Technological Determinism

Technological determinism is a theory explored primarily in the field of sociology, but it is a concept closely related to the development of language, particularly the English language in the Western World. 

Technological Determinism Technological Determinism

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Table of contents

    Let's explore technological determinism, and the implications this theory has on the way we as human beings communicate with each other.

    Technological Determinism, icons of different technologies, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Technology can be found in so many parts of our lives, giving rise to the technological determinism theory.

    Technological determinism definition

    Technological determinism is a theory that points to technology as the driving force of development in society. Given that technology acts as this driving force, it is considered by Karl Marx and other theorists to be the defining characteristic of modern societies.

    Technological determinism says that a society is defined by its technology.

    The term was conceived by Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), a Norwegian-American sociologist and economist. Veblen studied the intertwining nature of society, culture, and the economy. The relationship between society and culture is what technological determinism is primarily concerned with.

    Examples of Technological Determinism

    Here are some examples that suggest technology is what determines the evolution of society:

    • Cars: from the paving of roads to the invention of driving laws, the car massively changed human interaction and its relationship with the state.

    • Guns: the invention of the first gun in the 10th century and the first machine gun in the late 19th century certainly evolved human combat. By the end of WWI, automatic guns were a crucial part of war planning. The outcome of entire wars can be changed by technology.

    • Cameras: the first camera was developed in the early 19th century, and has changed the face of society. Today, we have surveillance cameras, disposable cameras, and phone cameras. The development of the camera was followed by the invention of video recording, which plays a huge role in our ability to record and document human history.

    All of these examples reinforce the theory of technological determinism, because the invention of each of these completely changed society as we know it. These inventions have each contributed to human and social evolution in different ways.

    Now, having considered the impact of technology on society at large, let's consider the impact of technology on language.

    Technological determinism theory

    In this section, we'll explore the theory of technological determinism in more depth, looking at how it relates to different aspects of language.

    Technology and language

    Technological determinism is reinforced by the use of language in human interaction. Technology has greatly changed the ways in which we as human beings talk to, and relate to, each other.

    Can you think of any ways the invention of different technologies has changed how we as people interact?

    Hint: The telephone, the television, the computer ...

    The development of technologies such as these have greatly impacted human interaction on a global scale.

    The telephone has meant the introduction of phrases such as 'I'll ring you back' and 'Can I have your number?' Following the telephone was the mobile phone, which in itself has further contributed to the evolution of language.

    Some examples to get you thinking about the mobile phone's contribution to language are:

    • LOL: Laughing Out Loud

    • ROFL: Rolling on the Floor Laughing

    • BRB: Be Right Back

    • OMW: On My Way

    The use of mobile phones has led to our collective increased use of abbreviations and shortened language. Now, instead of typing out needlessly long sentences that might take too much time and energy, it is much easier to send abbreviated or shortened phrases such as 'GTG' or '1 SEC'.

    However, even the technological development of mobile phones has impacted our use of abbreviations and shortened language.

    Where on phones with keypads such as Nokias and Blackberrys we might have sent 'CU L8R' or 'G2G', with the introduction of newer phones with touchpads such as iPhones and Androids the use of such shortened language is used less frequently nowadays.

    Technological determinism and social media

    The most potent example of technological development in language is arguably the invention of the internet, and social media. Can you think of any examples of slang that were invented by, or frequently used in social media?

    The popularity of social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and TikTok has given the youth, in particular, the ability to spread new slang phrases and jokes worldwide.

    • Often referred to as 'Internet Culture', it seems internet slang is developing quicker and quicker every day. Of course, this is likely because the internet allows for greater human interaction. Additionally, our growing global population means there are numerous internet subgroups, each a different demographic creating language that is used among one another.

    The Stan:

    • A good example of a phrase that has come entirely with the creation of social media is 'stan culture'. 'Stan culture' refers to whole communities built around celebrities, TV shows, movies, plays, and more.

