Stephen Fry–Technological Determinism and China

Stephen Fry’s Planet Word may just be the best thing on television at the moment. Intelligent, coherent, full of interesting titbits, wittily and interestingly presented without embarrassing re-enactments or gee-whiz irrelevant graphics.

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The most recent episode was about the development of writing and it kept on relating to my MSc in Web Science.  Right now we are learning about technological determinism and social construction of technology (roughly speaking one is the view that technology determines society and the other is the view that society determines technology) in the context of the web. Fry pointed out the enormous implications of writing for politics, economics, other technologies etc. This seems hard to dispute.  He also suggested that printing may have been large responsible for the enlightenment – the ability to share knowledge cheaply among a large number of people in diverse places. These would both count as technological determinist views and it is hard to give a social constructivist view of either writing or printing.

In the programme he also spent some time talking about Chinese  writing and how mind blowingly hard it is to learn.  It occurred to me that this may have been one of the reasons that China was so slow to capitalise on inventions such as gunpowder and indeed printing. Although the Chinese discovered many of these things hundreds of years before the West they never used these inventions in a significant way to increase their productivity or impose themselves on other countries as the West did.  Jared Diamond discussed this in Guns, Germs and Steel and he put it down to the centralised form of government.  But surely the difficulty in documenting and transmitting information would be a major problem in capitalising on any technology.

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14 Responses to “Stephen Fry–Technological Determinism and China”


  1. 1 Petrushka October 24, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    The internet has learned to cope with non-English alphabets, but databases still struggle with extended ascii and 4 byte character sets. I bet Chinese databases use ascii.

    • 2 Mark Frank October 26, 2011 at 6:38 am

      Fry also covered pinyin – a system that acts as a sort of intermediary between phonetic alphabets like ours and the Chinese system (one of the better things to come out of Mao’s regime). I expect everyone else in the world had heard of it but I hadn’t and yet it is fundamental to about a fifth of the world’s population!

      (I think Chinese characters are stored in most computers using unicode)

  2. 3 Neil Rickert October 26, 2011 at 5:52 am

    It seems that watching the program is restricted to UK.

    There’s no doubt that technology greatly affects society, nor that society affects technology. But it probably goes to far to call this determinism (in either direction).

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