About media & technology

How much does the rapidly changing technology of mass media influence the world of the individual and the overall social structure? How has this influence been evident in the past? What is its likely path in the future? To begin grasping these issues, we will first introduce some basic concepts, then describe some recent debates, and consider the ideas and inspirations of a few important theorists.

The reason we study media technology, according to media theorist Marshall McLuhan, is that we need to be able to anticipate the process of social change it generates. McLuhan didn’t believe that mass media is a neutral tool we can just take or leave:

  • Because of today’s terrific speed-up of information moving, we have a chance to apprehend, predict and influence the environmental forces shaping us — and thus win back control of our own destinies. The new extensions of man and the environment they generate are the central manifestations of the evolutionary process, and yet we still cannot free ourselves of the delusion that it is how a medium is used that counts, rather than what it does to us and with us. (Playboy,1969).

Here McLuhan argues that technology has impacts, whether we like them or not.  Because of this, McLuhan is in the “determinist” category of theorists. However, to the extent that we can influence technological changes, he sees a role for social responses to technology.

Technological determinism

Determinism involves the question of inherent freedom.  For some religious traditions, determinism is a central issue, and the question is whether people have free will or whether our fates are pre-determined.  The stakes are not quite so high in technology, where determinism is the idea that a technology may have inherent characteristics that shape its evolution and its impact on society.

Technological determinism is often contrasted with the idea that  social processes (including politics, economics and culture) have more influence on a technology than a technology’s own trajectory. The question can also focus on the social impact of technology: Is the social impact pre-determined by a technology’s inherent characteristics, or does society shape its response to technology?

These are historical and social questions with no fixed answers. They have been answered both ways, and neither side is right or wrong. Well informed people frequently disagree about these kinds of issues, and in the give and take discussion, we learn to appreciate a variety of perspectives to complex issues.

For example, what is the impact of 21st century high speed global satellite and fiber optic data networks? For columnist Thomas Friedman, these particular media technologies “flattened” the world, making it just as easy to process information or make phone calls from India as it would be in Europe or North America. The acceleration of information technology created this condition, he argues in the 2005 book, The World is Flat. While social institutions might buffer some of the impacts, the global sharing of semi-skilled information work is inevitable and still expanding.

The idea of technological determinism was conceived by sociologist  Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), perhaps inspired by historian Charles Beard, who said: “Technology marches in seven-league boots from one ruthless, revolutionary conquest to another, tearing down old factories and industries, flinging up new processes with terrifying rapidity.”

The possibility that the acceleration of technology could reach a point where no social process could exert any control is considered to be a technological singularity beyond which any future is opaque.  For example, futurist Raymond Kurzweil posits a super-intelligent network of computers that could make decisions about ending all human existence.

Social construction of technology

Social  construction is more or less the opposite of determinism.  Advocates of the social construction position argue that society has a more important influence on a technology’s development than the technology’s own properties.  For examples of social construction, we could look to fieldds of technologies in which some were advanced and others were held back by government regulation, economic structures or public opinion.

One example would be that of broadcasting voice and music over radio. Until around 1912, the Marconi radio telegraphy company resisted the shift to continuous wave transmission, as much for lack of vision as economic advantage.  After the sinking of the Titanic, the Marconi system’s disastrous inability to communicate with a nearby ship was exposed, and new laws requiring a more flexible system were enacted.

Similarly, technical standards for television broadcasting were decided in board rooms in the 1940s – long after the variety of options had been characterized in the laboratories. (Erik Barnow, The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States, Oxford University Press: New York 1969).

Another perspective on social influence is that inventors themselves tend to infuse their own values into technology. Examples include Steve Jobs  and Apple, Guglielmo Marconi and the radio telegraph,  Thomas Edison and the with Motion Picture Patents Association, and many others.

Sometimes the inventors values come into conflict with powerful industrial or social forces. Brian Winston for example describes the emergence of some media technologies as influenced by what he called the Law of the suppression of radical potential. In Technologies of Seeing: Photography, Cinematography and Television (1997) and Media Technology and Society (1998) – Winston showed how technologies can be held back.

