A society is a conglomerate of people who, for some reason, are throw together in a particular bounded region. The group has to make laws that will govern their actions and they also determine how they will live together in the most productive manner. But, there are events and devices that some say can change the way this group of people behaves and what laws they will make for one another. For example, an early hunter-gatherer society subsisted on what they could kill and find. Then someone invented the hoe, and they became cultivating societies (Keel, 2011). This meant that the people did not have to roam so far afield to find they needed to exist. Thus they could stay closer together and build up societies. Small events sometimes shape great changes in society without the people within the society realizing that the invention will make any great difference. This paper looks at technological determinism and demonstrates how society has changed with the advent of ground-breaking technology.
It is possible to look back through history and see what technologies have done to influence the cultures that produced them, and the further societies that adopted the artifacts. The ancient Chinese were incredibly innovative for their times because the rest of the world seemed to be producing very little at the time that could be considered very influential. Agriculture was generally conducted using hands and crude implements that resembled modern plows. The Chinese determined a way to use either human or animal power to cultivate an even larger area when they began using a rudimentary three cornered plow (MDEED, 2007). This is the same culture that invented means of transmitting messages more securely (paper), quickly copying written works (the printing press), a means of using the Earth's lines of magnetic flux to determine direction and location (the compass), and a means of greater displays of destruction and celebration (gunpowder) (MDEED, 2007). These inventions made the ruling family very wealthy and changed the country from small groups groping in the stone age into a recognizable society.
By fast forwarding several millennia it is possible to see how one person can effectively change a society. One author said of this man that
"He led no armies into battle, he conquered no countries, and he enslaved no peoples... Nonetheless, he exerted a degree of power the magnitude of which no warrior ever dreamed. His name still commands a respect as sweeping in scope and as world-wide as that of any other mortal - a devotion rooted deep in human gratitude and untainted by the bias that is often associated with race, color, politics, and religion" (Beals, 1997).
This quote refers to Thomas Alva Edison. He was able, in his lifetime he was issued thousands of patents for original inventions and improvements to the innovations of others. It is difficult to have a discussion as to how technology changes society without mentioning, at least in passing Thomas Edison. He perfected the incandescent light bulb which allowed people to stay up later, and allowed businesses to become much more productive. The motion picture camera that he invented started and industry which has further spawned other innovations. Of course, his most enduring and useful innovation was the electric power plant and the power grid. Someone would have eventually discovered this same method of harnessing the power of electricity, but Thomas Edison made it practical in the latter part of the nineteenth century. This method of producing and transporting electricity is the reason that Western industrialism was able to take the leaps forward that it did in the twentieth century. It is difficult to say that one technology changed the world, but this particular innovation actually did. Another invention, that has much more recent origins, is given almost the same status as a world changer.
The personal computer is an amazing invention that has revolutionized information transmission and has become provided a means to further increase productivity many-fold. However, this invention would not have been possible without the advent of the transistor. The first computers used vacuum tubes, as did all such technologies such as televisions and radios, and took up entire buildings. The first people to see ENIAC agreed that this invention was going to revolutionize the world, but they were worried that there would not be enough space to contain all the components needed for the machine to work. A working transistor, which was the early model of the current computer chip, was able to do the same operations as a room full of equipment in a very small package. The revolution was not the fact that a machine could make rudimentary calculations and break codes faster than a human, but that a small chip of silicon could perform the billions of calculations needed for the simple operations people take for granted today. Without the transistor, society as it is known right now (computers, cell phones, etc.) would not exist.
One of Edison's most beloved inventions, at least by society, is the moving picture camera. This made it possible for the motion picture industry to begin operation, and phased out such entertainment as vaudeville. In many respects, this was a positive invention because it acts as a time recorder and documenter for societies and cultures. However there is a body of research which has shown that it can also be used to manipulate and control a society (Carlson, 1992, 181). Of course, it is not alone in this as print and radio can also be used to forward an agenda.
The phrase "culture industries" was cleverly coined by Thedor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (Welty, 1984). The basic idea is that the government uses mass media to manipulate the people (Adorno used the same word as Karl Marx -- masses), and placate them into a kind of droning and obedient mass. The paper they wrote speaks of using the delights of mass media to make the public happy, but it also speaks of this low-brow entertainment that generates a product, but does not leave room for the higher aspirations of artists and writers (Welty, 1984). The parallel between this idea and technological determinism is the fact that the motion picture camera and phonograph started revolutions in mass media, but also that an invention can be used to dictate a new society. They were speaking of the possibility of the same kind of use that the government in "Nineteen Eighty-Four" used to control what was known and what the people did.
The Internet and New Media
Societies, at least Western societies, have moved from an industrial base to one that is informational in nature. Manufacturing is not the end that it once was with millions of people employed producing goods that would benefit other members of society, it now a means to the informational end (Sovacool, 2006). Information has become the currency that manufacturing once was. There are more people employed in service industries than in any other large industrial type (Chandler, 2002), and this means that the world has also changed from a sociological viewpoint (Keel, 2011).
The internet is both a cultural industry and a means of determinism because it pacifies and changes the culture at the same time. People are more engaged with screens today than they are with other people. The public discourse has changed from people being able to voice their opinions in a public forum face-to-face, to one in which they can remain anonymous and converse with thousands or millions of people immediately with the press of a button. Anderson and Tushman (1992) talked about this type of cycle in which technological change breeds a large number of competitors which are then weeded out until the dominant design arises. This same idea occurs in determinism…