Technology and Social Process

By Brian Elliott | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Many commentators -- journalists, politicians and academics -- have sought to grasp the changes that technology brings to our world, to offer analyses of their beneficial or detrimental effects and recommend ways in which the positive features of technological innovation can be stimulated and enhanced or the disadvantages mitigated. Politicians, of diverse persuasions, have devised policies intended to promote the development, diffusion and use of new technology -- policies that range from forms of protection for high-technology industries or firms to schemes to promote 'computer literacy' in schools. Frequently, in Europe and North America, political interest in technological development is fuelled by an apprehension of relative decline, by envy of the conspicuous success of Japanese industry, which, it is said, has proved extraordinarily skilful in the exploitation of technological innovation. Behind many of the policies and pronouncements it is easy to see a naive technological determinism, and a very limited understanding of the nature of technological innovation and diffusion. All too often technology is treated rather as 'science' is frequently treated -- as a body of esoteric, privileged and autonomous knowledge which exercises a determining influence on 'economy' or 'society'. Such a view is demonstrably inadequate and misleading. Just how inadequate and misleading it is becomes plain when we look at the work of the relatively small number of scholars who have taken technology as a serious object of study. I am referring here not to technologists themselves -- to men and women actively seeking to apply scientific understanding to develop new products and processes or to modify, adapt and extend existing machines or procedures (though some of them provide us with valuable insights). Rather I am thinking of that small band of investigators who use their diverse disciplinary perspectives -- in history, economics, politics or sociology -- as vantage points from which to develop more synthetic, comprehensive and critical interpretations. Their efforts have revealed very clearly that we cannot explain the fluctuating economic fortunes of nations, regions or industries or the incidence of unemployment or underemployment simply by pointing to levels of technological sophistication. Technological determinism is the first casualty of their critical attack.

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