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The communications theory of Technological Determinism was molded by Marshall McLuhan. The basic idea behind the theory is that changes in the way humans communicate is what shapes our existence. McLuhan feels that our culture is molded by how we are able to communicate. To understand this, there are a few main points you must comprehend. First, inventions in communication technology cause cultural change. Secondly, changes in modes of communication shape human life. Thirdly, as McLuhan himself puts it, "We shape our tools, and they in turn shape us". Technological Determinism is distinctly a humanistic theory. As you read on, this will become quite evident.
What exactly is considered media? Media is anything out there that helps to amplify or intensify a human sense or function. In other words, each new media innovation that we have is considered to be an extension of some human faculty. Take a book for example, which can be considered an extension of the eye. The wheel may be looked at as an extension of the foot. Clothing parallels human skin, and electronic circuitry closely resembles the human central nervous system.
According to this theory, there are several giant evolutions in the way humans have learned to communicate over time. Each of these innovations works as an extension of one of the human senses. McLuhan has divided human history into 4 critical periods of time. In each case, the moving on from one era to another is brought on by a new mode of communication which causes some sort of significant change in society.
First there was the 'tribal age', followed by the 'literate age', the 'print age', and finally the 'electronic age', which is where society is now. The invention that changed life for the 'tribal age' was that of a phonetic alphabet. For these primitive people, hearing was the most important sense. The right hemisphere of the brain, which controls hearing, was the more dominant side. With the creation of the alphabet and the expansion into the 'literate age', people were then forced to use their eyes as well as their ears. This was a huge change in that it heavily altered the lifestyles of our ancestors. McLuhan suggests that it was the development of the phonetic alphabet that brought about the emergence of mathematics, science, and philosophy as well.
This new 'literate age' was brought to an end by the development of the printing press. Gutenberg's printing press moved society into the 'print age', making visual dependence more widespread. When people see ideas in print as apposed to word of mouth, the words take on a whole new meaning. The ability to print ideas meant the ability to shape the views and opinions of people worldwide.
McLuhan believed that the invention of the telegraph was the next giant step, moving people into the current 'electronic age'. The ability to instantly communicate via technology has caused humans to be pre-occupied with sound and touch, not unlike our ancestors of the 'tribal age'. A "global village" of sorts has been formed according to McLuhan, with the individuality removed from our culture.
McLuhan describes Technological Determinism in terms of what each society deems the important way to communicate. What one could hear was truth for people of the 'tribal age', while what was available to read defined the truth for those alive during the 'print age'. In essence, the same exact words can have completely different meaning based on whether they are spoken person to person, printed on paper, or presented through instantaneous communication (i.e. television or radio). What we as people view as truth at each particular point in human history has the active voice. These are all examples of what makes a good humanistic theory.
Also, Technological Determinism happens to conflict with many examples of scientific theory criteria. Technological Determinism helps to explain the past as well as what is happening in the present, but does not bother to predict the future (what the next 'age' or invention will be). As for a testable hypothesis, it is nearly impossible to test a theory such as this. How are we going to properly evaluate the effect of the alphabet on people whom had no way to write their history?
One could also go on to conclude that such a theory helps to change the way people look at the world. Instead of looking at the contents of a communication for the message, Technological Determinism tells us to look to the medium for it. It is an intriguing concept, but like a Monet painting, the closer you get to the canvas the harder it is to see the real picture.
From the distance, this theory does seem clean and concise. However the more you look into it, the more you will be unable to overlook the multitude of holes in the theory. Most professionals consider Technological Determinism little more than cartoon art, and for very good reason. Many of McLuhan's ideas conjure up notions about societies that we have no way to check in with for without the invention of a time machine. Are we supposed to simply "take his word" for it? He constantly asks us to make leaps of faith on the most important issues of the theory.
When one reads McLuhan's writings, (or hears his lectures), it becomes quite evident that McLuhan is more concerned with creating eye (or ear) candy, and less concerned with bringing on the main course. He spends plenty of time evaluating the power of current technology such as television and how it affected current culture. Then we are to follow McLuhan on a leap of faith to say that ALL advances in communication technology have had similar effects.
To say technology alone is responsible for creating all that we are today is a rather narrow minded view. To so easily discount such "trivial" concepts as natural evolution, politics, and religion, then claim there is a single cause of human development is just plain ignorant. He takes our progression out of the hands of God and the politicians, and puts it into the hands of engineers and computer experts. I for one do not think that these are the people responsible for molding society.
Don't get me wrong here; I do think this theory follows some lines of common sense. However, common sense hardly means it is correct. It used to be common sense that Blacks weren't as smart as Whites and that drilling into someone's brain would help release the evil demons inside. These days, it is probably a little safer to provide a bit of evidence before claiming to know who people are and how their minds work.