Written Work by Graham T. Baden
Asking whether technology is a neutral agent in societal change naturally presupposes that technology is in itself the agent of that change. Further, asking whether it is technological or social determinism that fuels developmental progress places these perspectives in an oppositional duality. In Lelia Green’s “What Fuels Technology Change?” in Communication, Technology, and Society, written in 2002, she attempts to straddle that division by saying that neither technology nor culture are neutral agents. Here, though, Green fires just short of a more important question, for she avoids answering who or what actually is the agent of historical, technological change.
In Green’s model, we are offered three perspectives: those of Technological Determinists, Social Determinists, and Postmodernists. Similar heuristic models have been offered to explain technology’s impact by many authors since the turn of the Millennium. The Technological Determinists, Green finds, feel that scientific progress itself fuels change. Technology allows for the the accumulation of extra capital, which is further invested in technological progress. The Cultural Determinists, she says, believe that social elites, through the vehicles of armed force, bureaucracy, and corporations are the agents of change. The Postmodernists (with whom I identify), the text suggests, are trapped in a nihilistic trench and feel that progress is simply an illusion. There is no teleological development of technology or culture, only change, they say.
Rather than using guns an example as Green does, a technology with less violent ability might offer a better opportunity to analyze “neutrality.” Let us instead use something that is in everyone’s pocket: a cellular phone. Technological Determinists would argue that mobile phones themselves are responsible for social alienation and the undermining of genuine interpersonal communication. Commercials, photo-caption memes, and short films about this have floated around the internet, populating the annexes of Buzzfeed for months. Based on these media representations, it would seem the users of these telephones have no power over them unless they put them away or turn them off; perhaps even throw them away. The question, then, is not whether a technology is inherently bad, it is whether the social dimension in which its production and its use is positive, she suggests. She states, “To argue that any technology is neutral is to ignore the social and cultural circumstances in which that technology was developed.” Were cell phones developed to suck people into a me-centered world of countless wasted hours spent in the confines of Candy Crush? (Maybe)
Based on this, Green argues technology is a not an inherently neutral agent. She further teases out her point through her discussion of the perspective of Cultural Determinists. Technology’s agency, it seems, is in its association to power. Cultural Determinists suggest that the powerful, social elite have enough capital available to develop new technologies. These technologies are then used to enforce the “First World v. Third World” hegemony of colonizer and colonized. According to Cultural Determinists, technological and ideological property is rigorously protected to ensure power is not distributed evenly. Green states, “education and access to knowledge closely reflect economic advantage within society,” and the “lucrative contact” between the Western World and the Developing World generally entails a long-term debt for the “Third World” nation.
These perspectives ignore the ever increasing global access to information through internet. Governments are finding it more difficult to regulate information flow throughout the web. There are now more people in India using cell phones, for example, than anywhere else in the world– and that includes the United States. While political “elite” powers would like to control information, they are met with increasing resistance from information freedom fighters worldwide. Green also seems to forget a fact that has been argued by Marx, Gramsci, Memmi, and many other socialists and postcolonial scholars for a century. The Proletariat, the Colonized, and the “Third World” hold the secret of the West’s collapse, for without the existence of the “other,” the impoverished, and the subjected there could be no bourgeoisie. If there were no one to colonize, the colonizer would evaporate. This technological hegemony is crumbling before our eyes.
So who is the “agent” of technological change? If it is not technology itself, but the political and economic manipulations of the “elite,” yet the elite require the cooperation of the “other,” is not the true agency of change held by everyone else who is mentioned only briefly in this text? In her article, Green cites Graham May, who suggests that we can better socially manage the future of technology by “creative visioning” in the present. He suggests that a situation or technology has to be imagined before it can exist, and has gone to work imagining a future that seems more reasonable to him. (Hard to argue with anyone with such a great name) Thus, it would seem that we have control. And I do not mean “We” as a vague plural, but as an individualistic charge. Each of us controls our own future.
I propose an argument in opposite to Green’s. Rather than “neither technology nor culture are neutral,” I suggest that both technology and culture are neutral. It is in the heart and mind of each individual at every moment that decides the future, not some technological or cultural fate. Of course there are factors that influence our individual thought processes and abilities, but to suggest that either “technology” or “culture,” as broad generalizations, are what drives change, removes any agency from Us as individuals. Si cogito ergo sum, ego sum, quia ego loquar? If I choose to put my phone down (or to beat someone to death with it for that matter), I might be the only one, but I just may be the first of millions to do it with me. No one could make that decision for me, no matter how fancy they make the phone or how convincing their commercials are.