The Problem with Technological / Cultural Determinism

Alex Parrish begins “Adaptive Rhetoric: Evolution, Culture, and the Art of Persuasion” by recalling a story about one reaction to his book, and in doing so, helps to explain the problem of the technological/cultural determinism debate:

When I first began outlining this book, I explained to one of my colleagues what I wanted to do. I told him that I would be exploring the ways we can examine the influence of both biology and culture on the art of persuasion. After running through most of my stock examples demonstrating biology and culture cooperating or competing to guide human action, telling him about some of the intriguing work being done in the fields of ethology and evolutionary cognitive psychology, and referring some of the more popular ‘big idea’ books on the interplay between genes and culture, my fellow student thought for a moments and then, with a look of concerned semirevulsion on his face, replied, “Wow. Biological reductionism. That’s gonna be a hard sell!”

Whether it is fundamental part of the human nature to divide issues in half and only allow for one of those halves to be valid, good , or moral, this seems to be one of the tricks our brains use to navigate the world of idea. We also use this method of bifurcating topics to bring other around to our ways of thinking. The rhetorical term for this is dialysis: the presentation of an either/or figure to lead an audience to a certain conclusion (and in the case of biology and culture, it is also a false dilemma)

Parrish is right. The either/or presentation of culture and biology leads us to believe that one must take precedent in guiding behavior. The same kind of criticism can be heaped on the technological/cultural determinist deabate. Instead, a more robust conceptual way to approach technology is provided by Ian Hutchby’s “Technologies, Texts and Affordances”:

This involves seeing technologies neither in terms of their “interpretive textual” properties nor of their essential technical properties, but in terms of their affordances. I will argue that affordances are functional and relations aspects which frame, while not determining, the possibilities for agentic action in relation to an object. (Page 444)

I have a number of work projects that will be finished in the coming weeks, so I hope to explore the topic of affordances soon.

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