McLuhan and Determinism: I really have little choice!

Marshall McLuhan’s media work has been criticized as being technologically determinist. In other words, he supposedly argues that new media technologies (such as the printing press, radio, and TV) effectively dictate the actions of people who use the technologies.  In a determinist approach, human choice is minimized or disappears altogether.

In the world of the Internet, smart phones, and social media, one might think that the new media dictate how people communicate with others and how they act. As an example, some people contend that Facebook not only made possible the communications interactions that spurred Arab Spring demonstrations in northern Africa; it actually determined the conditions in which the demonstrations would occur.  First step: Facebook; second consequential step: demonstrations.  Simple and obvious, right?

Historians of technology (and humanists in general) tend to argue that technological determinism doesn’t really exist. People use technologies—media technologies and others—and make conscious choices about their use.  As evidence, some commentators point to the fact that people tried to spur demonstrations using Facebook a year before they proved successful.  Obviously, then, other conditions needed to exist before the Arab Spring inciters could achieve their goals.

As a human being (and humanist), I like to think that I have control over how I use technologies. Heck—I even teach this notion in my classes.  Humans are in charge—not machines!

Yet, even as I try to empower students (and disempower technology!), I sometimes wonder whether limits to my control exist. In the media world, for example, how much am I really in control?  Can I really decide to opt out of using certain new media technologies simply because I don’t like them?  Would I be able to retain my job (as a college professor) if I took steps to disengage myself from the technologies?

Sure, I could decide to avoid email, but given that everyone else uses it—even my employer does, by emailing me vital information about taxes, health-insurance plans, etc.—can I really opt out? With students using all sorts of electronic media to communicate with each other, can I really expect them to try to communicate with me without using email?  Do I really want them to phone me or stop by my office at odd times, which they would do even less frequently since they’ve become accustomed to emailing their other profs?  By imposing requirements on them that makes their lives so much more inconvenient, I would be hindering their ability to learn and to be inquisitive at a time when my job is partly to make them more informed and more critical.

In other words, while I may feel that I don’t want to use new media technologies (so, for example, I don’t feel obliged to respond to a student’s query at 10:30 PM, near my bedtime), I do so at the peril of forcing others to alter their own behaviors. And many of us don’t want to impose our values and choices on others.  In such a way, then, we conform to the standards of the time, which in this case means learning how to use these technologies even if we are not comfortable doing so.

One could argue that this situation does not reflect technological determinism since it’s other people and society in general (and my desire to be part of society) that dictates how I use technology. In other words, maybe it’s social determinism rather than technological determinism that’s at work here.  Media technologies may not dictate how I act, but because they have become so widely used, I cannot simply choose not to use them and still remain connected to modern society.

So, while the media may not exactly be the message, the popularity of those media may make it difficult for me to live my life in the absence of the message. We are too interconnected to opt out of what everyone else is doing; if we truly want to avoid using the technologies, we become disengaged from modern life.  We may have a choice, but the consequences of the choice are so extreme that it’s not really a choice after all.

Hence, maybe the existence and widespread use of the media devices make it appear that determinism (technological or social) remains alive and well.

Thanks a lot, Mr. McLuhan!

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