Technological determinism focuses on causality - cause and effect relationships - a focus typically associated with 'scientific' explanation. Any exploration of communications technology has to recognize the difficulty of isolating 'causes' and 'effects', or even in distinguishing causes from effects. As an explanation of change, technological determinism is 'monistic' or mono-causal (rather than 'multicausal'): it offers a single cause or 'independent variable'. It represents a simple 'billiard ball model' of change. It thus makes strong claims which many people find attractive, and which, if justified, would make it a very powerful explanatory and predictive theory.
As a mono-causal explanation, technological determinism involves reductionism, which aims to reduce a complex whole to the effects of one part (or parts) upon another part (or parts). Sociological reductionism is widely criticized, but it is intimately associated with the quantitative paradigm of science. The philosophers Democritus (6th century B.C.) and Rene Descartes (1596-1650) had both taught that the way to knowledge was through separating things into component parts. It is a feature of reductionist explanation that parts are assumed to affect other parts in a linear or one-way manner, and interpretation proceeds from the parts to the whole.
Reductionism contrasts with 'holism', which is broadly concerned with the whole phenomenon and with complex interactions within it rather than with the study of isolated parts. In holistic interpretations there are no single, independent causes. Holistic interpretation proceeds from the whole and relationships are presented as non-directional or non-linear. It is holistic to assert that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, a proposition with which it is difficult to disagree when you think of a working motor compared with the stacked parts. Sometimes holism refers more broadly to a general hostility to analysis, a hostility common in the arts: 'We murder to dissect,' wrote Wordsworth.
As the social critic Lewis Mumford has noted, one reductionist tendency is the identification of technology with tools and machines. This is merely, as he put it, 'to substitute a part for the whole' (in Pursell 1994, p. 26), because technology includes the whole of our material culture, not only tools and machines. It is also worth noting (as Carroll Pursell observes), that this reductionist interpretation involves a masculinization of technology. Just as the penis is sometimes referred to as a tool, so tools can be seen as symbolically phallic. Such symbolism has generated profound cultural reverberations.
Theory-making always requires simplification, and reductionism has proved useful in the natural sciences, but reductionism is widely criticized as a way of approaching social phenomena. It is impossible to isolate a single cause for any social process and to prove that it is the primary determinant (for instance, it is highly problematic to isolate the potential cognitive influences of literacy from those of schooling). Indeed, the philosopher Michel Foucault rejects the notion that there is any principle that determines the nature of society. Walter Ong has defined as technological 'relationism' a tendency for a communications technology which 'grows to more than a marginal status' to interact in 'a bewildering variety of ways' with 'noetic and social structures and practices' (Ong 1986, p. 36).
Technological determinists often seem to be trying to account for almost everything in terms of technology: a perspective which we may call technocentrism. To such writers we are first and foremost Homo faber - tool-makers and tool-users. The American Benjamin Franklin apparently first coined the phrase that 'man is a tool-using animal'. Thomas Carlyle echoed this in 1841, adding that 'without tools he is nothing; with them he is all.'
The oldest tools - deliberately shattered stones - date back to about 2.4 million years ago. A recent commentator has suggested that the symmetrical flint tool known as the 'Acheulian hand-axe', which first appeared around one and a half million years ago, may even have appeared before language (Pursell 1994, p. 18). Such tools are presented by archaeologists as both shaping and reflecting the social nature of Homo sapiens (ibid., p. 19).
The British biologist Sir Peter Medawar has argued that technological evolution has contributed more to our biological success than our biological evolution (ibid., p. 33). In other words, he too suggests that in developing technologies, we shape ourselves.
Any perspective which puts technology first involves what has been called the 'doctrine of technological primacy' (W. E. Moore in Potter & Sarre 1974, p. 484).
Leslie White offers a clear example, declaring that 'We may view a cultural system as a series of three horizontal strata: the technological layer on the bottom, the philosophical on the top, the sociological stratum in between... The technological system is basic and primary. Social systems are functions of technologies; and philosophies express technological forces and reflect social systems. The technological factor is therefore the determinant of a cultural system as a whole. It determines the form of social systems, and technology and society together determine the content and orientation of philosophy' (White 1949, p. 366).
This bears some similarity to Marx and Engel's theory of historical materialism according to which the institutional 'superstructure' of society (which includes politics, education, the family and culture) rests on an economic (some say techno-economic) 'base' or foundation, and major historical change proceeds from base to superstructure. The issue actually divides modern Marxists. According to some crude Marxist accounts the character of the base determines the character of the superstructure (a stance not shared by Marx and Engels): this is the doctrine of economic determinism which critics dismiss as economism. Other Marxist theories tend to stress more interaction between base and superstructure, the relative autonomy of the superstructure, or diversity within it.