Tag Archives: mcluhan

Technological determinsm or Cultural materialism?


“Necessity is the mother of invention”.

It’s a well-known phrase that is often quoted by people, and while the meaning is clear to all who use it, no one really knows where it comes from. (Click here for possible origins) Academics like Raymond Williams and Brian Winston have built upon this notion in supporting the idea that technological inventions emerge from social needs. Winston suggests that ‘supervening social necessities’ play a large role in directing the process of innovation (Murphie and Potts 2002). Williams used the term ‘cultural materialism’ to describe this idea that economic, political and institutional factors influence cultural change out which comes technology.

Canadian philospher and cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan proposes an alternative idea:

“Invention is the mother of necessities.”

Found on Marshall McLuhan’s website, this phrase is a “McLuhanism“. McLuhan believes that our culture is dictated by the technologies we have, all which are merely extensions of our human capacities. But in response to this, Williams says that: “if the medium is the cause, all other causes, all that men ordinarily see as history, are at once reduced to effects.” (quoted in Murphie and Potts 2002).

But why can’t it be both? I think we can see the ways where technology does influence culture and create new values, but there are also times where necessity has influenced new technology to fill the gap that is required. Stephen Hill says, “Technological change…is not, by itself, productive of social change. Instead, the direction of change is a product of the particular alignment between the technological possibilities and the society and culture that exists (1989:33).” (quoted from Murphie and Potts 2002)

I think Hill’s claim captures the reconciliation of technological determinism and cultural materialism. This suggests that the context in which technological advances are made influences how it impacts society and culture.

Saskia Sassen in “The Internet as Playground and Factory“, talked about  Forest Watch and and Indigenous group of people who had their own form of communication. Their communication is determined by the technologies they have. Likewise, in the last few years our forms of communication are changing. It used to be that phones were the best way to get in contact with someone, then mobile phones and now it’s often quick and more effective to e-mail someone or message them on Facebook. But Hill is saying that the existing culture is an important factor, it’s not an effect, which is what McLuhan implies.

For instance, if (and you have to ignore a lot of impractical and illogical factors in this ‘if’) the iPad was invented over 100 years ago, how would it have impacted the culture that existed then? They don’t have the same experiences that we have now to help them understand the impact. It’s not just the fact that technology is created, but rather it builds upon a previous version of itself. There are very few technologies that just appear having no base technology at all.I think to a certain extent that’s one of the distinctions that can be made when looking at technological determinism and cultural materialism. You can’t really argue one without the other.


Murphie, Andrew and Potts, John (2003) ‘Theoretical Frameworks’ in Culture and Technology London: Palgrave Macmillan: 11-38

Saskia Sassen (2009) ‘The Internet as Playground and Factory’ <http://vimeo.com/6789940>