Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Post 6: What Determines Social Change: Society or Technology?

When it comes to the roots of technology diffusion, there are two competing theoretical perspectives: social shaping of technology and technological determinism. Which of these two perspectives makes more sense to you and why? Can you provide an example with a specific communication technology to support your argument?

27 comments:

iafuelrunner said...

At first read, I thought I was going to be a believer in the technology determinism based on its brief construct that technology is inevitable. However, I read the Murphie and Potts examples, I am inclined to believe the “social shaping of technology.”

The piece lacking in the technological determinism theory to me was the role of economic gain. While Williams would argue with me, I believe, capitalism plays a major in communication technology development and funds to promote move a product into and through the tipping point stage.
The political and institutional pressures of new technologies (such as the non-communication technology product I work with, biodiesel) can push adoption rates based on federal policy requirements.

As one considers the theory, it’s important, according to Murphie and Potts, not to try to draw shirt cause/effect lines but consider the intertwining impacts of society, economics, and other pressures when considering examples.

Our “on-the-go-society made watching our favorite TV shows during their TV air time difficult. The social pressures to be “up” on what happened last night on the Bachelor created demand to watch TV shows at our own leisure. This created an opportunity for Hulu. However, the need for revenue put economic pressure on Hulu to include advertising. In a society where people don’t travel or commute long distance, individuals can be at home to watch their favorite TV shows. In this case, Hulu’s adoption rate will be much slower. In a country where TV is a luxury or not an option, Hulu may not even be taken up.

Bobbi Newman said...

I’m going to with a middle ground. I can see where in some instances society shapes the use of technology. I will also acknowledge that I lean more towards a preference for this approach to technology. If we are mindful of how we use technology we can help ensure that we are shaping it. On the other hand I can see instances where technology has helped to shape society.

I will use Twitter for an example. When twitter launched the words about the entry box for status updates read “What are you doing?” in response to how users were actually using the service the latter changed to “What’s happening?” This is a pretty small change but a clear early indication that Twitter was responding to how it was being use. A later and more significant indication was the adoption of the hashtag. A hashtag is a word a string of words or an abbreviation of sorts that allows users to label the subject of the tweet for example if this class utilized Twitter the hashtag might be #jl574. Twitter users began adding hashtags to their tweets so that others (including non-users) could search Twitter for the topic and locate all the related Tweets. Twitter later officially adopted this automatically creating hyperlinks for hashtags. This later led to the trending column so many of us see (and in my case ignore) on the Twitter homepage.

The flip side of this would be the often cited Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings where social media, predominately Twitter, are credited with sparking the uprisings that resulted in country leaders being ousted or stepping down from power.

N B Kelly said...

I have to say that I definitely lean towards the social shaping of technology because everything happens within a social context, and that includes technology development. Even science takes place within a social context. Scientists are ideally as “objective” as possible, but they are still seeing the world through the lens of their personal past and the social matrix, and interpreting their perceptions according to what has come before. Yes, technology affects the social and cultural milieu, but I think even more so the evolution of technology is driven by society and culture.

Take widescreen TVs as an example. A technological determinist might say that when the technology emerged to offer large, flat screens that were affordable, then that resulted in a society full of people gathered around these screens. However, larger homes are needed to support this size TV. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average size of a new single-family American residence in 1950 was 983 square feet while today it is nearly 2500 square feet. So even if the technology were available in 1950, I doubt people would have bought big screens for tiny living rooms. The development of the current TV is driven (in part) by the current size of homes (a social/cultural factor). In other words, I don’t think any companies are working on 12 foot TVs because it doesn’t “fit” into our current society -- regardless of whether or not the technology is available.

N B Kelly said...
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Henry Nav said...

The original question of the post sounds almost invalid. As there are obvious examples in favor of each answer, it seems that posing the question as "one-or-the-other" invites one to take a position that is too reductionist. To view that social change is determined by only one of technology or society is essentially incorrect.

