What Makes Technology Change?


This blog is about technology and society, the relationship between people and information technology. While most of the blog is about specific areas of technology and society, this post is more theoretical, about what makes technology change.

Opinions vary on what causes technology to change in the ways that it does and on what impact technology has on people. Some people believe that technology is neutral and separate from human activity. It doesn’t affect the way we think or act but rather people themselves decide on whether technology will be used for positive or negative purposes. Others believe that technological change is part of the progress of society. Technology changes over time and that change is usually good.

Opinions are also varied on whether the progress of technology is driven by a natural progression that is driven by the technology itself or whether people decide themselves on the direction that technology development will take.

Theories of technological autonomy state that people have little control over the direction that technological evolution will take or how it will be adopted and used within society. They believe that technology does have a significant impact on society, influencing cultural values. According to this view, people cannot control the direction that technological evolution takes or the impact that it will have. Marshall McLuhan is usually thought to express this view in his work:

Others believe that technology is controlled and driven by people. Technological evolution is determined by society and that people decide on which technologies are developed and how they will be used. Our cultural values will impact this.

There are four main theories of technology and society:

Determinism

There are two types of determinism which are opposed to each other. Technological  and social.

Technological determinists argue that technology itself forms the way that we interact with each other and how we think. We have little choice in how technology is used but rather the technology itself determines how we will use it. In response to this society itself changes over time and our culture, working practices, communications etc. evolve. In recent years the speed of technological change has increased and people need to change with it, the technological determinists say. They argue that technology is not influenced by society, rather, that society is influenced by technology. The following video takes a technological determinism approach:

Social determinists argue that it is society that drives the evolution of technology. Our cultural beliefs and values, morals and existing social customs will determine how we use technology and how it impacts society. They argue we have options for how technology will develop and that the outcome will be decided by the nature of our society. Society influences technology. This view is the opposite of the technological determinists. Tom Bridge argues the case for social determinism:

Instrumentalism

Instrumentalism is the theory that technology is neutral and that it evolves from previous technologies in response to our needs, to make our lives easier and more productive. In this view, technology does not influence society but rather it is used for people for good or bad purposes that they decide by themselves.

Substantivism

Substantivism argues that technology influences how society develops and impacts our political systems, culture and social structure. It asserts that the technology moves along its own path and that people have little influence over how these political systems, culture and social structure will be impacted. Technology is a force of its own that determines what our society will be like. The technology has its own values which can be good or bad which people cannot control and the technology itself will determine how it will be used.

Critical Theory

Critical theory argues that technological evolution is driven by technological and social factors. Technology is influenced by people who are influenced by social pressures and their own values. Power in society will influence technologies’ use and development. More powerful elements of society will have more influence over technology and it will develop in ways that suit their objectives. However, critical theory also argues that technology can be used by people throughout society and can be used to advance the purposes of equality and democracy.

The following chart from Anabel Quan-Haase illustrates these theories:

Theories of technology and society

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