Associated with technological determinism is reification. To reify is to 'thingify': to treat an abstraction as a material thing. What is 'Technology'? Reifying 'Technology' involves treating it as if it were a single material thing with a homogeneous, undifferentiated character. This notion can be seen as a kind of 'essentialism'. In common and academic usage, the word 'technology' is variously used to refer to tools, instruments, machines, organizations, media, methods, techniques and systems. And as Jonathan Benthall notes, 'virtually any one of a wide range of technical innovations can stand symbolically for the whole of technology... The symbolic field of technologies is interconnected' (Benthall 1976, p. 22).
The problem is that it is easy to slip into generalizations about 'Technology'. Philosophers such as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger treated technology as a monolithic phenomenon. And Jacques Ellul, a French sociologist, adopted the even broader umbrella of 'technique', by which he referred to 'the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency... in every field of human activity' (Ellul 1964, p. v). The linking of computers with other technologies is also making it increasingly difficult to make clear distinctions between different media.
Technology is often seen as a whole which is more than the sum of its parts, or various manifestations. However, as Seymour Melman observes 'there is no machine in general' (1972, p. 59). Similarly, the umbrella term 'mass communication' covers a multitude of very different media. And even categories such as 'writing', 'print', 'literacy', 'television' or 'the computer' encompass considerable diversity. Referring loosely to such abstract categories is hazardous. Some technologies may also be less determining than others; the flexibility or 'openness' of tools varies. And of course a technology cannot be cut off as a separate thing from specific contexts of use: technology has many manifestations in different social contexts. A single technology can serve many quite different purposes.
Reification is a difficult charge to avoid, since any use of linguistic categorization (including words such as 'society' or 'culture') could be said to involve reification. Theorizing about technology and society is full of reification, quite apart from these two key terms. Reification is involved when we divide human experience into 'spheres' variously tagged as 'social', 'cultural', 'educational', 'political', 'ideological', 'philosophical', 'religious', 'legal', 'industrial', 'economic', 'scientific' or 'technological'. If such separation proceeds beyond analytical convenience it also involves what is called structural autonomy, a theme which I will examine in a moment.
Lived experience is a seamless web, but academia in particular encourages specialists to indulge in reductionist interpretation. Structuralist sociological theories emphasize that social institutions interact as an inter-related system; none act as independent 'causes' (although theorists differ in the importance which they ascribe to particular factors). It is not adequate to suggest that what shapes technology is science, since science is also socially shaped, and technology also influences science (MacKenzie & Wajcman 1985, p. 8). Rather than being 'outside' society, technology is an inextricable part of it.
The debate over technology and society is typically polarized into an emphasis either on technological factors or on socio-cultural factors. Within this reificatory framework economic factors tend to be lumped either with technological ones or with socio-cultural ones. I should add that whilst reification is a strong criticism for materialist theorists, to other theorists who reject epistemological realism (which posits the purely objective existence of things in the world) reification is hardly meaningful as a criticism, since (as one's stance approaches epistemological idealism) things are what we make with words.