Technological determinism is the flawed and reductionist theory that technology drives social change, in a one-way causal relationship. Technological change is a complex process that is not just determined by the technology, but by its use — the time and place when it emerges, and the social, political, and economic context in which it is being used.

The idea that technology creates behavior is so widespread it masquerades as common knowledge, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Technological determinism is the bad parent begetting every single “Technology is hurting your brain” article ever written, from the advent of steam tech and the printing press, to the latest quasi-scientific study about Twitter and attention spans. Remember when watching MTV was the thing rotting kids brains? The language hasn’t changed in three decades (we’re old!), neither has the moral panic. Just the nouns inside the sentences.

Technological determinism is everywhere, the epidemic of technology writing. Don’t believe me? Now that you know its there, you’ll start seeing it everywhere.

In the face of this prevalent disease, Jacob Ganz’s history of the MP3 for NPR, “Taking Stock of the MP3 at Midlife,” is a welcome deviation. His fantastic history of the audio file format, through an interview with Jonathan Sterne, doubles as a rebuttal of technological determinism. Sterne argues for a more complex examination of what technology does and what it means.

MP3s are widely described as being of “lesser quality” than, say, vinyl recordings, because some data is stripped out of them to create a file small enough to easily transfer and store. As Sterne explains, at least some of the data that is removed is actually outside of the range of perception for most listeners, as human senses “aren’t actually 100 percent high definition the way a microphone or speaker might be.” This creates an excuse for why data can be taken out of recordings to make the MP3s more efficient, but it leads to other questions: how will music change in a world when the microphones and speakers can “hear” better than the people listening can?

In conversation with Ganz, Sterne says:

“And what’s amazing is not that MP3s are perfect — they’re not — it’s that they work as well as they do, and part of that is because of how people listen to music. If you think about my commute to work today: I get on the metro in my neighborhood and then I get off the metro at school. If I’m listening to music, I’m listening to it on these very cheap ear buds off a device in very noisy environment. Even if I’m listening to the highest possible definition audio, I’m not going to hear most of it. And most people now listen to most music in these sort of imperfect situations in a state of distraction. And in a way, the MP3 actually accounts for it in its code. So that’s the sensual part of it.”


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