On the one hand it is rather easy to see that society determines social change, simply because any instance of social change has to be coherent with existing social values and has to provide a logical adoption path to society's members. Social change can originate from the society in question, or it can be introduced from external societies. In either case, the society in question will determine and decide the success or failure of the change being asked of its members. Take for example the social change of promoting human rights and fighting against social injustice (slavery, discrimination based on race, gender, religious beliefs, police brutality, etc). The fight for human rights is a struggle as old as history itself. Having existed throughout history and across societies worldwide, it would be hard to identify any individual technology that is the origin of the struggle. Instead, it is the universal value for human life and its accompanying rights (to food, to shelter, freedom, equality) that is the main motivation for the human rights struggle. Such value is shared amongst the great majority of societies that have existed in different times and different places.

On the other hand it is equally easy to see that technology determines social change by having direct influence in its adoption rate and reach. Looking at the same example of the fight for human rights, it can be seen that communication technologies have been used throughout history as tools for the struggle - printing, books, newspaper, telegram, radio, television, online video, tweeting. These communication technologies have been used to document and expose social injustice, raising awareness to the problem and thereby contributing towards its rectification. Very recent examples are online videos of police brutality and mistreatment that, when brought to public attention via platforms like YouTube, prompted the perpetrators to take corrective actions at a pace much faster than what they would have likely taken had the incriminating evidences not been published online. In this case, technology clearly determined social change by becoming a vehicle and accelerant for the latter.

In short, it is clear that both society and technology determine social change, in distinct manners. Society is the origin and validator, while technology is often the vehicle.

Guntuku Dileepkumar said...

“Technology shapes society or does society shapes technology” is always a debate. I believe though new technologies emerged to meet the human needs it ultimately shaping the society. If we see 15 years back we wonder how our society did some of the things we are able to do now. Technology is integral part of our daily life. The technology interventions we create allow us to transform our society.

For example, mobile phone- there is an intense need for people to communicate with each other, irrespective of the distance between them. This led to the invention of the mobile phone, which in turn has altered the way we live our lives. When cell phones are introduced only a few people started to use it, but when understand the comfort and convenience of cell phones people gradually started to adopt the cell phone technology. The digging of discovery did not end here, and then smart phones came in to the market, because people wanted to use the cell phone as a source of entertainment. While some wanted to listen to music on the move, others wished to play games. As a result, additional features were added to the cell phone. People started upgrading their phones with smart phones because of availability of advanced features. It is the fact that smart phones make life easy and comfortable. Similarly, when 3G iphones are in market people crazy to get the phones. Because of its compact design and touch pad sensitive technology. Within few years 4G iphone replaced the previous versions. It is clear that though iphone is a luxury for people they want to use the new technology because it gives comfort to their lives. Now, in the present world most of the people either have a smart phone or iphone in their hand. I believe the world runs on technology, without which everything would come to a standstill.

Guntuku Dileepkumar said...

Kelly, I agree with you that technology drives our lives. When I was a small kid I hardly used technology gadgets. But if I see myself it is hard to imagine without computer and cellphone. Technology pretty much touched all our lives in one way or other

Bobbi Newman said...

Guntuku - remember that the printed word is considered a technological advancement as is TV, radio, automobiles etc. I would wager you were using more technology than you realize. Technology that we grew up with seems familiar and normal so we tend to look past it to things that are new when we talk about technology. At one time the printing press, newspaper and later radio were all considered disruptive technology.

N B Kelly said...

Guntuku says that “when I was a small kid I hardly used technology gadgets.” While we often equate technology with computer, technology is so much more -- it is applied science. While computer technology has of course taken off in the past couple of decades (e.g., Moore’s Law), people have been using technology for thousands of years. Some people say that the first piece of technology was the wheel. Some examples of older technologies are the Roman aquaducts and the printing press.

The aquaducts are a good example of technological determinism: “Rome's first aqueduct supplied a water-fountain sited at the city's cattle-market. By the 3rd century AD, the city had eleven aqueducts, to sustain a population of over 1,000,000 in a water-extravagant economy” (Wikipedia). Without aquaducts, Roman society would have evolved quite a bit differently. On the other hand, I think the printing press is a good example of the social shaping of technology: “The rapid economic and socio-cultural development of late medieval society in Europe created favorable intellectual and technological conditions for Gutenberg's invention” (Wikipedia). In a different social setting, the printing press would have been a failure.

Henry Nav said...

I support what N B Kelly said: "...While we often equate technology with computer, technology is so much more -- it is applied science." I would further expand it by saying that technology is anything that involves the use of tools that increase the power and efficiencies of a task.

