What is technological determinism?

Technological determinism is a position in the metaphysics of technology that states that technology develops as a force in a particular direction which is outside human control, and this development determines and shapes human values.

Determinism doesn’t say that technology is unstoppable, but rather, that it forecfully pushes itself in the direction of greater advancement mostly independently of human control. So although we can influence the development of technology somewhat, it is nevertheless a strong force with great momentum that is hard to influence.

The position of technological determinism is a minority view, whereas the majority of people take the instrumentalist view: that technology is merely a tool. However, there is one major point for determinism that cannot be overlooked: the prisoner’s dilemma, as I have talked about at length.

In short, this says that any new technology will inevitably be developed and used since it gives individuals advantages over others in a wide variety of situations, and thus basic human instincts together with our social structure is a growth medium for advancing technology.

Instrumentalism, or the view that technology is just a set of tools freely created by humans, is intuitive because without human action, technology cannot develop. However, determinism does not contradict the fact that humans create technology through their own action.

Instead, determinism merely says that the large-scale effects of humans interacting together in a social system with all their instincts create a system such that the advancement of technology is inevitable, and thus technology proceeds inexorably due to the emergent phenomenon of people doing things for their own benefit.

Can determinism be overridden?

The main consequence of technological determinism is that it grows without end and is almost impossible to stop. Of course, it is not truly impossible to stop. The collapse of civilizations often slows it down or can even stop its progress. And in small groups, technology may not grow at all.

Technology is like a virus with no cure growing in your body. Can you stop it? It might be possible, but it is unlikely. A virus is not alive, but it operates with a rule that makes your cells copy it. Technology operates like that: it provides a set of strong incentives to copy it and improve it, and we respond instinctually to those incentives. Of course, any individual can respond by not copying the virus of technology, but because the incentives provided by technology are so strong, most people really cannot do anything but copy it, me included.

The cure for technology is for an overwhelming majority to choose not to copy the virus of technology. In other words, technological determinism is not absolute, but the cure for it is very difficult to find, probably much more difficult to find that trying to find a cure for some human viruses.

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