    • Phrases drawing heavily from AAVE have been popularised by stan culture, such as 'tea', 'shade', and others. These internet cultures have changed the way we as human beings communicate with and understand each other.

    • Stan has evolved simply from a name, to meaning an obsessive fan. 'Stan' is a song produced in 2000 by Eminem, which highlighted the dangers of parasocial relationships by describing an obsessive fan.

    • Simply because of the technological inventions of both music and internet culture, 'stan' now refers to an obsessive fan that blurs the line between 'stalker' and 'fan'.

    These examples of the development of language through the development of technology reinforce technological determinism, which establishes technology as the driving force of culture in society.

    Study Tip: Think of different communities and their slang. Some examples might be: the anime community, the comic book community, the beauty and skincare community, and the fashion community ... What did these slang words in such communities mean before the internet? How has the internet changed their meaning?

    Technological Determinism, social media icons, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Social media has enabled the creation of new words and acronyms, changing our language.

    Technological determinism criticism

    As technology, social media, and language use are so closely intertwined, it's important to consider is the role that social media is having on the amount of actual language used in human interaction.

    Can you think of any ways social media might be 'dumbing down' or limiting language?

    • A possible example is Twitter's word limit - a 200-word limit per tweet might mean users have a limited ability to express their thoughts in a detailed and expressive way.

    • What is referred to today as 'Cancel Culture' is often blamed on social media, with many saying it is creating a culture in which language is 'policed'. Whether this is true or not will likely be determined in the coming decades.

    A counter-argument might be that social media is actually expanding language by:

    • Allowing for heightened communication between speakers of different languages: the development of translators has meant it is easier than ever to communicate with one another. Twitter has a fairly accurate 'Translate Tweet' feature that allows us to express our views even to those who may not speak the same language.

    • Creating various internet subcultures that have led to language evolution: the creation of internet communities such as 'stan culture' has led to language evolution

    Difference between technological and linguistic determinism

    Technological Determinism differs from Linguistic Determinism, which is the theory that states our thoughts, beliefs, and world-views are shaped by language.

    Features of linguistic determinism:

    • The structures established within verbal language entirely determine the way we as human beings categorize information.

    • Linguistic determinism posits that thought processes such as categorization, memory and perception are entirely influenced by language.

    • Our thought processes are influenced by our mother tongue - the ways human beings process information will vary based on the languages we are taught.

    Be careful not to confuse the two. Yes, linguistic determinism focuses on the role of language, but it is concerned with the role of language in shaping our world-view. Technological determinism, on the other hand, is concerned with the role of technology in the evolution of language.

    Study Tip: The role of technology is explored by Technological Determinism, the role of language is explored by Linguistic Determinism.

    Technological Determinism - Key takeaways

    • Technological determinism is a reductionist theory which points to technology as the driving force of development in society - its belief is that a society is defined by its technology.

    • The term was conceived by Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), a Norwegian-American sociologist and economist.

    • Arguably, some negative implications of social media in the development of language are word limits and the development of 'cancel culture'.

    • Some positive implications of social media in the development of language are heightened communication between speakers of different languages and the creation of various internet subcultures that have led to language evolution.

    • While linguistic determinism is concerned with the role of language in shaping our world-view, technological determinism is concerned with the role of technology in the evolution of language.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Technological Determinism

    What is technological determinism?


    Technological Determinism is a reductionist theory which points to technology as the driving force of development in society.

    Who invented technological determinism?


    Technological Determinism is a concept invented by Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), a Norwegian-American sociologist and economist.

    What is the focus of technological determinism?


    The focus of Technological Determinism is the role of technology in societal development.

    What is the purpose of Technological Determinism?

    The purpose of Technological Determinism is to ascertain what entities have controlling power over human affairs and societal development. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Fill in the blanks: Technological Determinism is a _______theory which points to ________ as the driving force of development in society.

    What is the primary concern of Technological Determinism?

    T or F: The creation of new slang terminology has slowed since the invention of the internet and social media

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