On Technological Determinism: A Typology, Scope Conditions, and a Mechanism

Science, Technology, and Human Values 40 (6):1047-1076 (2015)
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Abstract

“Technological determinism” is predominantly employed as a critic’s term, used to dismiss certain classes of theoretical and empirical claims. Understood more productively as referring to claims that place a greater emphasis on the autonomous and social-shaping tendencies of technology, technological determinism is a valuable and prominent perspective. This article will advance our understanding of technological determinism through four contributions. First, I clarify some debates about technological determinism through an examination of the meaning of technology. Second, I parse the family of claims related to technological determinism. Third, I note that constructivist and determinist insights may each be valid given particular scope conditions, the most prominent of which is the scale of analysis. Finally, I propose a theoretical microfoundation for technological determinism—military–economic adaptationism—in which economic and military competition constrain sociotechnical evolution to deterministic paths. This theory is a special case of a general theory—sociotechnical selectionism—which can be regarded as also including constructivist theories as special cases. Greater understanding of, respect for, and engagement with technological determinism will enhance the study of technology and our ability to shape our sociotechnical systems.

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