No lone inventor, such as Samuel Morse, could today can reinvent the web or a market a new spreadsheet application. But one could  market a free “open source” spreadsheet.  What’s different about the digital revolution, according to Jonathan Zittarain,  is that inventors have a different set of values. They are not just about making money or dominating a realm of business. The values of playfulness and creativity are far stronger, among computer nerds, than the desire to create well made products or serve corporate loyalties. And in the process, the nerds created what Zittrain saw as an alternative economy.

Determinism versus construction  – A 2012 example

Is  Kinect development a deterministic form of top-down technology diffusion?  Or is it a socially constructed technology?    Kinect  is  the gaming sensor that allows body motion to influence game play. It was introduced  by Microsoft in November 2010 and was a hot best seller.  Now all kinds of new uses are evolving from drone controls to fashion.

Rob Walker notes in the New York Times, May 30, 2012: “An object that spawns its own commercial ecosystem is a thing to take seriously. ”  But is the object spawning the ecosystem, as an extension of its own properties,  or is the community adapting it and changing the properties?  Its an extremely important distinction that Walker misses entirely when he say  “the object spawns.”   In fact, the community adopting the object is constructing the technology around it.

Luddites and Utopians

When people reject technology in a pessimistic way, they are sometimes called Luddites. The term goes back to 1811, when thousands of English textile workers lost their jobs following the introduction of steam powered machinery. According to legend [ which is similar to the “spirit” said to haunt a print chapel (see Life in an early print shop)] the mythical figure Ned Ludd was a simple minded boy who accidentally broke a “frame” (loom). Others who broke frames deliberately might cover it up by claiming that they were as clumsy as Ludd. Although non-violent, 23 men were executed and 13 more (at least) were transported to Australia. This movement was very much on the mind of London Times owner John Walter II when he promised workers that they would keep their jobs even after steam printing presses were introduced in 1814.

Pessimism need not involve outright rejection of technology. Henry Adams, in his 1907 autobiography, said that civilization had left behind an old world concerned with religion and had entered a new one, concerned with science and technology but morally and philosophically adrift. His comparison of the two ages of civilization was between the Virgin and the Dynamo, an idea which has been often repeated in discussions about technology.

When people embrace technology in an extremely optimistic way, they are said to be technological utopians. A good deal of the rhetoric surrounding the development of the telegraph, the early years of radio, and the early years of the Internet was influenced by this sort of enthusiasm. (Czitrom, 1983).

Its possible for luddites and technological utopians to see technology as either deterministic or socially constructed. An example of a luddite (or pessimistic) determinist would be Oswald Spengler, who saw technology leading to the decline of Western European civilization, while an example of an optimistic determinism is evident in the rhetoric surrounding the Chicago World’s Fair. An example of an optimistic view combined with a social construction of technology might be Thomas Friedman, mentioned above, or also Langdon Winner, who advocated more awareness of the social and political possibilities for control of technology.

Technological fallacies

Sometimes predictions for technological directions that do not occur are called technological fallacies. It was a fallacy, for instance, that computers would lead to a police state. It was a partial fallacy, for instance, that Alexander Graham Bell and other inventors of the late 19th century thought that the telephone would be used more or less as for broadcasting, in the way that occurred with radio in the 1920s, carrying news and music. It was a complete fallacy for Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio, to predict that radio waves could stimulate plants and act as a new kind of fertilizer. In the 1950s and 60s, comic book detectives carried “wrist televisions” like wrist watches to communicate with each other. This was a fallacy of form but not function, since in fact, live video links via cell phones are now possible.

Envisioning the future has always been an interesting and sometimes productive pastime, but the future isn’t what it used to be, as Richard Barbrook notes in his book discussing  Imaginary Futures as a way to understand the present. (Barbrook, 2007).

McLuhan and Media Technology

Media are extensions of human perception, McLuhan observed. They are powerful influences, for good or bad, in helping us form our views of reality — so powerful that this idea was exaggerated into William Gibson’s book Neuromancer which then became the basis of a movie called The Matrix.