There is a common misrepresentation in the minds of many that technology includes only what is more specifically classified as high- and latest technology (e.g., computers, electronics, internet). Actually the lowly hammer, the deadly sword, the spoon, chopsticks and the wheel are all shining examples of technology. They were all new at each of their own diffusion beginnings. Their diffusion can also be used for arguments in favor of technological determinism.

It is quite valuable, in my opinion, that this inaccuracy in perceiving technology is brought into light in this discussion.

Anand Tripathi said...

I think the Society shapes the technology. Although we can debate on it forever. Today New technologies are emerging to meet the Human needs. Although there are a lot of technologies which are very similar in nature but people prefer it over the others.

For example of the Ipod. When apple came out with the Ipod people started using it. Micorsoft came out with Zune. Similar technology, had similar features and did similar tasks but could not survive against apple because people preferred the Ipod.

Same is the case with Facebook. My Space and Google+ offer very similar features and were launched with intention of social media but could not survive against Facebook mainly because of it's user base.

So in the above examples it is society which is Shaping the technology. People know what they want and if they are provided with a good technology which suits their needs and is economically affordable they will be happy to adopt it.

Anand Tripathi said...

Guntuku, you bring up a good point. I totally agree that today Cellphones have become essential part of our lives.
But when the Cell Phones came out they were very expensive to own and use.
Common man couldn't afford it.
It's only when they reduced the prices. Gave Options of unlimited nights and weekends and free incoming calls it gained it's popularity.
Once the cell phone companies started seeing the user base grow that's when the smart phones with various features started to come out.
So I think it's the society has a big role to play in emergence of new Cell Phone technologies.

Shaun Kelly said...

I'd say the answer to the question is, "Yes." I think the little graphic in the Prezi going alongside the chicken and egg question showing the circular relationship between technology and society kind of demonstrates that well. This reminds me of the concept in psychology of reciprocal determinism which essentially says that addresses the nature/nurture question (a similar chicken/egg conundrum) by saying that intrinsic factors affect our relationship to the external world which in turn affects how the outside world relates to us which in turn affects how we are affected by the outside world. (For example, if your genes set you up to have high intelligence, people will treat you like someone with high intelligence, thus you'll be more likely to adopt the behaviors of high intelligence.)

In terms of technology, it would mean that technological advancement is inevitable but that it doesn't take place in a vacuum; the society in which technological advancement occurs affects the shape and direction that technology may take. For example, the cognitive psych literature really tells us that touch based user interfaces (like in your iPad) are essentially an inevitable development. Indeed, they've been around for years, but their adoption is affected by social forces (the cost, the question of whether there is a need, and later the status conference when the iPad is released) but also by technical constraints (without fast enough processors, high enough quality screens, and fast wireless data, they would be useless.)

Shaun Kelly said...

Alicia, great point re: capitalism being missing in the concept of technological determinism. And if you look at capitalism in Adam Smith model and consider the invisible hand as being a driving force in technological adoption (i.e., someone develops technology as a way to profit after sensing a need in society), that seems to make the case even stronger for the side of social shaping.

Sam Shenker said...

Living in a society is by itself a technological innovation that humans have undergone instead of roaming in small hunter-gatherer groups. There is an incredible amount of diversity both between societies and within societies. Each culture and smaller group of people within that culture will have a certain degree of compatibility with a new technology or idea. As a whole some people will adopt the new technology earlier and if this proves beneficial, those societies will become stronger in a very Darwinian sense. However if this change in culture somehow proves detrimental to the society then the technology will eventually phase out of adoption, or a new technology will be created to solve the downsides of previous technologies.

When I hear “society changing culture”, I think that means that there is a need for a technology to fulfill. These needs can come from either shortcomings in the culture or a change in environmental factors. Both of these examples can be explained through communication technologies.

With the rise of the internet and an increasing desire to connect Europe with America, Satellite relays were slow and expensive. Fiber-optic data cables were installed under the sea to solve this problem that society created for itself. The radio (and Morse code) was implemented on ships to help them communicate across the long distance of the ocean, giving them increased safety and security and mitigated danger of sailing the ocean.

Ben Lortz said...

