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What is technological determinism

The term "technological determinism" was coined by Thorstein Veblen, an economist and sociologist who lived from 1857 to 1929. The most famous supporter of this position is Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan saw every medium as an extension of some human faculty. In his words, "The wheel is an extension of the foot. The book is an extension of the eye. The clothing is an extension of the skin and electric circuitry is an extension of the central nervous system"(Dovey et al 2009). Whatever predominate media will influence human beings by affecting the way they perceive the world. In a word, technological determinism means that technology is the dominant, determining factor in the process. McLuhan argued that even if technology was deterministic it cannot be dismissed as an unhealthy entity. Technological determinism can be defined as "an immensely powerful and now largely orthodox view of the nature of social change. New technologies are discovered, by an essentially internal process of research and development, which then sets the conditions for social change and progress. Progress, in particular, is the history of these inventions, which 'created the modern world'. The effects of these technologies, whether direct or indirect, foreseen or unforeseen, are as it were the rest of history" (Williams, 1990). Technological determinism is the idea that technology is an autonomous force within our lives. If this concept is accurate then we are presented with a matrix-like proposition of humans being the servants of new technology rather new technology serving us. This is not necessarily designed to be taken literally; it is not implying that we will all soon be at the mercy of some robotic task master. "Nowadays, the term is used to refer to the common assumption that new technologies are the primary cause of major social and historical changes at the macrosocial level of social structure and processes and/or subtle but profound social and psychological influences at the microsocial level of the regular use of particular kinds of tools" (Chandler 1995). However it does imply that society is affected by many technologies in a way that was never intended by its creator. The invention of the communications technology used for the internet is one significant example. The fore father of the internet was invented for the US military as a communications media in 1969. At the time of its conception the uses of today's internet would never have been considered and moreover, would have been considered far beyond the realms of reality. It was not until much later that its true potential for society was realised when the World Wide Web was established in the early 1990's. Since then the internet has obviously helped society by giving us instant access to information and instantaneous communication through email. However it has also had a somewhat harmful impact on society as well. With instant access to uncensored information came the rise of internet pornography and the exploitation of children. Experts are also blaming a less active lifestyle on the rise of obesity in Britain. Some are accusing parents as using the different media streams as babysitters and no longer do activities with their children.

Throughout history, the way in which we communicate has evolved as a result of the new technology available. In 1476 William Caxton produced the first printed book (O'sullivan et al 2003). This was the advent of the modern type printing press. People continued to develop and amend the press until 1702 when The Daily Courant became the first daily newspaper in England. It consisted of a single piece of paper with two columns. Edward Mallet advertised that he intended to publish only foreign news, and claimed that he would not take upon himself to add any comments of his own. This is in contrast to today's news media that definitely have a bias on not only what is printed but on how it is reported. In 1785 John Walter published the Universal Register. This was later to be known as The Times. This paper grew to a daily readership of 40,000 by 1850 and had grown from four pages to an impressive twelve page broadsheet. This was only possible because of advances in the printing press technology. Without these advances it would have taken a large number of printers and presses to produce this many newspapers on a daily basis. John Walters had become convinced that through the advances in printing and audience demand he could make a profit from printing the news daily.

In 1896 the first moving picture show took place in London to a paying audience. It then took another forty years for technology to progress to a level that allowed audience to see full length talking films to be broadcast. In 2009 we now have the technology and wealth to be able to view films that can last for three hours or more and that are now a hybrid human action and computer generated graphics such as the star wars films. In 1946 cinema attendance reached its peak of 635 million visits in Britain. This could be a combination of new technological novelty and the fact that we had just come out of a six year war and people were still in need of new ways to unwind. Nowadays people still go to the cinema to see new films; however, you can now wait a few months to see the same film available to rent in your home or even broadcast into your living room via your television set.

In 1936 the BBC launched its television service in Britain. It broadcast live images from Alexandra Palace. This was followed by further test transmissions during the following two days. The picture consisted of a simple chequerboard. Germany at this time was hosting the Olympic Games which it televised. However, at this time only hotels and clubs could afford to have televisions although their will have been a handful of television sets in the homes of the very rich. The technology at this time allowed for broadcasts to be almost instantaneous around the UK. Anything that showed film from other parts of the world was shown as recorded programs that were then transported around the globe. Obviously this would be considered to be very slow compared to today's live images from anywhere on the planet. This was to change in 1962 when the first communication satellite was launched into space. During its time in service, Telstar 1 relayed the first television pictures, telephone calls and fax images through space and provided the first live transatlantic television feed. In 1969 the BBC and ITV launched their first colour transmissions. In the UK the development of television media slowed until 1982 when the fourth terrestrial channel was launched. In 1989 Sky satellite broadcast for the first time and brought multiple new channels into homes which were themed. This was the first step to the audience being able to choose what to watch. This was closely followed by cable television companies in 1991. They broadcast satellite television without the need for a satellite dish on your home. Instead they used a network of underground pipes to carry cables into your home. In 1997 channel five was launched but did not have a very good service area with many people being told they could not receive it without purchasing a Sky or cable television package.

In 1922 the BBC broadcast its first radio signals around the UK and by 1932 had launched a world service radio. Today's media providers now can produce instant images beamed from anywhere in the world to your home television or radio set. During the 7/7 bombings in London the Metropolitan Police Chief Sir Ian Blair said" on July 7th we did what everybody else did, we watched Sky News to see what was happening" (Sky News 2006). This supports the speed with which information travels through today's use of technology by the media.

In conclusion as with all theories there are arguments for and against it and to truly assess its importance we need to critically examine both the positive and negative points to these arguments. There are a number of positives and negatives with regards to the advances in technology we have seen over the last fifty or so years. The first positive benefit of these advances is that people now have a vast wealth of knowledge at their fingertips. Without access to television, radio and the internet, people would only gain knowledge from a narrow range of sources such as books and word of mouth. However, the access to this vast range of media can also result in information overload (too much information) information from unreliable sources (especially from the internet) and a risk that television and radio programme quality will become diluted. Since the advent of the digital age, media sources have offered an escape to its audiences. Viewers and listeners can be on safari in Africa one minute and with the flick of a switch be experiencing life in another time in history and a little later they could be floating amongst the stars in a science fiction film. Conversely this can also isolate people from social interaction with other people as we all sit mesmerised by the wealth of entertainment available to us within our own homes.

As digital television has evolved and the idea of being able to watch what you want, when you want, media provision will become more competitive and become more available to all. The negative side to this is that because media technology is continuously evolving new technologies will become available at an increasingly rapid rate. These new technologies when first launched are inherently expensive and are out of reach of all but the very rich in society. Most people will have to wait sometimes years to be able to afford to access these new services.

Finally, the evidence would suggest that although the media will always be reliant on technological evolution to provide new transport streams for its products, technological development is also reliant on the consumer buying already existing technologies and media products to fund the research and development of new technology. Although the different theorists support their arguments it would appear that technology and the media has a more symbiotic relationship than TECHNOLOGICAL DETERMINISM would suggest.