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Technological Determinism of “Medium Theory”

The paper is dedicated to ‘medium theory’ in the aspect of its technological determinism. The research reflects both pro and contra arguments as to the medium theory, its strengths and weaknesses expressing different points of view. Arguments concerning the relevance of technological determinism of medium theory suggested by Marshall McLuhan, Dan Laughey, Joshua Meyrowitz, and others are presented in the paper.

Keywords: technological determinism, medium theory, social development.

Is the Technological Determinism of “Medium Theory” Necessarily a Bad Thing?

‘Medium theory’ is often criticised because of its technological determinism. The central idea of medium theory implies that communication mode changes cause considerable effects on social revolution perspective (Macnamara, 2010, p. 66). Technological determinism is a wide-spread approach presenting interrelations between society and media technologies. In order to comprehend whether technological determinism is bad, it is necessary to have a close look at the theory itself and analyse different scholars’ approaches to medium theory understanding.

According to Joshua Meyrowitz, medium theory considers special features of every single medium; it can also consider peculiarities of a certain type of media (Meyrowitz, 1994, p. 50). Medium theory studies the speed of spreading messages, the degree of decoding and encoding complexity, and other factors and their impact. These issues refer to two levels: the micro-level and macro-level (Meyrowitz, 1994, p. 51). The micro-level can be called the individual-situation level researching the influence of a medium on a specific situation. The macro-level is the cultural level; it deals with the ways in which social structure media may be changed by the existing pattern of media.

Sometimes, difficulties in attempts to test the medium theorists’ analyses occur. However, these analyses are important because of their specific consideration of media. Media are not seen just as channels for information transfer; media are considered to be a factor that has a certain impact on society and thus can create some new environment (Meyrowitz, 1994, p. 51). In this respect, the significance of medium theory approach is difficult to overestimate because being such a power, media must necessarily be studied in the aspect of the medium theory.

One should bear in mind that medium theory sometimes does not take into account considerable cultural differences that can affect development, concept, and use of different technologies of communication (Meyrowitz, 1994, p. 71). The medium theory represents a deterministic perspective, which is discredited by quite a number of exceptions. Medium theorists usually take into account too wide social development pattern ignoring stating qualifications (Meyrowitz, 1994, p. 71).

Technological determinism of medium theory suggests that media technologies affect society. According to Dan Laughey, “technological determinism is the argument that technologies significantly affect and shape people’s lives independent of social, political and economic factors that may affect how these technologies are invented and adopted” (Laughley, 2007, p. 203). According to medium theory, any type of media develops certain human behaviour inevitably changing the previous pattern (Meyrowitz, 1994, p. 71).

Though technological determinism of medium theory is mostly considered as something negative, one could argue about that because almost any issue has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the benefits of the theory is the fact that the influence of technologies is by no means underestimated in the context of technological determinism.

Media technologies do impact people’s life. For instance, spreading mobile devices has changed people’s behaviour in the streets, public places and at home. One can pay attention to the fact that today, people seldom talk in person: mobile phones, laptops and other products of technical genius are the necessary things that always follow their owners everywhere. Twenty years ago, people would look around them while travelling to work or elsewhere; nowadays, people usually rummage in their phones and PCs instead of enjoying the beauties of nature. It is obvious that the world has become as global as it has never been before. This was ensured by numerous new media that appeared in the 20th -21st centuries, which led to many changes in social culture and development. In this relation, medium theory should not be neglected because the impact of media technologies on society can hardly be excluded.

Discussing technological determinism of medium theory, it is impossible to omit McLuhan’s influence thereon. McLuhan insisted on the necessity of media operation comprehension for the adequate understanding of social and cultural development (Jones & Holmes, 2011, p.143). It must be mentioned that the age of the Internet has added a fresh look at McLuhan’s ideas; in the context of modern life, which is impossible to imagine without the Internet, McLuhan’s theory is quite relevant (Macnamara, 2010, p. 67). Edmund Carpenter, a McLuhan’s colleague in 1950s explained their approach by the following metaphor: “each medium is a unique soil. That soil does not guarantee which plants will grow there, but it influences which plans will blossom or wilt there” (qtd.in Nabi & Oliver, 2009, p. 527).

However, Tom Nairn supports another point of view emphasizing the influence of capitalism culture on the creation of so-called global village and neglecting the role of media (Jones & Holmes, 2011, p.143). The abovementioned concept provides an assumption that media do not actually bring changes but only show them. This concept makes sense and suggests the consideration of interrelations between media and society. It looks quite logical that media affect the social environment; at the same time, it is obvious that society also has its impact on media.

Surprisingly, scholars cannot reach a common opinion concerning the technological determinism in medium theory. It must be mentioned that the medium theory concept cannot necessarily be considered as deterministic as it involves a general analytical approach. Meyrowitz suggests considering medium theory not as deterministic but as the theory employing general tendencies (Meyrowitz, 1994, p. 71). Furthermore, McLuhan associated a communication medium with a language; this provides an assumption that McLuhan’s theory does not necessarily relate to technological determinism but also has a connection with linguistic determinism.

The medium theory is often criticized because of its technological determinism, which does not consider a human as an agent (Nabi & Oliver, 2009, p. 527). It seems quite logical that the truth must be somewhere in the middle of opposite opinions. Thus, there are people, for instance, Paul Levinson, who adhere to the notion of so-called ‘soft determinism’, which represents interrelation between IT and society. The medium theory has a well-known drawback: it draws not enough attention to the ways in which media effects are adjusted by the modifications in their use, content and control (Nabi & Oliver, 2009, p. 527).

Additionally, the medium theory does not take into account the influence of production variables manipulation – for example, camera angle and other technical details (Nabi & Oliver, 2009, p. 527). The latter has a certain impact on the common perception, which should be taken into consideration.

There is a strong opinion that new technologies just provide people with new opportunities and by no means make people use these opportunities. Thus, technologies cannot actually determine social development and can be considered as a method (Potts, 2008). In other words, the 100% determinative role of media technologies is doubtful. Media serve as a means of providing a person with freedom of choice. That is why it is necessary to consider technological determinism as one of affecting factors and by no means as the unique one (Potts, 2008).

Some opponents of technological determinism, for example, Leila Green, call it the ‘myth of technology’ referring deterministic point of view to the conservative one (Potts, 2008). Leila Green introduced so-called ‘social determinism’ emphasizing the society’s responsibilities for applying certain technologies. This means that technologies do not dictate their own choice, but it is up to a certain person whether to use particular media or not and how to use it.

It should be mentioned that medium theorists find difficulties trying to escape the technological determinism charge (Potts, 2008). Thus, it turns out that any version of medium theory implies some prerequisites for changes in culture provoked by a new medium. As it has been already mentioned, new media give new opportunities; in this respect, there emerges a concern that these opportunities can lead too far. Sometimes, new technology implementation really brings significant changes. To ensure social development prerequisites, it is enough to facilitate a new technology introduction. The common view supports the position that technologies cannot determine anything; technologies only create a certain background for social development. A new medium has an opportunity to bring some changes to human consciousness because it creates preconditions for innovations provided by consciousness (Potts, 2008).

Technological determinism of medium theory does have many weaknesses. However, it is still a valuable approach which helps to evaluate the impact of media technologies on society and consider people’s dependence on media. All the factors considered above suggest that in the process of the study of media impact on society, medium theory should be used in a combination with other approaches.