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Sociology and Technology

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The question we could ask is: what exactly is technology? Technology is generally used to meet the many challenges of globalization, and to control two concepts namely ‘time and space’ in human communication. This means that people working with technology create new ways and means to control and reduce ‘time and space’ in order to meet the global challenges we are faced with. We see that in the 21st century technology is another term used to represent our modern life style, thinking and behaviour. Technology is also used by people to improve their surroundings, and it involves having to have some sort of knowledge in order to use certain machines and tools to do so. Furthermore technology is used to control the world in which we live, and more specifically people use it to improve their ability to do work and improve products. This whole idea as to how we view technology is seen as the technological determinism approach. It has also been said that technology cannot work on its own, but rather it is found to work hand in hand with the environment in which we live (Lian, 2007). Therefore in my essay I will be looking at various types of technology from a technological determinist and cultural materialist perspective, and then looking at how these two approaches compare or differ from one another. This would also lead me to seeing if the cultural materialist approach does see society as being free agents and actually adapting technology to fit the culture.
1. The main ideas of technological determinism and the theoretical implications of it
Technological determinism has to do with the belief that technology shapes social change. A social scientist named Veblen first came up with this concept in the 1920s, and he believed that changes in beliefs; practices and goals of a society and culture were all influenced by technology (Murphie & Potts, 2003).
Technological determinism was seen to be linked to the idea of progress. In industrial terms this meant that ‘speed of movement’ and ‘volume of production’ was extremely crucial. If take a further look at this, these terms basically meant that the amount of products or goods produced had to increase significantly and had to be done in a fast but efficient manner. This approach views technology as being an independent agent, one that holds its own ideas; has its own rules; course of development and consequences. Based on this we find that technological determinism thinks it’s autonomous, free from any social pressure (in a sense that society cannot force any demands upon it), and it also has a logic of its own. Furthermore, it also holds the belief that whatever technical invention it comes up with society will immediately accept it (without any questions)and a society ill then evolve, for example being called: ‘the steam age’, ‘the age of electricity’ or ‘the information age’ is all proof of this. However, this approach says that at first people will be shocked as to how new technological interventions have come into place, but if they decide not to adhere to these particular rules then they would be dealt with in a particular manner where by technology would try and isolate them (Murphie & Potts, 2003).
2. How it is determined by progress, speed and increases of volume production
Firstly the mode of production is central to the Marxism theory, and has to do with the way in which goods and services are organised in a society. This leads to how Marx found a relationship between the forces of production and relations of production to be a representation of society and the social change that is taking place. Furthermore, the forces of production are all the tools or technology that a society has in order to produce a product (for example: machine technology), (Trainer, 2010). Therefore Marx’s sees technology as a way of helping the economic system; which means that the force of production is central in this situation. This means that capitalists want to increase the number of products being produced, and in turn they also want to reduce the cost of production. The only way in which they could get this right is by replacing the labourers with machines (so that the above can be achieved). For example: a clothing factory before might have needed two people to sow a jean, but now by investing in machines, they reducing the amount of money spent on labour, by only having one person working the machine. This leads us to how technology has evolved over centuries and influenced social change (Bimber, 1994).
3. Technology and society
In 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first ever satellite named Sputnik, and the Americans were shocked to hear this. The Cold War was at its peak during that time, and the United States and the Soviet Union considered themselves to be enemies with one another. It was felt that if the Soviet Union could launch a satellite into space, then so could North America (www.computer.howstuffworks.com, 2013)
The current president of America at the time Dwight Eisenhower developed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1958 as a direct response to the Soviet Union’s satellite launch. The aim of APAR was to give the United States a technological advance from other countries. We also see that in the 1950s computers were so enormous that it filled up entire room, and many of these computers could only read magnetic tape or punch cards, and there was no way in which computers could network together. However, the aim of ARPA was to change this situation, and therefore they got the help of other companies to create the network between computers which was called ARPANET. It was further said that without ARPANET the internet would not be where it is today, or it might not have even existed. Although other groups tried to work on ways to network computers, ARPA created the protocols found on the internet today (www.howstuffworks.com, 2013)
In 1973 engineers started looking at ways to connect ARPANET to the packet radio network (PRNET). Basically this packet radio network connected computers by means of radio transmitters and receivers, which meant that phone lines did not have to be used in order to send computer data, but rather it was replaced with the use of radio waves. In 1997 technicians started joining the Satellite Network (SATNET) to other two networks, and the connection between multiple networks were called: inter-networking, most commonly referred to as the internet. Soon afterwards other networks had joined and included: USENET, BITNET, CSNET, and NSFNET (www.computer.howstuffworks.com, 2013).
In 1990 a man named Tim Berners-Lee created a system that would make the internet much easier to use, and in due time this system was known as the World Wide Web. The earliest users of the internet were government and military officials, university students and computer scientists. By using the internet, more and more people started accessing the World Wide Web, for example colleges and universities began accessing the internet and soon after that so did businesses. By 1994 the internet was in full use, and therefore today we see that the internet is more complex compared to years ago. It connects computers; satellites; cell phones and other electronics to networks that are bigger than the ones that was first developed (www.computer.howstuffworks.com, 2013).
Through the internet one can gain access to general public information such as the news and weather, and with this notion of a ‘information revolution’ mass media (especially in this case the internet) is making more choices available to individuals, and this can become very overwhelming for them. There are also a number of advantages that the internet rings with it, such as: more employment opportunities have been created rather than reduced. For example: home businesses are found all over the world, and a whole new world is influencing world economics. The internet is being revived in such a way that it can be found right now in your pocket. It has also been said that the internet has been used to form social relationships; some people would prefer using email to keep in contact with long distance family and friends, where as teenagers prefer to use faster technology for example on-line chatting sites. We could relate this to South Africa, because more older people prefer using email or house phones to speak to relatives, whereas youngsters prefer using different social media networks (Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, BBM, Watsapp or Mxit), things that are not time consuming and cost effective. This also relates back to the aim of the technological approach during the Victorian time (Murphie & Potts, 2003; Castells, 2001; www.nachtschimmen.com, 2013).
4. Technological determinism and McLuhan
McLuhan says that all technologies are extensions of human capacity, tools are extensions of manual labour and the computer is an extension of the brain. For him the media is seen as technology that go beyond human sense perceptions, and a very important point made is that it is not about the media content that’s important in cultural change, but rather the way in which they change the way we perceive the world. If we take the internet as an example, there are so many ways to access information. We could watch movies, look at pictures and more, which ultimately will have an impact on the way in which we identify our self. A huge emphasis is also put on how the technology of writing has caused a shift in the way people relate to one another (Murphie & Potts, 2003).
McLuhan’s main focus was on mass media. He believed that the radio; cinema and television were a shift away from the cultural norms. He also used an important term called the ‘global village’. This meant that since the satellite had come out people right around the world (in the 1960s) flourished to watch television. Therefore ultimately this leads us back to saying that it is not about the effects that this mass media has on the culture, but it’s about the way in which it is interpreted. If we relate this to the internet, we see that it’s not about the numerous information or websites that one could find, but it’s about how the information obtained is interpreted by people (which then has an impact on culture), for example: at the cultural level a teenager could go onto youtube and watch a provocative music video of a famous singer, and in turn this might persuade him or her to dress or act in that manner as well. In terms of mass media in South Africa, we tend to take everything at face value, for example: at the political level people are being told lies about how those living in shacks will get houses, and they still believe this (Murphie & Potts, 2003).

