Technology within Society

By Foltz, Franz A. | Journal of Technology Studies, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Technology within Society


Foltz, Franz A., Journal of Technology Studies


Over two decades ago, Langdon Winner, a leading scholar of Science and Technology Studies (STS), asked the question "Do Artifacts have Politics?" His answer was that technology is intertwined with our culture and has values embedded within it that helps to shape society. Our world has a particular look - Interstate highways, strip malls, fast-food drive thrus, and sleeper communities - because of the automobile. This idea of technology shaping society is often referred to as technological determinism.

The countervailing position within the field of STS is called social construction (see Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1987). Social constructivists would argue that the car looks and performs like it does because society shapes the nature of technology. Consumers, auto manufacturers, and various levels of government come together to shape the car. We are currently at a potential change in the nature of automotive travel. The SUV - gas guzzling, heavyweight, family carrying, low-efficiency vehicles - has become the norm, simply because people wanted them. It appears that due to rising fuel prices the SUV may be replaced with higher efficiency hybrid technology. This change comes from society's demands.

Together, social construction and technological determinism make up the two extremes within the field of STS. For most STS scholars, it is not one extreme or the other. Technology affects society and in turn society affects technology. Most would agree with Winner (1986) that technology and human culture are inextricably linked together.

Most STS scholars would also agree with the historian of technology, Thomas Hughes (1979, 1987), that when we talk about technology we must talk about technological systems. The automobile is by itself not a very useful technology. We need a system of highways, gas stations, and even traffic laws for us to travel any great distance by car. To maintain this system, we need road crews, snowplows, mechanics, and police. They operate as one complex socio-technical system. The larger system provides much more benefit than any single bit of technology on its own. A single home computer allows us to do some tasks, but when it becomes part of the greater Internet system, its potential grows exponentially.

In the end of his discussion on the politics of technology, Winner argues that the values embedded within technology come from those that design technology. In most cases this is a small elite, who because of their position can in turn shape society as a whole. Winner argues that the only way within a democratic society to ensure that the right values become embedded within technology is to open the design process to a greater range of input. He would argue that we need society as a whole to construct technology and not just a small sample of society.

In the following articles, various viewpoints and arguments are made concerning the nature of the relationship between technology and society. Some are constructivists in nature, while others are more deterministic in their outlook. Most come from an STS perspective, but some are more narrowly focused. They represent viewpoints from technology studies, policy studies, criminal justice, history of technology and even education. All explore technology's intersections with social, political, economic, religious, and engineering domains, demonstrating diverse viewpoints concerning technology's relationship to society.

The first article by Benjamin Sovacool, the 2004 winner of the National/International Association of STS (NASTS/IASTS) Graduate Paper Contest, provides an oversight of the four dominant social construction of technology models. It provides a good introduction for individuals not familiar with technology studies. …

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