Labelling Media Theories

The question of the extent to which technology (media specifically) alters society and influences individuals’ actions is fascinating to me. This question was predominant throughout the readings and it seems, throughout media studies in general.

Technological determinism holds that technology is the sole agent for change in society. It is a popular view in media studies and in the wider society, as demonstrated in the categorising of various periods by their dominant technology (steam age, the age of electricity, the information age etc)

It is undoubtable that certain new technologies do significantly alter society. The main issue with technological determinism is that it removes technologies from their social context, treating specific technologies as if they ‘came into existence of their own accord’ (Murphie and Potts).

Cultural materialism, the name given by Murphie and Potts in their text Culture and Technology, is the perspective held by those theorists on the other end of the spectrum to technological determinists, those who seek to always situate technologies in their contexts. Key in this collective of theorists is Ray Williams who emphasises ‘social need and political intention as significant factors involved in technological development.’ Determinists simply leave these factors out.

It is easy to state that technology changes society because in this case we are usually only considering the technological inventions that exist and proliferate today. There are many, many examples of various technologies and media which simply did not catch on and hence faded from the public memory. These inventions did not survive because they didn’t suit or were not necessary for their particular social conditions. Thus, it is not simply technology influencing society but also social conditions influencing and changing technology.

Some media unquestionably and radically alter society. I found Paul Levinsen’s discussion of the phonetic alphabet and the subsequent rise of monotheism particularly interesting. The ability of these meaningless letters to represent abstract thought was clearly a huge advantage to the Hebrews in communicating the idea of monotheism. Also fascinating was the resistance that this new written mode faced, by Socrates and Plato amongst others. This resistance mirrors the current opposition that various digital technologies face today and situates our current media situation within a long line of invention, resistance and acceptance.