5. Main ideas of cultural materialism The cultural materialist approach says that the technological determinism only takes a one sided approach to the relationship between culture and society. When removing specific technologies from their cultural and political contexts, the cultural materialist approach looks at technology in isolation. Furthermore, materialism means cultural change should be interpreted as being part of a historical process, in which economic; political and institutional issues all play a crucial role. Williams was a very influential theorist when it came to this approach, and he differed significantly from Marxist and his focus on economical determinism. William came up with a critique of technological determinism because of McLuhan; therefore, he puts a huge emphasis on social need and political intention as being important factors in the development of technology. Instead of accepting the rise of the radio and television (that created a global village) and how it shaped culture, Williams instead focused on the particular circumstances in which these technologies were introduced, for example: it might have been during the First World War, and this meant that there were larger cities; more mobile populations and a great emphasis was put on the family home (where by communication was vital). In order to meet these demands, the radio was seen as a form of internet in which communication could be kept (Murphie & Potts, 2003).
A very important issue that the cultural materialist approach drew on was the political context of technological development. Broadcasting was not just a cultural entity, but an economic and political one as well, and was to the benefit of two particular groups, because the creators of the radio technology made profits received money from those living at home and businesses wanting to advertise. On the other hand, we see that the government and capitalists was the main people that wanted to implement radio broadcasting. Williams includes all the factors that McLuhan left out such as: social need; economic benefits; political control and from a broader perspective the sociocultural context (Murphie & Potts, 2003).
6. A cultural materialism or technological determinism approach?
There are many advantages to the technological determinism approach: being able to gain immediate access to any general public information; keeping in touch with long distance friends or family and friends. However, it can have a number of disadvantages such as: allowing criminal offences to take place (on the internet) anonymously and hacking into someone’s computer and being able to see their private space. In terms of the South African context, when interpreting cultural change, it takes away traditional norms or behaviour; new contextualization of old ideas (which means that values and personal development is lost), technology strips Ubuntu; and it also takes away traditional cultural practices (www.nachtschimmen.com, 2013). I would not say I am taking any sides between these two approaches, they both make relevant points, but I will be leaning more towards the cultural materialist approach.
Therefore in conclusion, the technological has evolved dramatically over the years (especially the internet), but the technological determinism view makes as if society does not have any agency. However, since cultures already have certain ownership; class relations; gender relations; and social attitudes and beliefs they would simply adapt new technology to their satisfaction.…...

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