Which Comes First?
These examples inevitably raise broader, chicken-egg-style questions. Do the more privileged parents want cell phones for their children because along with their children they have defined so many situations as emergencies, including many that others might not define in that way (e. g., a child being hit on at a party, leaving a project at home, or getting out early after a sports practice)? Or does access to a cell phone create the definition of the situation itself as one requiring adult intervention? Do these parents cherish cell phones because they smooth the way to intimate communication? Or do they create intimacy by texting? The same kind of questions, of course, can be
asked of baby monitors. Do parents want a baby monitor because they perceive infants as being especially vulnerable? Or does having a baby monitor create that perception itself?’ This is the standard form of questions about the impact of any new technology.
In response, a technological determinist would argue for the autonomous role of technology in producing and creating new sets of social relations: from that perspective, baby monitors and cell phones (with the help of advertising) create the perceptions of dependency that they then resolve. In contrast, a social determinist position essentially reduces technological developments themselves (and often their effects as well) to preexisting sets of social relationships: from that perspective, parents want baby monitors and cell phones because they have come to perceive their children as being in need of close contact and connection. When the questions and answers are phrased in such stark terms, it is apparent that a less definitive approach might be better than a more certain one. And indeed, most commentators (especially those commenting on the new technologies of surveillance) suggest the need for understanding the dynamic interplay of technology and social forces.17 With respect to baby monitors, for example, we could recall how parents say they start out being “neurotic” and become more so because they can hear every whimper and cry; with respect to cell phones, we might note the complex interaction between a mother’s being available to rescue her daughter from a party and her own (and her daughter’s) perception that being hit on constitutes a crisis.