Does Society Form Technology or Does Technology Form Society?

I’m currently taking Gina Neff‘s class on theories of technology and society.  If you’d like to read along, we read Langdon Winner‘s classic essay, “Do Artifacts have Politics?” (pdf) as well as selections from Arnold Pacey‘s The Culture of Technology.  (Although it wasn’t on the syllabus, I would also recommend Wiebe Bijker‘s  Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change.)

These readings address the debate between social determinism (also called social construction) and technological determinism:  Does society form technology or does technology form society?  When asked in this way, most of us would answer “both,”  but this is not usually how the argument goes.

There are eminent thinkers on both sides of the argument.  When Larry Diamond talks about “liberation technology” he is implicitly siding with Langdon Winner, who believes that technology can have embedded politics because it can require or be compatible with certain types of political systems.   People in the State Department who talk about “Internet freedom” are also of this stripe, since the term imputes the value of freedom to the technology of the Internet, in addition to implying that the Internet should be freely accessible.  Critics like Evgeny Morozov are firmly on the constructionist side of the spectrum: even the most beautiful technology can be made awful in Russia.

I think that both sides have a valid point. Technologies are indeed created by and connected to society, but they also have constraints and affordances that limit the roles and meanings they can have within that society.  

The Internet began in the Bay Area in the 1960’s, created for the purpose of connecting researchers at different corporate and academic institutions.  As the number and type of users increased, the value of the Internet expanded from one of research to one of business to one of entertainment and political expression.  These uses then came to shape what we believe about the meaning of the Internet.  While some people now justly fear the Internet because of the surveillance carried out through it, others see the Internet as a civic tool which repressive forces are encroaching upon.  Both are right.  The Internet is both threatened and threatens.  These beliefs then form the values of the people who build upon the Internet, and the cycle starts again.

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The model above tries to convey the cyclical, rather than oppositional, nature of social and technological determinism.  One can enter the cycle at any point, but one cannot free oneself from both the human agency of social construction and the human limitation of technological determinism that are inherent in the social meaning of technology.



4 thoughts on “Does Society Form Technology or Does Technology Form Society?

  1. For a nuanced and articulate view on this question, I recommend Tarleton Gillespie’s chapter The Speed Bump in his book, Wired Shut.

    Much of why the debates around digital copyright remain so intractable is that our commonplace ideas about technology and its consequences are similarly polarized: either technologies change the world, or technologies are neutral. If the first is true, then the most radical predictions, utopian and nightmarish alike, can seem imperative enough to overwhelm more careful observation. If the second is true, then we can “stop worrying and love the bomb” overlooking the subtle ways in which the practices, policies, and expectations are changing around us. To fully investigate these disputes and their implications for digital culture requires more nuanced insights into the social embeddedness of technology, as well as an attention to how the political and social spaces from which technologies emerge shape their design and use.

    We must avoid the claim that the design of a technology wholly determines what is done with it, while also recognizing that the shape of a tool can have real, political consequence; we must recognize that technology is shaped by its designers and its users in material and symbolic ways, while not also assuming that it is infinitely malleable and therefor of little concern.

    To carve out a space between these two conceptual poles, we need to hold onto the notion that technologies can be consequential, while asking something more specific than whether technologies can wholly explain epic social upheavals. As Leah Lievrouw put it, we must avoid the either/or of social and technological determinism, focusing instead on the “dynamic relationship between determination and contingency.”

    Also check out Jamais Cascio on the socio-political aspects of technology, and human agency which I attempted to summarize pieces of here:

    Jamais: “Technology is political behavior. Technology is social. We can talk about all of the wonderful gadgets, all of the wonderful prizes and powers, but ultimately the choices that we make around those technologies (what to create, what to deploy, how those deployments manifest, what kinds of capacities we add to the technologies) are political decisions.”

    • Another wonderful and wise comment, Emily. You’ll notice that the site is changed, but it has not reached its final form. When it does I want your full feedback!

      At least now you can view posts on your phone more easily.

  2. Shoot – it appears that your website stripped out my fake “snip” HTML tags so now it looks like paragraphs 2-4 were written by me when they’re Gillespie’s words. I’m hesitant to type the fake tags again because they’ll probably be stripped out again. Hmm. These paragraphs also don’t stream together. I “snipped” different parts of the chapter. Here’s a quick guide:

    Snip 1 = second paragraph
    Snip 2 = third paragraph
    Snip 3 = fourth paragraph

    Re feedback on your site. I recommend getting lots of feedback — from as many users of your site as you can — *before* it’s reached its final form. You’ll want to learn and iterate as much as you can. What are the various use cases and scenarios in which people use your website? For instance:

    “Jamaya’s” colleague referred you to her to do a training for her non-profit. She’s coming to your site to learn more about you to see if she’s interested in hiring you. She wants to understand what your expertise is, and more about your trainings. Can she find this content? How?

    “Akhil” is another activist scholar who came upon something you wrote 10 months ago. He wants to find a blog post you wrote so he can reference it in something he’s writing. Can he find it? How?

    “Tara” is a friend who periodically scans your blog to see if you’ve written anything new that catches her eye. Can she easily tell what content she’s seen before and what content is new?

    Some questions you may want to ask… Who are your core users? Who are you trying to reach? What do you want to be sure to this website communicates? What are the core use cases you want to be sure your new design addresses?

    This was all off the top of my head. Happy to talk offline as well. Btw, the experience on mobile is much improved! I actually now prefer it to desktop because it’s a simpler experience.

  3. Oh, and the date of the comments are wrong. I posted my comment at 7:52pm PST on Oct 15. Your blog is saying it got posted on 2:32 on Oct 16. Made me do a double take, and think to myself for a millisecond, “WTF, it’s Oct 16?”

    Also, I hate captcha’s and so do most people. I’d try to figure out a better way to prevent spam comments. My $0.02. 🙂

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