Also associated with technological determinism is techno-evolutionism. This involves a linear evolutionary view of universal social change through a fixed sequence of different technological stages. It is a kind of developmental or historical determinism. Evolutionary theorists interpret change in terms of 'progress' (an improved state of affairs) and usually regard progress as inevitable.
Techno-evolutionary theorists define progress in terms of successive stages of technological development, frequently portrayed as 'revolutions' leading to historical 'eras' defined by this or that technology: 'the age of machinery', 'the age of automation', 'the atomic age', 'the space age', 'the electronic age', and so on - terms which tend to be used with approval by technologists and with disdain by humanists.
Such tidy stages misleadingly tend to suggest that new technologies replace old ones. What is more common is an interplay between newer and older media which may involve subtle shifts of function. Television didn't replace radio or the cinema, and computers seem unlikely to replace books. Harvey Graff adds that history cannot be easily reduced to simple linear 'progress': there are 'variable paths to societal change' (Graff 1987, p. 35).
Far-reaching social 'effects', both optimistic and pessimistic, have been claimed for many communications technologies before our current computer-based 'information technology'. The so-called 'I.T. revolution' (which tends to be presented as the 'final' communications revolution) can be seen as having been preceded by the 'writing revolution' and 'the print revolution', and as only the latest phase of an 'electronics revolution' which began with telegraphy and telephony. And all of these technologies can be seen as information technologies.
But the notion of technological 'revolutions' and their associated 'eras' are only another manifestation of technological determinism. On the other hand, no less misleading than an emphasis on revolutions is a dogmatic insistence that 'the more things change, the more they remain the same' which can simply reflect the extent to which the interpreter has become accustomed to change.
Ethnocentricity or cultural chauvinism is involved in the definition of change in terms of 'progress' towards the state of technology in the theorist's own culture. What counts as progress is culturally defined, but this is seldom recognized by such theorists. Such stances tend to justify the status quo of the society we now live in.
Evolutionary accounts typically involve the implicit Western notion of rationality and often also the notion of the autonomous individual which derives from Western liberalism. Technology is seen as autonomously following a single, fixed evolutionary track.
During the eighteenth century the idea that history involves virtually continuous progress became popular among the educated classes. Lewis Mumford summarizes a doctrine of progress common amongst eighteenth century thinkers: 'those who favoured progress simple-mindedly believed that evils were the property of the past and that only by moving away from the past as rapidly as possible could a better future be assured' (Mumford 1971, p. 199).
Social progress rapidly came to be equated with technical progress, often expressed as the conquest of mind over matter or as the head saving the hands. Critics such as Henry Thoreau (d. 1862) noted that improvements in our technical means are no guarantee of improved ends, and may lead to a mechanistic and fatalistic outlook. He declared in his book, Walden, that 'we do not ride upon the railroad; it rides upon us.'
However, the very visible nature of change led to technology being generally accorded a high status in the nineteenth century, and it was then that an associated belief in perpetual economic growth arose. The high status accorded to technology and the widespread belief in the desirability of change in the Western world may help to account for interpretive stances in which technology plays such a key part.
Some fanciful evolutionary determinists project future technologies which develop to an evolutionary level (involving machine consciousness) which is held to be superior to that of humankind. Such writers often note our increasing dependence on mechanical devices and machine-like features of current human behaviour as evidence of an increasing symbiosis of human beings and machines. These predictions are quite common amongst optimistic writers with a faith in rationalism.
Carroll Purcell refers to a mystical, 'semi-religious faith in the inevitability of progress' (Purcell 1994, p. 38). As he puts it, 'the notion is that a kind of invisible hand guides technology ever onward and upward, using individuals and organizations as vessels for its purposes but guided by a sort of divine plan for bringing the greatest good to the greatest number. Technological improvement has been the best evidence for progress so far' (ibid., p. 39). This is a surprisingly widespread popular myth.
Enthusiasm for technological 'progress' typically involves technological determinism. 'Among the proponents of the primacy of technological change there is evident an unmistakable tone of moral disapproval directed aginst... [cultural] lags - that is, resistances to structural and normative adaptations occasioned by innovation' (W E Moore, in Potter & Sarre 1974, p. 485).
However, technological determinists are not always enthusiastic and optimistic: Ellul is the best example of one who is strongly pessimistic. But many of us would at least agree that technical solutions tend to introduce new problems. Pessimistic determinism is often little short of a fatalism which tells us that there is no escape. And it is commonly associated with a general anti-modernism. But faith in the past involves romanticization no less than faith in the future. Romancing the future or the past involves denying present realities.
Literary sources can be useful in charting recurrent patterns in hopes and fears about technology.