Technological Determinism: Does it Work?


"It can be said that what has altered our world is not television or radio or printing as such, but the uses made of them, in particular societies." (Williams 1989: 172)

Technological determinism: the mindset of believing that technological inventions alter our humanity and world of its own accord. Chandler defines the theory as such: “technology is seen as the ‘prime mover’ in history” (2000). Indeed, Williams asks us to reminisce on how often people have said that printing, television or radio has altered the world (1989). But to properly discuss this theory, we must first define the term ‘technology’.

Technology vs. Technological Invention
A technology is vastly different from a technological invention. Williams guides us through the three-step formation of a technology. Firstly, the technique, the “skill or application of a skill”, must be developed. Secondly, the technique is applied to create the technical invention, which is the “development of such a skill or invention of one of its devices”. After all this, the technology is created, which is how the technical invention is appropriated into society and utilised (1989: 173). This is the polar opposite of technological determinism, as the technology defined here does not define us. Rather, we define it and its uses. This definition, when applied to printing, suddenly has a massive impact across many fields, including ideas of time, nationality and authorship among others. Marshall McLuhan, author of the influential text The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), is a classic technological determinist at heart. Throughout his work, he develops an ideal, romanticised humanity where technological inventions directly impact the changing landscape of society. In particular, he laments this idea in the context of medieval times, where printing atomised society, broke down religion and thoroughly disrupted the ‘Order of Things’. He also asserts printing introduced a new sense of nationalism (and therefore warfare) and enslavement to the new Author. He even paraphrases The Bridge on the River Kwai to illustrate his point: “The English Colonel has it all diagrammed and segmented in no time. Of course, he has no end in view. His technology is his way of life” (1962: 165). McLuhan’s argument is further illustrated in his chapter headings, such as, “Typography tended to alter language from a means of perception and exploration to a portable commodity” (1962: 161), “Print…created the uniform, centralising forces of modern nationalism” (1962: 199) and “Scribal culture could have neither authors nor publics such as were created by typography” (1962: 130). Even without reading the ensuing articles, one can see a hard-headed approach to typography here. He takes no prisoners in arguing that printing ruined medieval culture. What is particularly interesting in McLuhan’s approach to this theory is the way in which he composes his own book. The Gutenberg Galaxy is very different from other academic texts in that it appears to be a mash-up of many different sources into one compendium. Does this idea not resonate with the Medieval use of the word ‘author’? McLuhan himself says that “authorship before print was in a large degree the building of a mosaic” (1962: 132), and this is clearly commemorated in the composing of his own volume. Even the way the pages are set out is comparable to a scrapbook of notes taken from different ‘authors’. Through his own mode of writing, McLuhan successfully demonstrates his idea of pre-print culture and the lamentable loss of it.

Eisenstein and the Argument against Technological Determinism
While McLuhan has an overly romanticised view of Medieval culture and its loss, Elizabeth Eisenstein takes a far different approach to the invention of the printing press. Instead of asserting that printing was

the sole cause of issues around medieval times, she says that the changes were already underway. The printing press just helped them along, and was but one of the multiple factors leading to the rise of science and the Protestant Reformation (1980). Eisenstein takes a positive approach to the creation of the printing press, reversing everything McLuhan finds wrong with it. Indeed, while McLuhan sees the ‘high’ form of scribal culture toppled by the revolution of the ‘low’ and ‘hot’ printing press, Eisenstein is the opposite. She sees both forms as equally useful, but printing revolves to the ‘high’ position above the manuscript (Williams 1983). Eisenstein sees the printing press as one of the factors in freeing people from the stifling medieval ways of day-to-day living. For example, the taken-for-granted Feudal political structure was upturned and replaced by a growing democratic and capitalist nation. The repetitive nature of cyclical time was replaced by a forward- and backward-looking linear timeframe. These examples are just two of the many changes to come hand-in-hand with the creation of the printing press. But the biggest difference between McLuhan and Eisenstein comes with this quote: “It is important to strike the right balance between the uninformed enthusiasts who assume print changed almost nothing and the scholarly sceptics who hold it changed everything” (1980: 52). This shows Eisenstein has a greatly balanced view on the press, and doesn’t fall so easily into the trap of taking sides. However, she does make one concession which proves she is a fan of printing and its uses: “Printing also aided artists and writers in pursuit of lasting fame…*they+ could serve the cause of public knowledge…and at the same time serve themselves” (1980: 56). While this mainly refers to scientific works, printing also helped create the book (the public display of private thoughts) and the newspaper (the creation of public opinion). By raising the status of the author and eliminating scribal drift, such as in Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, printing became a capitalist endeavour.

Print and the Human Mind
To view the printing press as a purely social, political and capitalist endeavour is to ignore the ways in which it has affected humanity mentally. Hirst and Wooley (1982) do not take sides on whether printing has completely, or not at all, affected the development of society as a whole. Indeed, they say “the consequences of writing for social relations tend either to be ignored or to be excessively emphasized and over-rated” (1982: 31), which sum up the opposing views of McLuhan and, to a lesser extent, Eisenstein. Where Hirst and Wooley make their point is in the mental development of humanity, especially printing’s effect on memory. They show how people used to use “the systemisation of knowledge and training of memory” (1982: 37), referring to mnemic devices used to retain knowledge. This transferred over into reality, creating the “ordered hierarchies of categories” (1982: 37) seen in the Feudal system and the Great Chain of Being’. With the advent of print came “mnemic decrement…any impairment of recall, relearning, recognition or other test of retention” (Super & Young 1941), and this trend has continued to today, with what Mayer-Schonberger calls “the virtue of forgetting in the digital age” (2009). With the easy storage of information available to us at virtually any time, forgetting has become the status quo. Hirst and Wooley posit that this decline originated with the development of the printing press. Hirst and Wooley also define the difference between older ‘authorities’ and newer ‘authors’. The ‘authorities’ of pre-print times had their work cut and pasted together by copyists and scholars, which today would ensue “*sacking+ for plagiarism and incompetence” (1982: 40). Indeed, the older chain of authority in the written word was set out much like the Great Chain of Being. First came the scribe, who

