Some critics argue against technological determinism on the grounds that technology is 'neutral' or 'value-free' (neither good or bad in itself), and that what counts is not the technology but the way in which we choose to use it. As the folk saying has it, 'poor workers blame the tools'. Technology is presented as amoral. If we choose to use technologies such as literacy or computers for repressive rather than liberatory purposes we have only ourselves to blame. The view that technology is 'ethically neutral' is sometimes referred to as an instrumental view of technology.
Although this stance is sometimes associated with critics of technological determinism, Michael Shallis notes that an (instrumental) belief in the neutrality of technology is also commonly associated with technological determinism. Shallis argues that 'accepting the proposition that... technology... [is] neutral... means accepting the technological imperative' (Shallis 1984, p. 95). Technologists usually argue that technology is neutral.
Some theorists who posit technological autonomy are also amongst the wider group of those who have insisted on the non-neutrality of technology, arguing that we cannot merely 'use' technology without also, to some extent, being influenced or 'used by' it. Jacques Ellul was one of the most prominent of such theorists. He dismissed the neutralist idea that whether technology has good or bad effects depends on how it is used and the usual kind of example, that a knife can be used to kill, cook or cure. He insists that 'technique carries with it its own effects quite apart from how it is used... No matter how it is used, it has of itself a number of positive and negative consequences. This is not just a matter of intention' (Ellul 1990, p. 35). He adds that 'technical development is neither good, bad, nor neutral' (ibid., p. 37). We become conditioned by our technological systems or environments.
The computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum notes that there can be no 'general-purpose tools' (1976, p. 37), and the philosopher Don Ihde (1979) has argued that particular tools unavoidably select, amplify and reduce aspects of experience in various ways. Abbe Mowshowitz, a computer scientist, argues that 'tools insist on being used in particular ways' (Mowshowitz 1976, p. 8). In this technical sense tools are not 'neutral' and their use may contribute to shaping our purposes.
It was in this spirit that Winston Churchill declared that 'we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us' (in Dubos 1970, p. 171), and more broadly the McLuhanite John Culkin declared that 'we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us' (in Stearn 1968, p. 60).
In a very influential book called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, the American Jerry Mander, a staunch critic of TV, dismissed what he called 'the illusion of neutral technology' (Mander 1978, p. 43), 'the absolutely erroneous assumption that technologies are "neutral", benign instruments that may be used well or badly depending upon who controls them... Many technologies determine their own use, their own effects, and even the kind of people who control them. We have not yet learned to think of technology as having ideology built into its very form' (ibid., p. 350).
Many deterministic commentators on the 'non-neutrality' of tools argue that the tools we use determine our view of the world. Abraham Maslow, the psychologist, once said that to someone who has only a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. And Neil Postman adds that 'to a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data' (Postman 1993, p. 14).
I have already noted Postman's acceptance of the notion of technology as an autonomous force acting on its users. He also presents technology as non-neutral. He insists that 'the uses made of technology are largely determined by the structure of the technology itself' (p. 7). The medium itself 'contains an ideological bias' (p. 16). He argues that:
(Postman 1979, p. 193)
Langdon Winner, a political scientist, also argues that technologies are not politically neutral in the sense that they are sometimes designed, deliberately or not, to open certain social options and to close others, and some technologies may be more compatible with some social patterns than with others (in MacKenzie & Wajcman 1985).
Not all of those noting the non-neutrality of technology also present technology as autonomous. Indeed, the non-neutrality of technology is frequently associated with an emphasis on the non-neutrality of its social usage rather than the non-neutrality of technical constraints on our purposes.
The anthropologist Brian Street insists that technology is not neutral in the sense that it is not asocial. It cannot be detached from specific social contexts: 'technology is... not a neutral "thing" that arises out of disinterested scientific inquiry... It is itself a social product that has arisen as a result of political and ideological processes and institutions and its particular form has to be explained in terms of such processes' (Street 1984, p. 65).
Whilst insisting that 'technology is a means not an end', Carroll Pursell does not regard technology as neutral (Pursell 1994, p. 219). He argues that 'the choice of means always carries consequences' which are not identical with the original purposes involved (ibid., p. 218). 'As the material manifestations of social relations, tools are concrete commitments to certain ways of doing things, and therefore certain ways of dividing power. It is a mistake to think that, like black and white marbles, the "good" and "bad" effects of technology can be sorted out and dealt with. In fact, one person's white marbles are another's black: labour saved is jobs destroyed... my loss is your gain' (ibid.). 'Technology remains a very human tool, used by some against others' (ibid., p. 219).
Pursell has also noted that there is another sense in which technologies are non-neutral, and that is in their cultural symbolism. He uses the example of the throwaway Coke bottle, which, like all technologies, reflects particular cultural values (Pursell 1994, p. 29).
Brian Street sees references to the supposed neutrality of technology as reflecting 'covert and often subconscious' ideologies such as a belief in 'progress' and 'modernization' (Street in Finnegan et al., p. 36).