I’m flattered to hear my work described as hallucinogenic, but I suspect that some of my academic critics find me a bad trip.

Technological Determinism and Neuroplasticity

Revisiting the work of Marshall McLuhan inevitably involves recalling the debates surrounding his work and the allegations of technological determinism levelled at it by critics such as Raymond Williams. Departing from social constructivism, whereby the importance of media were the messages, ideologies and semiotics contained in its content, McLuhan boldly proclaimed that ‘the medium is the message,’ that the primary meaning or effect of ‘any medium or technology, is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs,’ (1964:16) and ‘our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how it is used that counts,’ is merely ‘the numb stance of the technological idiot.’ (1964:26)

Williams’ critique was to argue that ‘If the effect of the medium is the same, whoever controls or uses it then we can forget ordinary political and cultural argument and let the technology run itself.’ (1974:131) For Williams then, the danger in adopting McLuhan’s rhetoric was that relegating the use of any medium to a secondary effect which is ultimately subordinate to the logic of the medium meant there was no point in either providing critiques of the power structures and elites which shape media ownership and production or attempting to create alternative media structures. Williams’ argument here is actually quite convincing, the notion that films by Leni Riefenstahl, Ken Loach and Steven Spielberg all have the same primary effect as they are films appears laughable in its reduction of cinema to technology. Consequently media studies in the UK by and large followed Williams’ prescription that ‘we have to reject technological determinism, in all its forms’ (1974, 133) focussing instead on a multiplicity of complex social factors that effect content through methodologies such as ideology critique, textual deconstruction, qualitative audience research and political economy as means of exploring the social institutions which effect the production of media, the types of messages produced and the effects these had on various types of audience.

I should be clear at this point that Williams’ model of determination was far from a simple and linear process, a charge he levelled at McLuhan for statements such as ‘the medium is the message,’ and  ‘electricity does not centralise but decentralises,’ (1964:55) which Williams claimed mystified the complex causal circuitry of any large scale social phenomena and thus ratified the existing inequalities and hegemonies within society.

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 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 or against these pressures.
Williams 1974:133

Williams model of determinism is not congruent to a teleological outcome, but can be understood as positing a cyclical interplay of determining forces which set limits, governing evolutionary processes within a system, with the complex and nonlinear nature of these determining forces precludes the ability to isolate a single determining cause as McLuhan frequently claims is possible.

However Williams is plainly wrong in making the claim that we must reject all forms of technological determinism, a move which using Williams’ own definition of determinism contends that technology sets no limits and exerts no pressures. One area which provides substantive empirical evidence to support this assertion is the field of cognitive neuroscience, and particularly recent understandings of neuroplasticity, the term used to explain the dynamic nature of connectivity within the human brain. Throughout a lifetime the brain will contain roughly a constant number of neurons, the cells which pass electrical and chemical signals throughout the brain. Unlike neurons, the number of synapses, the structures which transmit the electrical or chemical signals from the neuron to the target cell, varies, with the greatest number of synapses being present at birth. Through the process of synaptogenesis, infants undergo a process where synapses which are used are maintained whereas those which are not wither away, leaving the child with only those pathways which have been developed and used in formative years. According to N. Katherine Hayles,

The evolutionary advantage of this pruning process is clear, for it bestows remarkable flexibility, giving human beings the power to adapt to widely differing environments. Although synaptogenesis is greatest in infancy, plasticity continues throughout childhood and adolescence, with some degree continuing even into adulthood. In contemporary developed societies, this plasticity implies that the brain’s synaptic connections are coevolving with an environment in which media consumption is a dominant factor. Children growing up in media-rich environments literally have brains wired differently from those of people who did not come to maturity under that condition.
Hayles 2007:6

Hayles’s claims are supported by empirical evidence gleaned from cognitive science research by Posner et al (2005) which involved experimenting on four and six year old children before, during and after five days playing video games designed to train attention and intelligence and evaluated using electroencephalography, which measures voltage fluctuations arising from neural activity, alongside attention and intelligence tests on the subjects. The results of the study were that the six year old children exhibited markedly increased attention spans and intelligence compared to the control group who watched videos rather than played the video games. Crucially the changes were related to the medium the children used, not just the content.

The fact that playing video games changes neural activity not only during but crucially after play is strong evidence which supports a form of technological determinism, as playing the video games involved altering the synaptic connections of the developing human brain. While these changes vary among individuals according to a multitude of factors including age, genetics and a vast array of environmental factors, the basic notion that humans co-evolve with their environments as a consequence of the plasticity of their brains strongly supports a model of agency which is dependent on a dynamic relationality between humans and their environments.

The evidence from neuroscience then demonstrates that by engaging with different technologies we are literally reconfiguring our brains, although the ways in which this reconfiguration occurs are far from the teleology implied by the reductive determinism initially advanced by McLuhan. The fact that modern science empirically demonstrates that our encounters with media alter our brains provides compelling evidence that Williams’ claim that technology does not set limits or exert pressures is no longer tenable. The question the shifts from does technology act as a causal determinant, to in what kinds of way does technology act as a determining factor in socio-technical systems. Revisiting this debate with contemporary insights then, we may contend that while the message is not just the medium, the medium and technologies in generally are causal actors. Our engagement with technology then can be understood to constitute an iterative and performative process in which the evolution of our brains and subjectivities are shaped by technologies while those same brains and bodies shape technological evolution.

Sy Taffel, September 2011


Hayles, N Katherine (2007) Deep and Hyper Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes, http://www.mlajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1632/prof.2007.2007.1.187

McLuhan, Marshall (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Toronto, McGraw Hill

Posner, Michael; Rueda, M. Rosario; Rothbart, Mary; McCandliss, Bruce; and Saccomanno, Lisa, Training, maturation, and genetic influences on the development of executive attention , Proceedings of the National Acadmy of Sciences of the United States of America, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0506897102  PNAS October 11, 2005 vol. 102 no. 41 14931-14936  http://www.pnas.org/content/102/41/14931.full.pdf+html

Williams, Raymond (1974) Television: Technology and Cultural Form, London and New York, Routledge

About the author: Sy Taffel

Sy is a PhD researcher based between the University of Bristol department of Drama: Film Theatre and Television and the Digital Cultures Research Centre at UWE. His PhD research involves utilising an ecological approach to digital media in order to explore the politics, ethics and materiality of hardware, software and content. This research interest stems from an involvement with media activist collectives such as Indymedia, Climate Camp TV and Hacktionlab allied with a broad interest in  the relationships between technology, social justice and environmental sustainability.