Defining technology is problematic, as its definition is always at the mercy of context. The Oxford English Dictionary lists an original definition as: “A discourse or treatise on an art of arts; the scientific study of the practical or industrial arts.” [1]. This first definition does not necessarily encapsulate the importance or meaning of technology in media theory, nor, therefore, is it really used. Technology generally is the subject of study, not the study itself. Thus the secondary and tertiary definitions of technology are expressed far more often: “b. transf. Practical arts collectively; c. With a and pl. a particular practical or industrial art”. According to this definition, technology is the totality of human-created objects with the intention of some socially related utility.

In media theory technology is the medium through which and upon which ideas, images [See IMAGE], signs [See SIGN], symbols [See SYMBOL], artistic endeavors and information [See INFORMATION] is transferred or exhibited. Marshall McLuhan’s chapter titled ‘The Medium is the Message’ in his work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is essential to understanding the relationship between media and technology [2]. In his work ‘medium’ and technology’ are closely related to each other, with television [See TELEVISION] or the railroad as exemplars of this paired association. For McLuhan, the true message of any medium is the change introduced into human life. As technology is understood generally as the totality of human-created objects, technology is then the totality of mediums:

“What we are considering here, however, are the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns as they amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure”

Above we see the example of the railroad functioning simultaneously as a medium and also a technology unto itself. McLuhan’s text brings to our attention the importance of understanding media/technology in both the social and psychic consequences that it/they have. We are forced to examine technology’s significant duality between its relation to individuals and more comprehensive social complexes. This is a duality that resides in different levels of social analysis.

One of the earliest expressed opinions of the effect of technology on the individual comes from Plato in Phaedrus, in which writing [See WRITING] is an alien technology to the individual. In an allegorical story relating to the invention of writing, technology is related to us as a tool or a craft that human beings employ. However the employment of this craft is to one’s detriment:

“the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them…for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality” [3]

Here as well is a parallel to McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ with the reformation of truth and wisdom due to this exterior craft. An opposition to this external conception of the technology of the written word is most salient in Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy, in which literacy has become internalized in the human being as a set of artificial but articulable rules, such as a specific pictogram representing a specific word (this is analogous to Peirce’s description of symbols in his discussions of semiotics). Like any other physical or material technology created for the intention of providing someone a certain utility, literacy is similarly a technology, as it is not simply a mental perception or ability, but a standardized vehicle or craft used for communication [See COMMUNICATION]. In this way, the technology of literacy is something internalized within us. Importantly, Ong’s internalized technology is beneficial for the human being:

“Technologies are artificial, but – paradox again – artificiality is natural to human beings. Technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it” [4]

Of paramount importance to Ong’s work is the idea of technology being both artificial and natural, as enhancing life by being interiorized. It is natural for human beings to create artificial objects (technology) with the intention of utility. And just as technology exterior to the human being may enhance life (just as a jacket would in cold weather), interiorized technology has the ability to enhance human life as well.

Plato and Ong illustrate how the affect of technology (internal or external) on the individual is of constant debate. Often this debate exceeds the mere simplicity beyond being beneficial or not. Also, oppositions within the individual, between internalization and externalization, and utility versus inutility, do not translate as easily into observations and usages of the term technology when used with regard to cultures, societies, human interaction, and other social forms.

Technology in relation to Social Forms

In media theory, when examining technology’s usage at larger levels of social analysis one must continue to keep in mind that, like in the context of individuals’ relation to technology seen above, there is a general opposition within technology residing exterior to the being or existing in a more internalized relationship. Raymond Williams outlines in his work Television: Technology and Cultural Form, a primary opposition in the understanding of technology’s exterior relationship to larger social forms and processes. It is an opposition that resides between technology as being the main engine of social history or progress, versus technology existing as a symptom of social change and history. The former side of this opposition is known as technological determinism and is described by Williams as:

“an immensely powerful and now largely orthodox view of the nature of social change. New technologies are discovered, by an essentially internal process of research and development, which then sets the conditions for social change and progress. Progress, in particular, is the history of these inventions, which ‘created the modern world’. The effects of the technologies, whether direct or indirect, foreseen or unforeseen, are as it were the rest of history” [5].

The other side that Raymond Williams presents is no less determinist in terms of the relation between technology and society/culture, but reverses the direction of technological determinism:

“[T]his view emphasizes other causal factors in social change. It then considers particular technologies, or a complex of technologies, as symptoms of change of some other kind. Any particular technology is then as it were a by-product of a social process that is otherwise determined. It only acquires effective status when it is used for purposes which are already contained in this known social process. This debate between these two general positions occupies the greater part of out thinking about technology and society” [5]

As we can see, this is an opposition between whether technology acts firstly on the social world, or, vice versa, the social world works on and creates technology. This opposition is on either side completely unilinear and unidirectional. Raymond Williams derives a synthesis form these two oppositions in which technology is intentionally updated and recreated with known social needs, practices and purposes, which are essential to all respective technologies (his prime example is the television). That is to say that Williams attempts to solve the chicken vs. egg problem of technology and social structures by trying to eliminate the integral unilinear aspects of technological/social determinism and instead suggesting that technological/social development and progress move in tandem with each other, linked in a sort of dialectic [See DIALECTIC] or conversation. Note, however, that this synthesis of technological/social determinism maintains technology as exterior to the social world, and that while both work together (or on each other) simultaneously they are not integrated into each other.

To move closer towards an internalization of technology in larger social forms, one must examine Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s essay on “The culture industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”. Technology within the context of their essay is employed in a way that on the surface is still construed as the totality of human-created objects. However, the ‘function’ of technology is not as simple as a distinction between utilitarian versus inutilitarian. Instead, technology acts as an instrument for both the production and the dissemination of the culture industry. Technology and industry are not, however, interchangeable in Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay. Technology may be the product of the industry, or the machines that are used in the industry itself, but are only part of the totality of the culture industry.

“No mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest. A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself. Automobiles, bombs, and movies keep the whole thing together until their leveling element shows its strength in the very wrong which it furthered. It has made the technology of the culture industry no more than the achievement of standardization and mass production, sacrificing whatever involved a distinction between the logic of the work and that of the social system.” [6]

Adorno and Horkheimer reduce technology to a tool/craft servile to cultural domination, and argue that it becomes imbedded in society as a cultural object, in the minds of those persons that are participants in said socio-cultural complex. The essay goes on to mention that technology, desired due to a veneer of utility, acts upon us psycho-social fashion, and can thusly be used as a tool for the control of human beings.

Technology in relation to media theory, as it can be generally summarized, exists between three levels of binary opposition: the individual versus the social complex, the external versus the internal, and finally, the beneficial and functional versus the detrimental and the injurious.

Joseph Brown

1. Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition (Online), 1989

2. McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT, 1994

3. Jowett, B., trans. The Dialogues of Plato. New York: Random House

4. Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge, 2007

5. Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Hanover, New Hamshire: University of New England, 1993

6. Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor Adorno. “The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment (1979): 120-67