Deterministic perspectives have been common amongst commentators on communication technologies. Theorists who have argued that changes in communication technologies have had an important cultural impact have tended either to regard such changes as limited to social and institutional practices or, far more radically, have argued that such changes have also had profound psychological consequences, transforming the nature of human consciousness. This radical claim of psychic change is dubbed by Michael Heim 'the transformation theory' (Heim 1987).
The more limited claim can be found in a moderate form amongst scholars such as Elizabeth Eisenstein and Michael Clanchy. The more radical claim concerning major 'cognitive consequences' has been most notably advanced by theorists such as Marshall McLuhan, Eric Havelock, Jack Goody, Patricia Greenfield, Walter Ong and David Olson. The 'interiorization' of writing is typically seen as leading to thinking which is more rational, logical, abstract, detached, decontextualized and critical than thinking prior to the acquisition of literacy.
This standpoint can be seen as related to the linguistic determinism of Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir. According to what is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis our thinking is determined by language (linguistic determinism ) and people who speak different languages perceive and think about the world differently (linguistic relativity). It was in this Whorfian spirit that Edward T. Hall in The Hidden Dimension wrote that 'people from different cultures not only speak different languages but, what is possibly more important, inhabit different sensory worlds' (Hall 1966, p. 2; his emphasis).
Extreme 'Whorfianism' is as heavily criticized as extreme technological determinism, but moderate Whorfianism is fairly widely accepted by scholars. Moderate Whorfians argue that the ways in which we use language may have some influence on our thinking and perception, but they stress a two-way relationship between thought and language and also the importance of social context.
The association of different media with particular cognitive consequences by McLuhan and others can be seen as related to linguistic as well as technological determinism. And it is this variety of determinism which is sometimes referred to as media determinism. McLuhan equated communications media and technologies with language, and just as Whorf argued that language shapes our perception and thinking, McLuhan argued that all media do this. A moderate version of media determinism is that our use of particular media may have subtle influences on us, but that it is the social context of use which is crucial.
Some writers argue that particular developments in communication technology were essential preconditions for the development of modern industrial societies. Causal theories vary in the degree of determinism they reflect, although this is seldom made explicit by those expounding them. Critics have sometimes made a distinction is sometimes between 'hard' and 'soft' technological determinism, the latter allowing somewhat more scope for human control and cultural variation.
The Polish-American writer Isaac Bashevis Singer declared that 'we have to believe in free will. We've got no choice.' The philosophical stance of voluntarism is opposed to determinism, stressing free agency, individual will, conscious deliberation and choice; voluntarists insist that people are active agents and not helpless automatons; they are always able to make deliberate choices and to exercise control over change. Voluntarism is a stance held by humanists and existentialists who consider that human actions can be explained in terms of individual beliefs, intentions, preferences and so on.
Voluntarism is rejected by those social scientists who are behaviourist or positivist in their theoretical assumptions, in which free will plays no part. Structuralist theorists see human beings as constituted by pre-existing structures such as language, family relations, cultural conventions and other social forces, of which individual beliefs and intentions are effects, not causes. The technological determinist Leslie White insisted that stances which interpreted the individual as the prime mover in 'chains of events' were 'anthropocentric' (White 1949, pp. 143, 168, 330).
Voluntarist stances can be somewhat naive in overlooking the issue of unpredicted, unintended consequences. Who in their right mind could think that systems never go wrong and are always predictable? As some wit once put it, 'results are what you expect; consequences are what you get.' And experimenters know well that even under precisely controlled laboratory conditions, phenomena behave as they damn well please. A light-hearted account of how systems go wrong can be found in John Gall's amusing book Systemantics (1979).
Jerry Mander also objects that 'the great majority of us have no say at all in choosing or controlling technologies' (Mander 1978, p. 351).
In defence of human control over technology, Seymour Melman notes that in modern times 'there is no unique... technology option. There is an array of options' (Melman 1972, p. 57). A technique or technology does not create or change itself. 'Technology does not, indeed cannot, determine itself' (p. 58). And the sociologist Ruth Finnegan adds that 'the medium in itself cannot give rise to social consequences - it must be used' (Finnegan 1975, p. 108). Indeed, the mere existence of a technology does not inevitably lead to its use. Harvey Graff, a historian of literacy, insists that 'neither writing nor printing alone is an "agent of change"; their impacts are determined by the manner in which human agency exploits them in a specific setting' (Graff 1987, p. 19). With regard to communications media, the voluntarist stance opposed to media determinism is sometimes referred to as audience determinism, whereby instead of media being presented as doing things to people the emphasis is on people doing things with media.
Some commentators on technology and society have adopted the stance of social or cultural determinism, according to which technologies and techniques are entirely determined by social and political factors. Socio-cultural determinism sometimes leaves as little room for individual agency as extreme technological determinism leaves to social control. The more moderate and widespread stance is that technology is socially conditioned but not entirely socially determined (see Benthall 1976, pp. 146-7).
Raymond Williams argues that 'Determination is a real social process, but never (as in some theological and some Marxist versions)... a wholly controlling, wholly predicting set of causes. On the contrary, the reality of determination is the setting of limits and the exertion of pressures, within which variable social practices are profoundly affected but never necessarily controlled. We have to think of determination not as a single force, or a single abstraction of forces, but as a process in which real determining factors - the distribution of power or of capital, social and physical inheritance, relations of scale and size between groups - set limits and exert pressures, but neither wholly control nor wholly predict the outcome of complex activity within or at these limits, and under or against these pressures' (Williams 1990, p. 130).
Some commentators argue that constraints on human control of technology do exist (though these may be more social than technological), and consequences following from the use of technology are not always intended, but that we still have considerable freedom of choice in the use and control of technology. Langdon Winner suggests that failure to exercise active choices in the use of complex interacting technologies may involve some degree of 'technological drift' (Winner 1977, pp. 88ff). Some commentators also allow for the role of 'chance' (indeterminism) (Toffler 1983, p. 214).
Whilst communication technology is generally acknowledged to be an important factor in facilitating social organization and change, most academic commentators would now see it as only one factor amongst others. Close studies of particular social contexts by historians, anthropologists, sociologists and others have suggested that social change is too complex and subtle to be explained solely in terms of changes in the media of communication. Grand theories ignore the importance of socio-historical contexts. Social change involves an interaction of social, cultural and economic forces as well as scientific and technological influences. Jonathan Benthall argues that 'a complete historical analysis of any technology must study the reciprocal action between technical and social factors - "social" including economic, political, legal and cultural' (Benthall 1976, p. 145). As MacKenzie and Wajcman have noted, 'The characteristics of a society play a major part in deciding which technologies are adopted' (MacKenzie & Wajcman 1985, p. 6).
Critics of technological determinism argue that what counts more than technical features are social and political issues concerning: the circumstances of production, modes of use, values, purposes, skill, style, choice, control and access, or as Finnegan puts it, 'Who uses it, who controls it, what it is used for, how it fits into the power structure, how widely it is distributed' (Finnegan 1988, p. 41: cf. pp. 176-7). We need to consider such issues as political control, class interests, economic pressures, geographical access, educational background and general attitudes. Power, control, 'relations of production', conflict and ideology tend to be the key issues for 'critical' theorists influenced by Marxist perspectives.
In strong contrast to the deterministic stance of Marshall McLuhan that 'the medium... shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action', the sociologist Stuart Hall has argued that 'the media reproduce the structure of domination/subordination which characterizes the [social] system as a whole' (both cited in Finnegan 1975, p. 75).
Some commentators use the term overdetermination. This usually means that a phenomenon could be attributed to multiple determinants.