In examining media technologies and their relationship to culture and society, we can look at the work of different medium theorists and these might, for the purpose of analysis, be divided between those tending towards a technologically determinist viewpoint and those tending to see a greater determining role for the social context into which these technologies are placed.
Within the category that might be broadly described as technologically determinist we can also see that some perceive the influence of technology to be broadly positive, while some are more sceptical of the benefits of emerging and evolving media technologies for society in general. However, all are of the view that there are characteristics inherent in these technologies that in and of themselves determine the effect they have on society and the ways in which they are used.
Marshall McLuhan takes an almost extreme technologically determinist point of view and states that ‘in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message’. For him the content that is being mediated is insignificant compared to the characteristics of the mediating technology itself, although in arguing that media should be regarded as ‘the extensions of man’ he perhaps gives us reason to question the apparent rigidity of his approach – if man became the extension of the media then we might truly say that the message has indeed become the medium. McLuhan’s outlook is, however, optimistic and he sees television, for instance,, as mitigating against a more hierarchical societal form, which he believes emerged with the coming to predominance of print media. He also sees print media as having contributed to the isolation of the individual, whereas television, for him the culmination of the development of electronic media, is informal, spontaneous and incomplete, thus facilitating audience participation. The emergence of decentralised and more democratic forms of communication that he sees in the growth of television as a medium leads to the emergence of a ‘global village’, where mankind becomes more connected and generally more aware of humanity as a whole.
Neil Postman is much more admiring of the role of print media in human development and society and is sceptical of the benefits bestowed upon us by electronic media. Early newspapers were rich in local content and the level of concentration and engagement required by print media led, in his view, to a more rational and deeper understanding of human affairs. Postman sees an inherent tendency in electronic media, from the telegraph up to the television, towards short and superficial stories, gathered almost instantaneously from around the world. This also had a profound impact on newspaper reporting, leading to more superficial reporting of serious news stories.
Postman was joined in his attack on electronic media by Jerry Mander in his polemical Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Mander argues that the biases inherent in television make attempts to reform or regulate it futile. Also, television itself predetermines who shall use it, how it shall be used and what political forms will accompany its emergence. He also states that the nature of television leads us to ‘believe we know more, but we know less’.
Raymond Williams puts forward an alternative analysis to those above tending towards technological determinism. He argues that the reification of technologies – seeing them as independent objects, separate from human control and social context – distracts us from the responsibility that human institutions and groups have for the development and use of these technologies. An overly optimistic view of technology plays into the hands of those that wield power in society.
Determinism can be found in many areas of academic analysis, from the economic and political sphere to the world of technology. It can offer an optimistic or a pessimistic view of human history and society, but it fundamentally downgrades human beings as agents of their own destiny and presumes that there is a pre-determined outcome to processes that determine how we live our lives. Perhaps a more balanced approach might be to accept that there are indeed forces inherent in material reality that push or pull us in one direction or another, but ultimately we do have free will and an ability to shape our world to reflect values we deem to be worthy of our humanity.