The debate over which comes first, technology or social need, is one that cannot be easily answered. On one hand society forces new technologies to be created to meet its growing needs, but on the other hand technology today will help shape society tomorrow. Even though the debate has no clear answer I believe that social needs are the basis for almost all technology diffusion.

The inventors of new technology have one goal in mind and that is to entice buyers to use their new product. The only way to succeed with this goal is to create something that will suit the needs that society has. A technology may cause changes in society but the only way it has the opportunity to do this is if it meets the needs that society has.

One prime example of this is Facebook. Facebook was created to connect Harvard and other college students together and by suiting this society need it changed society in the future. This technology was not created to change society but by suiting the needs that society had, Facebook did both.

Ben Lortz said...

In response to Anand's post, I agree that only certain technologies can survive because they better suit human needs compared to its competitors. Ipod gave millions of users the ability to easily listen to music and society responded by adopting the technology and creating the Ipod revolution that swept the globe.

JLTSC574Student said...

I think both perspectives make sense from their respective points of view. It seems to me to be a bit simplistic to surmise that the description of all technological diffusion can be reduced to one particular narrative. Odds are that either both are at play with one being more dominant between the two, they are both equally dominant, or (gasp) neither one is particularly applicable.

Take as an example the now almost defunct technology of the Research In Motion's Blackberry. No doubt social shaping of technology played a role in the diffusion of this device. If one wanted to be perceived as a "with it" professional it was almost essential that one be checking their Blackberry with devoted regularity. But at the same time, the Blackberry was better at providing somekinds of services than others. It may have been a useful device for checking email, but useless for making phone calls or getting a map to an unfamiliar city you are trying to navigate. I am not convinced that it's the technology that actually determines anything. Rather it is the individuals and societies as people that decide whether or not a technology is worth mentioning (and thereby diffusion).

To say though that a technology determines its destiny (or diffusion) is sheer modernist clap trap. It is the equivalent of saying my laptop is determining what I submit for this blog entry by virtue of my laptop being what it is. I think if one wants to say that a technology influences user choice, this is closer to the truth, but I think an even more accurate description is to say that the engineers who built my laptop are the folks who are influencing how I use the laptop they designed to complete this blog entry. To say that a technology determines anything I think is to forget behind every technology there was no doubt a team of people who decided that forms and freedoms that the users of their technology would have to navigate.

Frankly I would guess that there are also other factors at play which come together and in concert can help shed light as to why some technologies and others do not. Perhaps diffusion of innovation as a discipline would be well served to begin to take an even greater interdisciplinary approach. For example I strongly suspect that factors such as price of a Blackberry, convenience of use, and aesthetic valuations are as much a part of the story of how and why Blackberry diffused as it has in the past.

JLTSC574Student said...
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JLTSC574Student said...
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JLTSC574Student said...

To Sam's comment,

I am skeptical that it can be shown that those societies which adopt a particular technology can necessarily be shown to "become stronger in a very Darwinian sense". It seems to me that it is perhaps tautological to say that the stronger society is the one who survives because it adopts an advantageous new technology when perhaps it is BECAUSE that society was stronger that it was able to adopt that new technology in the first place.

Is it really the case that because Internet speeds in sub-Sahara Africa are slower than in Europe, that that says anything about any measure of comparable fitness between those two societies?

Stuart Davidson said...

When it comes to the roots of technology diffusion, I believe that the “social shaping of technology” is the perspective that makes the most sense. Technological advances are shaped by society and economies rather than taking a course of their own without human influence. I believe that the economy in particular has a great influence on the advancement of technology, especially in a capitalist economy. Social demand shapes what types of technology will be accepted and which will be rejected. If there is no demand for a technology or a product it will typically fail, as there would be no funds to support its growth.

A real-world example of how social influences drive technology is the rise in popularity of the credit card. The use of credit cards was driven by consumer’s demands for quicker and easier transactions, as well as the convenience of not having to carry cash. Vendors realized that provided their customers with ability to use credit cards would increase the amount of business that they received. The demand for cashless transactions helped drive the popularity of the credit card as well as the prominence of vendors that accept credit cards.

Stuart Davidson said...

To Sam's Post:

The example of fiber optic cables is a good example of how society's needs and demands help shape the technological development. The desire to improve communications between areas of the world helped to develop better technology.

