Automation and technological determinism

Which came first, the smartphone, or the need for it?

This chicken-and-egg style question is a narrowing of a broader, ongoing debate on the role of technology in society. Namely, does society inform technology, or technology inform society?

Technological determinism suggests that it’s the latter. Here, we explore this theory, and how it applies to automation, past and future.

What is technological determinism?

Technological determinism is a theory focusing on the societal impact of technology. It posits that new technology directs and causes changes in society and culture. (Rather than society and culture directing new technology.)

So, according to technological determinism, the smartphone comes before the need for it. And in doing so, it causes a mass shift in the way we live and function.

Technological determinism, then, is the belief that new technology acts as a primary governing force in society. That is, technology directs and changes the way we live and interact with each other. It informs our cultural expectations — a collective set of morals and customs that dictate how we behave socially.

In short, technological determinism is the idea that new technology changes the way we interact with each other. New technology impacts the expectations we have for each other.

A divisive topic

Technological determinism is a divisive topic. It’s suggested that believing it wholeheartedly can mean believing that we have no control over the evolution of our lives. And that’s a hard pill to swallow.

An argument against technological determinism is the fact that technology is a tool. One created to meet the mother of invention — need. It’s up to us how we design and deploy new tech tools – and so technology is socially constructed.

However, some technology tools can also create needs. Ones that weren’t there before the technology became available. For example, we didn’t have an issue storing and protecting digital data before technology allowed for it. In cases like this, the tech has directed society.

Technological determinists believe that it’s not up to us how technology evolves. And once it does, it informs our culture. Even if the initial tech tool created was to answer a societal problem, its adoption leads to evolution. And that evolution drives social change as we to adapt to the new, changing technology.

In example

So, are there any potential examples of technological determinism at work?

Consider the growth and evolution of phones. Before the telephone, people talked face to face. Then they talked remotely through voice calls. Then, as the technology evolved to become mobile, it directed people towards communicating through shorter messages. (I.e. SMS, and later app-powered chat.) It became culturally acceptable to call people at any time. Nowadays, having a phone is an expectation — it’s assumed you have one.

The same can be said of the internet. The internet has changed and informed the way we interact, the jobs we do, how we communicate. It’s even generated its own form of ‘internet culture’.

Email provides yet another example. Initial reactions were largely negative, yet the technology still thrived. So much so, that having an email address is a societal expectation. You need one to apply for jobs, to access certain services, and so on. Emails have changed society.

Then, of course, there’s automation.

How automation has driven and changed society

It’s undeniable that automation has driven – and continues to drive – lasting changes in society.

The most obvious impact of automation on society is on jobs past and present. The introduction of automation has changed the way we work and the jobs we perform within society. It’s removed the need for some jobs and created other jobs completely.

In fact, the sheer mention of automation has, for a while, incited mass fears of job loss. Arguably, this fear alone demonstrates a reality of technological determinism. If society truly dictates technology, and not the other way around, we wouldn’t fear automation changing society in a way that we don’t want.

And yet, automation has directly led to a societal change. Automation disruption has led to people retraining and upskilling to meet new job requirements. It has changed the skills that society values when it comes to the workplace. For instance, of late, we’ve seen a shift towards emphasising the need for soft skills — something that automation cannot replicate.

The flipside: has society driven automation?

When it comes to automation and technological determinism, the chicken-and-egg question isn’t quite so clear-cut. That is, we can see clear instances of society driving the tech rather than vice versa.

It’s important to remember that automation answers a societal need for productivity gains. With automation in place, workers can focus on higher-value tasks and get more done. Productivity increases the prosperity of a society. It drives growth and societal improvements.

So, the need for productivity gains has (arguably) led to the creation and generation of technology like automation. It answered a cultural, societal need. So, from this angle, technological determinism is less valid.

Automation, technological determinism and the future

Of course, we’re still seeing the rise of automation software and hardware today. Automation, coupled with the rise of other tech, like artificial intelligence, still stands at the central point of future change.

Some people think that automation could, one day, take over all jobs and change the way we work completely. Particularly, that is, if it joins forces with AI. In this way, the new technology we create could direct our society to one that is post-work.

This would mean widespread, huge changes to the values and expectations held within our society. We could see a shift to a more family or leisure-oriented culture. Or, we may find a greater expectation to achieve in the arts or philosophy, for instance. The exact nature of such a change is near unforeseeable today.

The future: will society drive automation?

The rise in the push for AI ethics is a prime example of the way that society and culture influences, directs and changes new technology.

The push for AI ethics calls for ethical practices to be put into place right from the start of the development of new tools. Ethics are largely dictated by society and culture. Different places (societies) have a different interpretation of what’s ‘ethical’.

In other words, societal and cultural expectations are actively shaping new technology. (Flying in the face of technological determinism.) We’re laying down the rules, guidelines — the cultural expectations we want to place on the development and use of this technology.

This shows that future technology, be it automation, AI or otherwise, is and must be directed by society and culture. Otherwise, we can’t allow it to change and direct our culture.

A balanced look at technological determinism

Whether you agree with technological determinism or not, it’s undeniable that societal change and technological innovation are linked.

The most balanced view is that the impactful relationship between technology and society is a two-way street. Neither force wholly nor conclusively directs the other.

Society dictates the technology we create, and how we use it. In turn, technology dictates the way society runs and operates — and the new needs that drive future innovations.

Useful links

Deep work and automation

The EU AI guidelines explained

Are AI ethics impossible?