Technological Determinism: McLuhan and Williams: Do We Control the Media or Does the Media Control Us?
The end of first part of the New Media: A Critical Introduction is spent examining the philosophies of two of the most influential philosophers of new media: Raymond Williams and Marshall McLuhan (ch 1.6 – 1.6.6). Both men have impacted the philosophy and studies of new media and are deemed relevant, however their differing philosophies have created somewhat conflicting ways of looking at new media. Essentially, McLuahn writes about the impact that media has on us, while Williams says that since we determine how we use the media we are the ones who decide the media’s effect (Lister et al. 1.6.1). So, which way of the two men is correct?
In general, I can understand Williams’ frustration with McLuahn’s way of thinking. While reading about Baudrillard, and post-modernist perspectives of new media (Lister et al., ch 1.2.6) stemming from McLuhan’s philosophies (Lister et al. 1.6.4), I also felt like media and technology were taken out of the context of our intended uses for them, which seems to, in reality, be a largely limiting factor. This might be a little bit more obvious to me after having witnessed a future that hardly resembles that which science fiction writers of the past had predicted. In general, social factors have gotten in the way of allowing media and technology to consume our lives to the extent that it might have been predicted earlier, and it seems fair to say that our society has influenced technology at least as much as technology has influenced society in response. While for me it was apparent that we, ourselves, are controlling what type of an impact technology has on our lives, Williams, more accurately and importantly, notes that existing power structures limit how technologies impact our lives whether most people want them to or not (as is the case with the medium of writing and illiteracy discussed by Lister et al. in case study 1.9).
I do think, however, that the theories spawned from McLuhan’s perspective on the power of media and technological determination are very important as well. I state “the theories spawned from,” because from the reading it seemed that followers of McLuhan, such as Baudrillard (Lister et al. 1.6.4), were stronger proponents of technological determinism than he might even have been. Anyhow, if we did not decide to use media the way we do, there would be no reason for McLuhan to even be writing about it, so it seems that he is already one step head of Williams in a sense. So, assuming that we decide to, and the existing power structures enable us to use the medium, how does us using the medium in turn effect us?
While it seems to me that the vast majority of the effect of these new media are due to the content, this puts the discussion back in the realm of Williams, in that it seems easier for us to be in control of the content than the effects of the medium as a whole, and as McLuhan makes clear, he is focused on the media itself as the message (Lister et al., 1.6.2) which is a much better grounds for making a point of technological determinism.
What strikes me as part of the problem with Williams is that he seems to assume people as all knowing, which in turn means that by allowing the medium into our lives we ourselves have invited its effects. However people are not all knowing and we can not necessarily predict the full spectrum of the effect that using a new medium will have on us. We are not always capable of determining exactly what the impact of a new medium is going to be, and thus we are not completely in control of it. For example, while we might have wanted TV to be a part of our lives initially since we thought of it as a great thing for its ability to engage our visual and auditory senses as McLuhan did (Lister et al., 1.6.2), we might not have perceived the more subtle effects of the medium that we did not intend to expose ourselves to.
In addition, there is also the question of addiction and temptation. While the medium is to blame for this as much as chocolate is for being too tasty, there remains the fact that if this medium was never introduced people might have had more rational control over their lives. I do believe, that to an extent, we do not watch TV, but TV makes us watch it. What seems to click and feel good about a medium is sometimes beyond our logical intention for it, and I would argue to an extent that if there is something inherent in a medium that directs how we use it, that thing would be its capacity for giving us the most pleasure and sense of power. While what gives us pleasure and a sense of power are partially social constructs, they are also in a large part biological constructs, and in that sense are more set in stone by our genetics, getting us into the question of an even larger determinism. Ultimately I would say that when a new medium is able to find the key to making us feel these things, its use starts to slip out of our logical control.
In general, however, the most obvious answer the question of “whether or not a media technology has the power to transform a culture (Lister et al. ch 1.6) ” might be found when we just think of a new media in terms of enabling. While we might have wanted to communicate something, it simply is not possible without a medium capable of it. So, yes, the medium itself is a crucial step in transforming the culture, and thus the medium itself seems to have the power to create change. The response to this seems to be: “but an object is inanimate, it is not doing it, we are doing it with it,” so then I guess it is possible to answer Lister et al.’s question in ch 1.6 only if we change the wording a bit. What we want to and are now able to accomplish through new media has the power to change a culture. This empowers us and dictates our responsibility while also stating the importance and the potential for change that having a new media creates.
Lister, et al. New Media: A Critical Introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.