simply wrote down what the authorities said. Secondly, the compiler, who collated many different ideas of many different authorities into one volume. Thirdly, the commentator, who passed judgement on these texts as valid or not (much like the modern reviewer) and added parts of their own. Lastly, on top of the chain, were the authorities themselves, who were vast wells of knowledge on particular areas of study. This ‘great chain’, along with the other Great Chain, was disrupted with the advent of printing. Print “stabilised the text” and assigned “limits to it” (1982: 41). Therefore, the text was given limits and an actual author, who could claim dominion over it. The new age of the Author was born. However, in today’s age, postmodernism refuses to privilege any one perspective, and in turn creates an air of pastiche (Firat & Venkatesh 1995). Is this not a return to the old ideas of creating volumes from various sources, with a changing focus from authorities to the lowly scribes?

Print, Time and the Nation
Apart from this shifting of accent in authorship and memory, printing has also affected the twin movements of nationality, and more broadly, time. In pre-print times, especially in medieval states, the concept of time was thought of as cyclical in nature. For example, the seasons were a cyclical concept to assist in the running of farming practices. This idea of cyclical time is also found in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (2006), where he sees time as an infinite recurring pattern. The Ouroboros dragon is also used as a symbol for the idea of cyclical time (Sutton 1993). The invention of the printing press shifted the idea of time from this never-ending cyclical concept to a more stable linear frame (Anderson 1991). However, cyclical time did not fully disappear; it just merged with linear time to create an forwardmoving spiral. The idea of linear time finds a home in the novel. Novelists show their readerships what it is like to be of a certain nation. Anderson uses the example of a Filipino novel to show how the readers are not just readers, but “we-Filipino-readers”. The novel gives “a hypnotic confirmation of the solidarity of a single community…moving onward through calendrical time” (1991: 27). Linear time also appears in the form of national commemorations, such as national holidays and tombs of Unknown Soldiers (1991: 9). The creation of these commemorative days refers to the past and future simultaneously, again in calendrical time. Lastly, the newspaper is a most powerful tool of nationalism. Every edition has the date printed on it, referring simultaneously to the past and future editions of the paper. Mercer calls the paper a strong “mannering technology”: the tool to which people refer to for their ideas of nationality (1992). These ideas of time and nationality are not mutually exclusive. As they change, they change together, and the printing press helped this process along swiftly and surely.

Power and Print
Of all the theorists who take printing into account, Bruno Latour is surely one of the most interesting, and controversial. In his article Drawing Things Together (1990), Latour takes a scientific approach to studying the ongoing effects of printing. Several points are made, all of which deserve whole fields of analysis, but a brief overview will suffice. Latour makes an initial point that not only time is altered by printing, but also space and perspective. He quotes Ferguson as saying, “The ‘mind’ at last has ‘an eye’” (1990: 28). The ideas of perspective created in the mind from a two-dimensional image had finally been solidified. Leading on from this point, the measurement of everything was created, separating the previously

infinite space into ‘parts’. Almost everything now has a measurement ( 2009), and this helps in the pursuit of centralised power. For example, now scientific institutions can tell us, or something as simple as a ruler, how much space is in one centimetre squared, or one litre of water. Power then becomes “action at a distance” (Latour 1990). The dawn of printing, as is evidenced by all the above scholars, begun the centralisation of power into small minorities. In turn, these minorities begun to control the majority from afar. Operating from national centres of calculation, the few use “red-tape” and “paper shuffling” to hide the power they have over others (1990: 55). Through the overwhelming number of forms circulating around the office, or indeed around the world, we take for granted their mundane nature. But this is where the power lies: in the mundane nature of print. Mundane techniques are also where knowledge lies. The “immutable-mobiles” (1990: 26) created by print allowed different forms of truth the be spread throughout the world, at great speeds and with hardly any damage. This in turn began the downfall of widespread religious belief and the ascent of science. The agonistic nature of knowledge was therefore created: “once one competitor starts building up harder facts, the others have to do the same or else submit” (1990: 35). One can see a connection here between the onset of agonistic endeavour with print and postmodern culture. Both are obsessed with the mass proliferation of texts to the people. However, there is one major difference. Printing culture demands that a Truth be found from the masses of ‘truths’ out there, and who is right simply depends on how many people are on your side, and of what calibre. It was knowledge by (informed) consensus. However, postmodernism demands that we still read and absorb all these texts, except we choose for ourselves which to follow. Taste and aesthetic appreciation have overcome the search for Truth, as outlined by Latour. But if we were to follow his ideas, surely we could still choose to follow his method of agonistic argument, and in turn, search for the ultimate Truth? In essence, the uses we have made of printing have reached far beyond our expectations. With the onset of broadcast and online media, printing has downsized somewhat in power, but the uses made of it are still widely felt, even today.

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