Raymond Williams

Raymond Williams was a noted critic of technological determinism. For him, technological determinism failed to assess the significance of social power relations, interaction, and social circumstances. In his critique of technological determinism, he focused on deconstructing many of McLuhan’s arguments regarding the nature of technology as a sensory extension of humans. Raymond Williams offers four key points that help inform his ideas on shaping:

  • Technologies are social – Williams explains that there is a certain social process through which a technical invention becomes an available technology. There are certain decisions made about which inventions to develop, invest in and manufacture. In other words, there are social motivations that influence the transformation of an innovation into a technology. To help explain this argument, he points to the development of broadcasting, which was not invented as an isolated technology but developed through an extended process of technical experiment and innovation. There was a social need for this type of technology, which was based on social shifts in urban life, in which there was a need for a broadcast paradigm.
  • Innovation of technologies are not predetermined – The forms and functions of technologies are not predetermined, rather they are based on decisions made by human actors. For instance, when radio was in its formative stages of development, one potential form was to be something resembling the telephone. The main US telephone company lobbied to keep the ‘common carrier’ network to itself. This shows how the development of the technology was very much dependent on existing political and economic situations in the society. It is in this point that Williams brings a political economy perspective into the shaping process, by considering how dominant groups in society determine the shapes of technologies. Williams refers to counter-revolution, in which the potential social benefits of technologies are not always realized due to commodification of the technology.
  • The notion that a new technology is inevitable is the result of marketing – Williams believes the idea that technologies are inevitable is the result of marketing from dominant groups, whose aim is to insure that the technologies are accepted into society.
  • Technologies would not necessarily follow the path initially envisioned, but rather, because they are entertwined with social processes, would be caught up in and shaped by social struggles. Technologies can be influenced by political economy considerations, but they are never wholly controlled nor wholly predicted by the outcomes of these activities. The future development of communication technologies is not pre-determined by subject to the outcome of wider battles over the shape and form of social life.