Technological Determinism and the Power of CEOs

A discussion in a recent class about information history and technology swirled around the common theme of technological determinism. It’s a perennial issue for anyone that deals with science and technology studies or the history of technology. On the one side are those who argue that technology drives history, on the other are those who object. A Google search reveals this definition by Daniel Chandler.

The technological determinist view is a technology-led theory of social change: technology is seen as ‘the prime mover’ in history. In economics, this is known as a ‘technology-push’ theory rather than a ‘demand-pull’ theory. According to technological determinists, particular technical developments, communications technologies or media, or, most broadly, technology in general are the sole or prime antecedent causes of changes in society, and technology is seen as the fundamental condition underlying the pattern of social organization.

Technological determinists interpret technology in general and communications technologies in particular as the basis of society in the past, present and even the future. They say that technologies such as writing or print or television or the computer ‘changed society’. In its most extreme form, the entire form of society is seen as being determined by technology: new technologies transform society at every level, including institutions, social interaction and individuals. At the least a wide range of social and cultural phenomena are seen as shaped by technology. ‘Human factors’ and social arrangements are seen as secondary.

As Wikipedia notes, technological determinism has been discredited in academic studies of history but is still very prevalent in the media.

I have no particular problem with those who object to technological determinism. The world and history are a lot more complicated than a naive view of technological determinism would admit. But at the same time I wonder about the scope of the debate. Sometimes it seems like a roundabout from which no one ever escapes.

Anyhow the discussion in my class posed an interesting side question about the relative amounts of power a line worked in a factory has versus the CEO of a company. I started to come out in favor of the idea that a CEO doesn’t really have a significantly greater amount of power over the future of a corporation than the line worked, but was quickly shot down by some comments about the success of Apple after Steve Jobs returned and some other examples.

I find it interesting that people are so quick to ascribe great power to the CEOs of companies and so quick to dismiss the power of technology to change history. We’re in a context where we are arguing that electrification or railroads coevolved with significant social and historical changes, but the CEO still stands out as the master of his own destiny. Odd.