The Sociotechnical Debate

Technology has revolutionised society greatly, from the way we communicate to the way we learn and consume information. It has also determined social, political and economic change in society. Technologies feed, clothe, and provide shelter for us; they transport, entertain, and heal us; they provide the bases of wealth and of leisure; they also pollute and kill. For good or ill, they are woven inextricably into the fabric of our lives, from birth to death, at home, in school, in paid work. Rich or poor, employed or non-employed, woman or man, ‘black’ or ‘white’, north or south - all of our lives are intertwined with technologies, from simple tools to large technical systems.

The sociotechnical debate is an attempt to distinguish whether society impacts social change or if technology impacts social change. Two competing approaches exist, they represent two ends of the spectrum. I would like to explore these two important stances that theorists take on technologies: the technological theory and the social determinism theory. Determinism is the philosophical idea that every event or state of affairs, including every human decision and action, is the inevitable and necessary consequence of antecedent states of affairs.

In technological determinism, the belief is that technology is what influences change within society. Technology is seen as an autonomous & independent factor, it comes from the application of scientific innovations but constitutes something new.

An example explaining this theory can be the idea that the internet implies freedom and democracy i.e. the internet implies the outcome. What is also technology determinism is the idea that the internet implies an informational dictatorship i.e. total control and complete surveillance meaning that the internet is inherently has a negative effect on society. The famed philosopher and Professor Marshall McLuhan wrote a book, 'Understanding Media' released in 1964 shared some of his views on the sociotechnical debate. McLuhan argues that “The medium is the message” this means that each medium, independent of the content it mediates, has its own intrinsic effects which are its unique message. In his book, 'Understanding Media' McLuhan writes that it is “the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action”. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities, work and leisure. What McLuhan writes about the railroad applies with equal validity to print, television, and the internet.

For Technological Determinism, technology is the engine of organisational and social change. It is what takes us from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, to the Iron Age, to the Age of Steam, to the present Information Age and forever onward. The transition from say the Bronze Age to the Iron Age came about because of the technological superiority of iron tools and weapons over bronze ones, and all other aspects of this changeover are consequences of this technological superiority rather than causes of the change in their own right.

On the other hand, social determinism is the belief that technology is only a product of society. In other words, social factors shape technological change. Social determinists believe that technology is a part of society just like economy, politics, culture, etc. Technology is dependent upon existing infrastructure (current technology depends on past technology). An example explaining this is a light bulb cannot operate outside and independently from a system of electricity generation and distribution.

A theorist who argued the case of social determinism was Welsh academic Raymond Williams. Williams was a great figure of British media and cultural studies, and his ideas are more widely accepted within the academic community than McLuhan’s somewhat controversial beliefs. Very much McLuhan’s opposite number, Williams strongly resisted his ideas, insisting that technology only influences already existing structures, and reinforces power relations. He saw McLuhan as single minded in his belief that technology is responsible for changing culture. Williams’ theories, which are discussed in more detail below, explored: The reasons for which technologies are developed, The complex of social, cultural and economic factors which shape them, The ways that technologies are mobilised for certain ends

These ideas are outlined in his book Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974). Williams claimed that the rise of technology has come from humanity’s own perspectives – their needs, structures and ambitions have more influence over technology than technology has over us. So the growth of technology is influenced by powerful human actors, not by the technology itself. He viewed technology as a tool that humans use to solve their problems. This means that technologies have multiple uses and outcomes – since many different types of people take advantage of the benefits of technology, they will never have a singular use.

Unlike McLuhan, Williams believed that the content of a medium is important - the function of a technology cannot be separated from what it is. Therefore technology is given its meaning by humans and their existing beliefs – it is our use of technology, not its use of us, which influences culture and how we behave.

Going back to Marshall McLuhan's example, the lightbulb only knows one job, this is to provide light. Yet according to McLuhan and the technological determinist theory, the lightbulb is not given the praise it warrants. Indeed, the lightbulb has altered the way we do things and also the way we think, but is the lightbulb itself the one to take on that fault or acclaim? Does the lightbulb really have the power over human instinct and intelligence to change us? Or does it only know on and off? The lightbulb is a catalyst for human innovation and success. The lightbulb, like the printing press, the computer, the mobile phone etc, enable us to be more worldly, mobile, and aware. We can use these technologies however we want, for whatever we want, because we are the creators, the exhibitors, and ultimately the ones to then criticize and question our uses -- and that's how it should be. There is no winner or loser in the sociotechnical debate. We are an ever-advancing world with an evolving technological intelligence and things are not going to get less advanced nor will they take a step back.

We are dependent on technology because technology makes us greater and provides us with countless opportunity. However, we are also just as dependent on transportation, or any other aspect of life that we consume and use on a daily basis. We can depend on modern technologies, because they make our lives easier, and still lead an autonomous, self-fulfilling life.

Both the technological determinist and social determinist are highlighting the fact that they are both dependent on the success of each other. Without one of the two the other suffers. For example, the support that technology changes society is healthy in relation to the social determinist because it means that there is an initial technology that has been created (i.e. woodblock stamp) and able for the social determinist to compare newer technologies to (i.e. the printing press).