But as communications theorists have pointed out over the decades, ascribing a great deal of power to a medium may be too deterministic. No matter how steeped in media, people also have social lives and non-media influences that help contextualize the media experience.

McLuhan’s four-part test (or “tetrad”)

One way to evaluate the social impact of a media technology revolution is to consider a four-part test for elements of the medium. The comparison can help clarify and anticipate some of the social changes that technology creates. We ask:

What does the new medium enhance or amplify?

What becomes obsolete or driven out of prominence

What is retrieved that had nearly been forgotten from an earlier time

How does the medium “overheat” or warp under pressure?

The classic example is radio.

Enhancement — news and music via sound.

Obsolescence — reduces the importance of print media

Retrieval — returns the spoken word to the forefront. For example, FDR’s fireside chats. (re-tribalization)

Reversal — Radio becomes a medium for teenagers and rock and roll music

As media revolutions continue to reverberate, McLuhan’s tetrad is a useful way of making comparisons throughout the four media revolutions. Just as McLuhan argued that broadcast media made print less important, others have argued that images and digital media decreased the importance of print (Benjamin 2008;  Boorstin 1992;  Hedges 2009).

While digital media may retrieve some elements of print media, such as letter writing, certainly the impact of digital media has been to obsolesce print media institutions such as newspapers and change the political culture  of the press.

Hot and cool media

 Media can be classified by their impacts on audiences, McLuhan said  in his 1965 book Understanding Media.    Some types of media tend to be “hot” – that is, they immerse audience members and allow less participation. Others  tend to be “cool,” allowing audience members to be detached from the message or requiring more participation in making sense of the message. The idea wasn’t entirely new; for example, Enlightenment philosopher David Hume said in 1742 that a free press should not be feared because the medium could not incite rebellion. “A man reads a book or pamphlet alone, coolly. There is no one present from whom he can catch the passion by contagion.”  (Hume, 1742)

Just where each medium might fall on a hot-cool spectrum depends on its cultural and historical context.   In the 1960s, McLuhan could say that cinema was “hot” because audiences were fully immersed in the medium, while television was “cool” because, at the time, it was a low-definition medium that required some effort to enjoy.  Yet over time, as television technology improved, the medium became more and more immersive; today, McLuhan might see television as much hotter than it once was.

The categories are not really fixed, and McLuhan often said provocative things he called “probes” just to stir up conversation.  For instance, he  thought of radio as a “hot” medium since it immersed audiences, and yet many others have seen radio as requiring a sense of imagination to fill in the details of the story, which would make it a “cool” medium.  Perhaps his  most provocative idea was that “hot” new media technology could be so overwhelming that many people would go into a subtle state of shock, a “psychic rigor mortis,” as they tried to “cool off” its effects.  Modern concerns about addition to social media and online video gaming systems might be seen as examples of this idea.

In any event, it’s useful to question whether a linear view of hot-cool media categories really helps us understand psychological reactions to media.  Recent studies of brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI),  which was not available in McLuhan’s time, show that reading books, watching movies or searching the internet all use very different portions of the brain in unique ways.    (Wolf, 2008)

Update:  Reading books and watching cinema affect specific portions of the brain and deepen our ability to understand the complexities of social life. And yet, for reasons not yet explained, television has less of this effect.  (Paul, 2012; Goldman, 2012).


These concepts are part of our “toolbox” with which we consider the advance of new media technologies and we will use them in the coming chapters to consider the history of media revolutions.

A useful media history ought to avoid the parade of gadgets strung together chronologically, also known as the “one damned thing after another” approach.  Instead, we will try to view media revolutions as a series of technological waves, linked by communities of people and ideas, meeting and interacting with the structures of society.

Further Reading 

Sara Graça da Silva, Jamshid J. Tehrani, “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales,” Royal Society Open Publishing, January 20, 2016.

Chandler, Daniel.  “Technological or Media Determinism,” on the web, 1994.




History of information / Free course at the University of California, Berkeley. Taught by Geoffrey D. Nunberg, Paul Duguid

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