Shaping of Technologies

Technological Determinism

Traditionally, there have been two schools of thought in regards to the manner in which the social world interfaces with the technological. One field, sometimes referred to as technological determinism, has been heavily influenced by McLuhan and Innis from the Toronto School of Communication. Determinism projects a profound significance in the way technologies influence societies. One of the main critiques of determinism is that it subverts the role of human agency to that of technologies. It “focuses our minds on how to adapt to technological change, not on how to shape it” (Mackenzie & Wajcman, 1999). Raymond Williams has provided a noted critique of determinist theory. This deficiency is addressed in the social constructivism model.

Social Shaping of Technology

The social shaping of technology has been influenced by a number of factors. According to MacKenzie and Wajcman, media studies have appropriated Kuhn’s work on scientific paradigms to come up with the notion of technological paradigms. According to Kuhn, scientists would work within certain paradigms. On occasion, there would be a paradigm shift. This is similar to the notion of “technological trajectories” which is a concept that explains how technologies operate within a specific technological paradigm.

Two theories that has been particularly influential in the development of the social shaping of technology are actor-network theory (ANT) and the social construction of technology (SCOT). Winner (1993) points out a number of deficiencies with SCOT, including its failure to consider the social consequences of technical choices; its marginalization of “irrelevant” social groups, a shortcoming due to the notion that SCOT defines relevant social groups as those who have had an empirically discernible influence on a technology, which neglects social groups who have had a secondary influence on shaping; and its neglect of more underlying social dynamics that may influence the development process. Another noted shortcoming of SCOT is that it does not account for the social influence of technology. According to MacKenzie and Wacjman, “it is mistaken to think of technology and society as separate spheres influencing each other: technology and society are mutually constitutive.”

Barkadjieva uses Winner’s critique of SCOT to aid in the development of her theory of everyday users. According to her, SCOT can not include the ordinary user as a relevant social group because of their dispersed state of existence.

In a Critical Theory of Technology, Feenberg (1991) addresses many of Winner’s PE concerns with SCOT by proposing an approach called critical constructivism. In critical constructivism, dominant groups fuse their interests into the development of technologies with the end goal of “sedimenting values and interests in rules and procedures, devices and artifacts, that routinize the pursuit of power and advantage by a dominant hegemony.” Concurrently, the force of “subversive rationalization” seeks to undermine the dominant hegemony and force it to recognize the voice of the subordinate groups in society. It is within the context of critical constructivism that we can understand the significance of Bakardjieva’s (2005) quote on the role of the ordinary user.

The Everyday User

In recent years, the role of the “ordinary user” has become more influential in the discourse on shaping and innovation. Bakardjieva defines the user as an actor who is “not involved as a professional (engineer, programmer, designer, etc.) or decision-maker in the industrial, commercial or service sectors developing computer-networking technology.” According to Haddon, there are various ways in which ordinary users can be innovative:

  1. Designing and redesigning ICTs.
  2. Creating new practices around ICTs.
  3. More widespread creative design.
  4. New patterns of use, new practices.

Design and Domestication

The design/domestication interface proposed by Silverstone and Haddon (1996) provides a framework for considering the manner in which the ordinary user can play an innovative role with regard to the shaping of a technology on a more sustained basis. The design phase of the model has three interrelated dimensions: a technological artifact must first be created; the user must be “constructed”; and the consumer must be “caught.” On the other side of the equation, consumption of technologies consists of three dimensions: commodification, in which “specific claims” about the artifact are made by market-driven actors; appropriation, in which consumers or users bring a technology from the commercial sphere into the private sphere and appropriate it into their lives; and conversion, in which the flow occurs from the private sphere back into a public space. It is through conversion that market-driven agents learn about how technologies are being consumed by the ordinary user. According to Silverstone and Haddon, “Design and domestication are two sides of the innovation coin. Domestication is anticipated in design and design is completed in domestication.”

References

Bakardjieva, M (2005), Internet Society. The Internet in Everyday Life, Sage Publications, London.

Bijker, W & Law, J (2000a), ‘Do Technologies have Trajectories’, in W Bijker & J Law (eds.), Shaping Technology/Building Society, The MIT Press, Cambridge.

Bijker, W & Law, J (2000b), ‘What Next? Technology, Theory, and Method’, in W Bijker & J Law (eds.), Shaping Technology/Building Society, The MIT Press, Cambridge.

Feenberg, A (1991), Critical Theory of Technology, Oxford University Press, New York.

Kline, R and Pinch, T (1999), ‘The Social Construction of Technology’, in D Mackenzie & J Wajcman (eds.), The Social Shaping of Technology (Second Edition), Open University Press, Buckingham.

MacKenzie, D and Wajcman, J (1999), ‘Introductory Essay and General Issues’, in D Mackenzie & J Wajcman (eds.), The Social Shaping of Technology (Second Edition),, Open University Press, Buckingham.

Pinch, J & Bijker, K (1987), ‘The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other, in (W Bijker & T Hughes & T Pinch (eds.), MIT Press, Cambridge.

Silverstone, R and Haddon, L (1996), ‘Design and the Domestication of Information and Communication Technologies: Technical Change and Everyday Life’, in Silverstone and Mansell, R (eds.), Communication by Design: The Politics of Information and Communication Technologies, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Winner, L (1993), ‘Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding It Empty: Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology’, Science, Technology, and Human Values, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 362-378.