Your Technology, Your Future

Photo by Virgil Cayasa on Unsplash

“Technology decides history,” said American historian Merrit Roe Smith (1994), defining the theory of technological determinism. Think about this: What if Bill Gates didn’t live within walking distance of the University of Washington where he had access to a computer he could use for hours every day? Or, what if Steve Jobs didn’t visit Xerox PARC where he saw a mouse used to click on a screen and discovered the graphical user interface? Maybe we won’t have these laptops and gadgets at our fingertips that have revolutionized our lives and the way we relate to each other.

Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan was a proponent of the theory of technological determinism, saying that the way society was organized throughout history depended on the communication technology and methods available at the time (Rosenberry, 2017).

Before any form of mass communication was invented, humans had the tribal paradigm — they spoke face to face in real-time. (Photo by Bob Brewer on Unsplash)
When writing was invented, it ushered in the print paradigm — people could preserve their message and communicate it at a later time. (Photo by Bob Brewer on Unsplash)

The print paradigm was replaced by the electronic paradigm, which allowed people who were separated by time and place to communicate their messages in a non-linear fashion.

Photo by Daniel Korpai on Unsplash

McLuhan could very well have been a prophet. He said in 1964, “It was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message.” And with the advent of the Internet and the smartphone, our world entered the global village paradigm, even allowing us to have “global households,” and redefining how we relate and communicate with one another.

The strengths of his ideas lie in their timelessness, adaptability, and validity. Even though he died in 1980, well before computers and smartphones became “extensions of man” — doesn’t it feel like you lost a liver when you misplace your cell phone? — his theories apply more so today. Today’s technologies have allowed us to create new communities, not based on tribes or country, which is an “imagined community” according to Benedict Anderson (1983) — but according to our similarities, preferences, or passions. Global communities like BTS fandom called ARMY, the LGBTQ community, or a Facebook group like the Curly Girl Method Support Group that teaches how to manage your natural frizz, are just some of the ways society has reorganized itself.

McLuhan’s framework can be adapted to different disciplines aside from communication, like technology’s impact on society and culture. His famous statement, “The medium is the message,” is valid even in new forms of social media. Selecting a platform allows you to reach a specific audience better. You wanna reach millennials? Use Instagram. Wanna reach Gen Z? Use Tiktok. Wanna reach their parents? You’ll find them on Facebook.

But some critics say that his theories were simplistic because he focused only on the technology without considering other factors like social conditions and structures of the time (Robertson, 2016 and Jones, 1998). Others say that it’s not all-encompassing in the sense that just because you have the technology means it will benefit you in the same way. Just because Internet penetration is high doesn’t translate to everyone knowing how to use it, as in the case of Korea’s seniors. So uptake of technology is a factor, not just accessibility or availability of technology.

Still, some say that McLuhan’s ideas exclude the human power of choice. “Do we want technology that dominates us or that augments us?” asked a roboticist from MIT. Allowing computers to take over the earth in a dystopian way is a decision we make.

Technology can only be the crystal ball that determines our future to the extent that we allow it. Because at the end of the day, when we feel that our gadgets overrun our lives, we can always… unplug.