Social factors driving technology

In a recent post I addressed the question of how social and political circumstances influence the direction of technological change (link). There I considered Thomas Hughes’s account of the development of electric power as a “socio-technological system”. Robert Pool’s 1997 book Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology is a synthetic study that likewise gives primary attention to the important question of how society shapes technology. He too highlights the importance of the “sociotechnical system” within which a technology emerges and develops:

Instead, I learned, one must look past the technology to the broader “sociotechnical system” — the social, political, economic, and institutional environments in which the technology develops and operates. The United States, France, and Italy provided very different settings for their nuclear technologies, and it shows. (kl 86)

Any modern technology, I found, is the product of a complex interplay between its designers and the larger society in which it develops. (kl 98)

Furthermore, a complex technology generally demands a complex organization to develop, build, and operate it, and these complex organizations create yet more difficulties and uncertainty. As we’ll see in chapter 8, organizational failures often underlie what at first seem to be failures of a technology. (kl 1890)

For all these reasons, modern technology is not simply the rational product of scientists and engineers that it is often advertised to be. Look closely at any technology today, from aircraft to the Internet, and you’ll find that it truly makes sense only when seen as part of the society in which it grew up. (kl 153)

Pool emphasizes the importance of social organization and large systems in the processes of technological development:

Meanwhile, the developers of technology have also been changing. A century ago, most innovation was done by individuals or small groups. Today, technological development tends to take place inside large, hierarchical organizations. This is particularly true for complex, large-scale technologies, since they demand large investments and extensive, coordinated development efforts. But large organizations inject into the development process a host of considerations that have little or nothing to do with engineering. Any institution has its own goals and concerns, its own set of capabilities and weaknesses, and its own biases about the best ways to do things. Inevitably, the scientists and engineers inside an institution are influenced — often quite unconsciously — by its culture.

There are a number of obvious ways in which social circumstances influence the creation and development of various technologies. For example:

  1. the availability of technical expertise through the educational system
  2. the ways in which consumer tastes are created, shaped, and expressed in the economic system
  3. the ways in which political interests of government are expressed through research funding, legislation, and command
  4. the imperatives of national security and defense (World War II => radar, sonar, operations research, digital computers, cryptography, atomic bomb, rockets and jet aviation, …)
  5. The needs of corporations and industry for technological change, supported by industry laboratories and government research funding
  6. The development of complex systems of organization of projects and efforts in pursuit of a goal including the efforts of thousands of participants

Factors like these influence the direction of technology in a variety of ways. The first factor mentioned here has to do with the infrastructure needed to create expertise and instrumentation in science and engineering. The discovery of radar would have been impossible without preexisting expertise in radio technology and materials at MIT and elsewhere; the rapid development of atomic fission for reactors and weapons depended crucially on the availability of advanced expertise in physics, chemistry, materials, and instrumentation; and so on for virtually all the technologies that have transformed the world in the past seventy years. We might describe this as defining the “supply” side of technological change. Along with manufacturing and fabrication expertise, the availability of advanced engineering knowledge and research is a necessary condition for the development of new advanced technology.

The demand side of technological development is represented by the next several bullets. Clearly, in a market society the consumer tastes and wants of the public have a great deal of effect on the development of technology. Smart phones were difficult to imagine prior to the launch of the iPhone in 2007; and if there had been only limited demand for a device that takes photos and videos, plays music, makes phone calls, surfs the internet, and maintains email communication, the device would not have undergone the intensive development that it actually experienced. Many apparently “useful” consumer devices never find a space in the development and marketing process that allow them to come to maturity.

The development of the Internet illustrates the third and fourth items listed here. ARPANET was originally devised as a system of military and government communication. Advanced research in computer science and information theory was taking place during the 1960s, but without the stimulus of the government-funded Advanced Projects Research Agency and sponsorship by the Defense Communications Agency it is doubtful that the Internet would have developed — or would have developed with the characteristics it now possesses.

The fifth item, describing the needs and incentives experienced by industry and corporations guiding their efforts at technology innovation, has clearly played a major role in the development of technology in the past half century as well. Consider agribusiness and the pursuit by companies like Monsanto to gain exclusive intellectual property rights in seed lines and genetically engineered crops. These business interests stimulate research by companies in this industry towards discovery of intellectual property that can be applied to technological change in agriculture — for the purpose of generating profits for the agribusiness corporation. Here is a brief description of this dynamic from the Guardian (link):

Monsanto, which has won its case against Bowman in lower courts, vociferously disagrees. It argues that it needs its patents in order to protect its business interests and provide a motivation for spending millions of dollars on research and development of hardier, disease-resistant seeds that can boost food yields.

Why are there no foot-pump devices for evacuating blood during surgery — an urgent need in developing countries where electric power is uncertain and highly expensive devices are difficult to acquire? The answer is fairly obvious: no medical-device company has a profit-based incentive to produce a device which will yield a profit of pennies. Therefore “sustainable technology” in support of healthcare in poor countries does not get developed. (Here are examples of technology innovations that would be helpful in rural healthcare in high-poverty countries that market-driven forces are never likely to develop; link.)

The final item mentioned above complements the first — the development of business organization systems parallels the development of systems of expertise and training at universities. Engineering, operations research, and organizational theory all progressed dramatically in the twentieth century, and the ways that they took shape influenced the direction and characteristics of the technologies that were developed. Thomas Hughes describes these complex systems of government, university, and business organizations in Rescuing Prometheus, a book that emphasizes the systems requirements of both engineering as a profession and the large organizations through which technologies are developed and managed. Particularly interesting are the examples of the SAGE early warning system and the ARPANET; in each case Hughes argues that these technologies could not have been accomplished without the creation of new frameworks of systems engineering and systems organization.

MIT assumed this special responsibility [of public service] wholeheartedly when it became the system builder for the SAGE Project (Semiautomatic Ground Environment), a computer-and radar-based air defense system created in the 1950s. The SAGE Project presents an unusual example of a university working closely with the military on a large-scale technological project during its design and development, with industry active in a secondary role. SAGE also provides an outstanding instance of system builders synthesizing organizational and technical innovation. It is as well an instructive case of engineers, managers, and scientists taking a systems and transdisciplinary approach. (15)

It is clear from these considerations and examples, that technologies do not develop according to their own internal technical logic. Instead, they are invented, developed, and built out as the result of dozens of influences that are embodied in the social, economic, and political environment in which they emerge. And though neither Hughes nor Pool identifies directly with the researchers in the fields of the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) and Science, Technology, and Society studies (STS), their findings converge to a substantial extent with the central ideas of those approaches. (Here are some earlier discussions of that approach; linklinklink). Technology is socially embedded.

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