‘Blessed are the breadmakers...’: Sociophobia, digital society and the enduring relevance of technological determinism

South African Journal of Philosophy 42 (4):315-327 (2023)
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Technological determinism, as a position on the nature and effects of technology/technologies can be divided into optimistic and critical forms. The optimistic variety, of which contemporary cyber-utopianism is an instance, holds that the development of technology shapes or at least facilitates ameliorative alterations in society. The critical variety, on the other hand, tends to problematise or condemn the positive narrative of technological impact on human existence. Whilst the optimistic form still retains some academic credibility, especially concerning digital technologies, the critical variety tends to be viewed as reductionist, essentialist and pessimistic. Furthermore, the fact that many of its leading proponents base their critiques on the analysis of industrial technology, reinforces the impression that critical technological determinism is outdated. I argue that focussing on the specific forms of technology analysed by classic technological determinists is to miss the key point of their arguments. Critical determinism warns that with the increasing integration of technology into everyday life, we run the risk of idealising technological organisation and making sociotechnical relations a model for all social relations. Drawing upon Rendueles’s (2017) analysis of the sociophobic tendencies of the online public sphere, I argue for the continuing relevance of so-called ‘Classic’ technological determinism. The danger posed by the ubiquity of the internet on this account is not that it possesses some innate quality that imposes a particular social pattern on humanity, but that the way in which we interact in cyberspace becomes the norm for social relations outside the cybersphere.

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Gregory Morgan Swer
University of KwaZulu-Natal

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