technological determinism and economic determinism

by Sebastian Benthall

If you are trying to explain society, politics, the history of the world, whatever, it’s a good idea to narrow the scope of what you are talking about to just the most important parts because there is literally only so much you could ever possibly say. Life is short. A principled way of choosing what to focus on is to discuss only those parts that are most significant in the sense that they played the most causally determinative role in the events in question. By widely accepted interventionist theories of causation, what makes something causally determinative of something else is the fact that in a counterfactual world in which the cause was made to be somehow different, the effect would have been different as well.

Since we basically never observe a counterfactual history, this leaves a wide open debate over the general theoretical principles one would use to predict the significance of certain phenomena over others.

One point of view on this is called technological determinism. It is the view that, for a given social phenomenon, what’s really most determinative of it is the technological substrate of it. Engineers-turned-thought-leaders love technological determinism because of course it implies that really the engineers shape society, because they are creating the technology.

Technological determinism is absolutely despised by academic social scientists who have to deal with technology and its role in society. I have a hard time understanding why. Sometimes it is framed as an objection to technologist who are avoiding responsibility for social problems they create because it’s the technology that did it, not them. But such a childish tactic really doesn’t seem to be what’s at stake if you’re critiquing technological determinism. Another way of framing the problem is the say that the way a technology affects society in San Francisco is going to be different from how it affects society in Beijing. Society has its role in a a dialectic.

So there is a grand debate of “politics” versus “technology” which reoccurs everywhere. This debate is rather one sided, since it is almost entirely constituted by political scientists or sociologists complaining that the engineers aren’t paying enough attention to politics, seeing how their work has political causes and effects. Meanwhile, engineers-turned-thought-leaders just keep spouting off whatever nonsense comes to their head and they do just fine because, unlike the social scientist critics, engineers-turned-thought-leaders tend to be rich. That’s why they are thought leaders: because their company was wildly successful.

What I find interesting is that economic determinism is never part of this conversation. It seems patently obvious that economics drives both politics and technology. You can be anywhere on the political spectrum and hold this view. Once it was called “dialectical materialism”, and it was the foundation for left-wing politics for generations.

So what has happened? Here are a few possible explanations.

The first explanation is that if you’re an economic determinist, maybe you are smart enough to do something more productive with your time than get into debates about whether technology or politics is more important. You would be doing something more productive, like starting a business to develop a technology that manipulates political opinion to favor the deregulation of your business. Or trying to get a socialist elected so the government will pay off student debts.

A second explanation is… actually, that’s it. That’s the only reason I can think of. Maybe there’s another one?