Different Views of Technology

Lincoln Dahlberg discusses the danger of treating technologies as ‘things’. There are plenty of examples in the discussion forums of people doing this and anecdotally recounting their need to have the latest iPhone or other technology. In one sense, they are feeling guilty about being controlled by technology and the secret desire to have a Samsung Galaxy or whatever!

Of course, it is patently obvious that many technologies address themselves to us as objects or artefacts and that isn’t a new process. I could identify a similar response to the ones discussed in the forums in enjoying the possession of a first Kenwood Chef food mixer, a Black & Decker Hammer drill and a Garrard SP25 Mark 3 (less challenged students will have to google this one). I’m not sure that technology has to have plugs on either. I think my first set of metric socket spanners (for fiddling with cars) might also qualify.

What all these technologies have in common is that they enabled me to do something I couldn’t do before or to do something more effectively, efficiently and enjoyably – tastier, lighter cakes and smarter shelf fittings. And that, I think, is where the need to have them came from. Exactly the same analysis applies to a new Apple Mac.

However, that doesn’t mean that the fact that we experience them as things says much about their status and creation. It does allow people to make some fairly easy and probably false conclusions. When people say that Bill Gates is using his massive wealth and influence to coerce them into buying Windows 8 that is only part of the story. The production of Windows 8 has a long history and arises from what Marx calls ‘a complex social and institutional matrix’ which I suppose would involve the reputation of the product and the producer, technological development, commercial attractiveness, perceived need and demand, social reputation and status and its situation in a culture. In terms of almost any technological artefact, we can see these factors in play to various degrees.

One of the writers suggests a note of caution here. We shouldn’t start to assume that this is a kind of unknowable mush out of which the product emerges or, alternatively, a process which is inaccessible to us consumers – akin to the folk myth that alien technology from the Roswell alien landing gave us non-stick saucepans. We can usually track a clear history for any technology if we make the effort.

There is another tendency to see all of these things as part of a conspiracy where technology is a huge black cloud which is seeking to envelop us. I think that this is the technological determination model in its dystopian form. So, every innovation is viewed with suspicion. People don’t read enough and they don’t get out enough and they are passive recipients rather than active participants, and technology is to blame. It is easy to see why people take this line particularly those couch potatoes who might consider themselves to be digital migrants.

Social determinism doesn’t quite follow the conspiracy line but seems to assume that there are elements that control technology – political, economic and social forces – fighting for control and ownership. It would be foolish not to admit that there are political discussions around technology and that they reflect the balance of power in particular societies. There are also more subtle debates about what is proper and appropriate.

I lean towards this analysis personally because I do think that culture and meanings are socially constructed. I also think there is something around here about what Foucault says about disciplinary practices so that within the discussions there are normative judgements and practices that set up boundaries to exclude or include. I also think it would be daft to pretend that technologies do not impact on people. What I am less sure about is this sense in determinism that things are determined. There is not a destiny what shapes our ends – we do it!

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