Beyond Techno-Determinism

In the following chapters we will explore not only how racism is an output of technologies gone wrong, but also how it is an input, part of the social context of design processes. The mistaken view that society is affected by but does not affect technological development is one expression of a deterministic worldview. Headlines abound: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”;82 “Genetic Engineering Will Change Everything Forever”;83 “Pentagon Video Warns of ‘Unavoidable’ Dystopian Future for World’s Biggest Cities.”84 In each, you can observe the conventional relationship proffered between technology and society. It is the view that such developments are inevitable, the engine of human progress … or decline.

An extreme and rather mystical example of techno-determinism was expressed by libertarian journalist Matt Ridley, who surmised that not even basic science is essential, because innovation has a trajectory all its own:

Don't use plagiarized sources. Get Your Custom Essay on
Beyond Techno-Determinism
Just from $13/Page
Order Essay

Technology seems to change by a sort of inexorable, evolutionary progress, which we probably cannot stop – or speed up much either … Increasingly, technology is developing the kind of autonomy that hitherto characterized biological entities … The implications of this new way of seeing technology – as an autonomous, evolving entity that continues to progress whoever is in charge – are startling. People are pawns in a process. We ride rather than drive the innovation wave. Technology will find its inventors, rather than vice versa.85

Whereas such hard determinists, like Ridley, posit that technology has a mind of its own, soft determinists grant that it is at least possible for people to make decisions about technology’s trajectory. However, they still imagine a lag period in which society is playing catch-up, adjusting its laws and norms to the latest invention. In this latter view, technology is often depicted as neutral, or as a blank slate developed outside political and social contexts, with the potential to be shaped and governed through human action. But, as Manuel Castells argues, “[t]he dilemma of technological determinism is probably a false problem, since technology is society, and society cannot be understood or represented without its technological tools.”