcman (1999) demonstrate that the stories of technological innovation are deeply human ones rooted in history, emotion, economies, connection and politics. In social constructivist theories, it is argued people and groups yield power, and the technologies or artifacts manifest that power in their creation, dissemination, proliferation and adaptation. Theorists such as Baym (2015), Bolter and Gromala (2003), and Jenkins (2009) take a more nuanced and, at times, highly favourable view of how technology enables, unlocks and even elevates our communicative potential. Specifically, these social constructivists suggest technology-mediated communication can lend us the ability to transcend physical barriers, create a sense of intimacy, expand the previous bounds of our expression, and even offer moments of grace, expanding empathy, and facilitating social and political change. Authors who reinforce this human-focused, social constructivist view of technological innovation which is firmly situated in political, social and historical contexts are Malin (2014), Noble (2018) and Phillips (2015).
There is a conceptual divide between the technological determinists and the social constructivists. One side of the continuum places technology apart, singling it out for targeted, singular blame and in so doing, giving technologies more power than they truly warrant. The hard determinists contend technology, in and of itself, is a necessary and sufficient condition for sociological or psychological change. The soft determinists take a more complex, multi-faceted view that technology combines with other factors to help facilitate individual and cultural change. The error of the media determinists, both hard and soft, that they cede too much power to technology which is viewed as an fearful Frankenstein, a monster that is both dangerous and out of control. This Frankenstein, in turn, is created in a mysterious laboratory, the black box in which technologies emerge to create cultural and interpersonal ills. Media determinists argue that we are powerless in the face of these ‘forces of nature’. Humanity is then helplessly buffeted by factors out of our control. McLuhan (1964) argued that the attempt to extend our senses through electric technologies has endangered our minds and our culture. We are like Icarus in his hubris, using technology to like prosthetic wings to fly out far beyond the point of safety, doomed to fall. The result, inevitably, was that we were sacrificing ourselves, our peace and our natural state of affairs. To take the McLuhan (1964) argument further, we are then vaulted, as raw, naked nerve endings, alone into the oblivion of another world, one we would later come to understand as cyberspace. In this case, McLuhan (1964) seems to imply this the extension of our senses through technology is somehow unnatural and we were never truly meant to wind our consciousness around the world. We’ve been exiled from a kind of human essentialist Eden. In this exile, our minds and nervous systems are tainted by the evils of defiling technology. We are engaging in unnatural, unhealthy practices by mediating our communication with these tools.
I reject that there is somehow a natural essentialistic state of human communication, that there is only one way to engage in communicative purity. As Baym (2015) suggests, a cyberspace created by technology-mediated communication, is a fiction. I agree. There is no imagined land out there where our social, political, economic, racialized, gendered, heteronormative, ableist perspectives are somehow either lost, as believed by the frontiers-people of the early Internet. These prejudices, anxieties and degraded discourse have not been magically created by this fictional cyberspace. The notion that technological mediation is to blame is a convenient conceit that lets us too easily off of the hook. Cyberspace is not where societal and cultural ills are created; these mediated spaces merely hold a mirror to our culture, acting as amplifiers, connectors and remixers to existing cultural challenges. I reject the ultimately reductive logic of the media determinists, despite the critically important role they have played in informing the debate around computer-mediated communication. I suggest instead that technologies are socially constructed, inevitably designed in a psychological and sociological context. I agree with the social constructivists, that technologies are irrevocably intertwined with the culture and people from which they are designed, developed, used and evolved. Technologies are merely extensions of the underlying values and requirements of pre-existing societal and individual imperatives.
There, also, is a conceptual divide between those who have insight into the technological design process and those who view the process of digital media creation as a black box. Social constructivists provide us with a way to understand the historical persistence of increased individual and cultural anxieties, arguing that they have existed across historical epochs and throughout other cultures. As products of culture, these technological tools are created in service to worldviews as old as recorded history itself, as identified by Consalvo (2002), Noble (2018), Phillips (2015) and Malin (2014). Technologies are merely the dumb beasts enlisted into service to propagate and maintain existing social, economic and political structures. While there is an inherent complexity in arguments of the social constructivists, I embrace their intersectional, messy and nuanced arguments. Per social shaping of technology theory, I understand that media technologies are designed to exclude some publics, and privilege and empower others as is demonstrated by Noble (2018) and Phillips (2015). We can understand that people will use these technologies in unintended, creative and even subversive ways. At their core, media technologies are born of need. Technologies facilitate a need to control, to extend our senses, expand our capabilities and even allow us to dominate others. Per Jenkins (2009), I agree as well that digital technology has expanded our capacity to organize, connect and communicate. Digital technologies have increased the democratization of publishing and creative expression which can, in limited ways, and at unique times in history, can give voice to the historically voiceless.
Technology-mediated communication tools are simply that, tools. They are a means to serve individual, group and societal ends. They fortify, enhance, support, accelerate and amplify these pre-existing and deeply human motives. As digital media becomes commonplace, ubiquitous and mobile, technology will become increasingly invisible to those privileged enough to have access to it. Modern media technology becomes another means, in a long history of communicative tools, with which we can express ourselves, assert our wills, assuage our worries, engage in intimacies and connect with others. Our thesis question has always been posed by theorists. Like Socrates warning of the loss of the communicative purity of orality and raging against the pharmakon of the written word, today we worry that our latest media tools are harming us. The reality is: Technologies are not destroying us. They are us. Technology-mediated communication tools are and will continue to be, woven into, manipulated by and remixed into our daily lives.
Some commentators and theorists take up the argument that digital technologies help to create connection, creativity and community. Others suggest that they take us away from the natural state of human communication, that of face-to-face orality and only this pure, unmediated communication can engender communities of support and belonging. I have argued through the perspectives of the social constructivists, particularly those of Baym (2015), Bolter and Gromala (2003), Jenkins (2009) and Noble (2018) that technologies, while they are often created for political, economic and social reasons, do allow people to organize, express themselves and be creative in ways unintended by the original creators. As social shaping of technology theory (Mackenzie & Wajcman, 1999; Baym, 2015) argues, tools are created to support those with power and exclude marginalized others, and people are creative and will often use technologies in unplanned and innovative ways. Ultimately, our tools mirror our societal divides and inequities. Technology is a Narcissus mirror, reflecting us but not responsible for creating our anxieties, disconnection and discord. Perhaps, however, advanced communication tools will give us a means to address and correct our cultural and individual ills as we continue to hope “the arc of our moral universe bends toward justice” (King, 1965).
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