Joshua Jordan said...

In terms of whether society determines technological development or technology determines social development, I don’t think these should be artificially isolated phenomena, nor should one be held in a greater emphasis than the other. It seems to me that these two concepts are entangled together in a manner that keeps them completely inseparable.

From the angle of society pushing or influencing technological development (from a communications perspective), something as simple as the quick adoption of the cell phone, it could be argued that only a society that places such a great emphasis on communication would develop the cell phone to what we have today. If our social values were different, perhaps a basic flip phone would dominate the market.

Despite the value society places on communication, I think it is clear that the cell phone has become a deterministic factor as well. For instance, we all like to talk on the phone with friends and loved ones, but, with the development of the smartphone, there has certainly been something that the corporations have developed a “need” that we all must possess. Certainly we have clear social needs that the cellular phone can satisfy, but with, for example, Apple’s development of the App Store, wants and needs begin to begin to become confused (an amazing ability that the force of capital has). Apps have become pervasive amongst a multitude of devices and businesses are very quick to attach onto this technology. I suppose the greater the profit margin, the more enthusiasm companies have and can build toward a given technological development and its rapid adoption. Perhaps in a capitalist ontology, technological determinism is synonymous with capitalistic determinism.

Despite the entwinement of social and technological development, I think one must consider that there is another force – capital – that has a strong pull no matter what. Even though phones are socially desired and technology inflects that desire with further developments in novel directions, none of this would move an inch if it were not for attractive profit margins.

Joshua Jordan said...

"A real-world example of how social influences drive technology is the rise in popularity of the credit card. The use of credit cards was driven by consumer’s demands for quicker and easier transactions, as well as the convenience of not having to carry cash. Vendors realized that provided their customers with ability to use credit cards would increase the amount of business that they received. The demand for cashless transactions helped drive the popularity of the credit card as well as the prominence of vendors that accept credit cards."

Another social factor supporting your argument, is the stagnation (or decline in some cases) of real wages since the mid-70s. With stagflation, then outsourcing and automation of labor hitting the US over a few decades, people have to turn to credit cards just to make ends meet. It's ironic that the money we should be getting paid today because of corporate greed and governmental incompetence is instead loaned out to us at interest...

Dan MacKenzie said...

As many have already stated, the question of whether technology shapes us or we shape technology requires a nuanced answer. I suppose a lot of it comes from perspective. I have said in my posts that I am firmly in the camp the cultural materialists. However I would like to play my own devils advocate and make a point that would benefit the technological determinists as well. And I will be using the more modern notion of technology, that of electronic devices, although Bobbi makes an excellent point regarding even something like written language as a technology.

I point to the personal computer in America as the example. This is a technology that has become unstoppable. It is something that you cannot avoid if you want to live or work in the modern world. From either end of the socioeconomic spectrum it is something that is needed to apply for jobs, perform your job, maintain communication with people, or even participate as a consumer.

In my example I will use ‘small business circa 1985’ as the focus. The owner of small business is used to do all of the book work, financing, and communications on paper. All of the employees knew how to use calculators and filing cabinets, and some of them could use the typewriter to fill out forms. Small business owner decides that it would be much quicker and easier to all of the same work by computer so he voluntarily purchases a few IBMs for accounting and a few for the warehouse, etc. He has chosen the technology and is using it to shape his business. He is a cultural materialist, in charge of the technology.

But there are all of the employees. A few of them run with the idea and learn how to use the computers and the programs. But a handful of them decide that the computer fad wasn’t something they needed to be concerned with, and tried to stick with carbon paper. They eventually get let go because they can’t keep up. (Small business 1985 is a harsh work environment apparently).

From the bosses perspective the computers were a voluntary thing that he had control over, but for the poor employees who were fired, it was technological determinism running them over.

This example is a bit glib, but it serves the point. The idea of a technology being shaped by us, or whether it shapes us depends on time, and situation. While taking a stance one way or the other might serve well for academic purposes, in the real world the lines that define either become quite blurred.

iafuelrunner said...

Ben-interesting point about the origins of Facebook. Also interesting that the reason that most people know about the origins of Facebook was through a movie about them. What does that say about society?