CSE268D: Social Aspects of Technolgy and Science
Notes for the First Meeting
Remarks: I should have issued a warning in class: because I encourage participation, things may sometimes seem confusing, or even disorganized; however, I will always draw it back together with little remarks along the way; if you miss these in class, you should be able find them in the lecture notes. These notes are intended as an outline of the main points, rather than a careful exposition; moreover, I cannot guarantee that they will always be complete, or available immediately after class.
1. Introduction

Our civilization is deeply involved with technology, and recently, especially with information technology; therefore so are all of us. Many people want to know, Where is it all going? Newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and of course the internet, are all full of predictions, both dire and glorious. The result is enormous confusion, with thoughtfulness sacrificed for flashiness, i.e., for media market share. So better questions than "Where is it all going?" are "How do we think about all this?" and "How do we tell truth from trash?" In a way, this course is about being cynical, about questioning what you read, hear and see in the media. It is also about learning to think for yourself.

2. Technological Determinism

The basic question addressed in this lecture was: What counts as an explanation? (for the relationship between society and technology).

Technological determinism is the theory that technology is an autonomous force that changes society. This provides explanations for many changes that can be observed in society, and it has a very simple cause/effect form.

Social determinism is the theory that society is an autonomous force that changes technology. This provides explanations for many changes that can be observed in technology, and it also has a very simple cause/effect form. It is the converse of technological determinism.

Both of these theories come in hard and soft forms, where the "soft" form only claims that this is one influence among many, and not an absolute determinant. The hard forms claim that the force is irresistible. Both of these determinisms are forms of reductionism. A reductionist theory reduces some class of phenomena to some (allegedly) simpler phenomena of another class.

The direct opposite to reductionism is holism, where a holistic theory says that some process or phenomenon cannot be broken into parts, and therefore certainly cannot be explained by reduction; the phenomenon only works as a whole. In general, this theory is probably true of very complex phenomena, but since it does not explain anything, it is not useful as a theory.

Social scientists today almost universally reject determinist and reductionist explanations of complex social phenomena, despite their appeal.

Marshall McLuhan introduced the special case of media determinism, which tries to explain various social phenomena through the nature of the media employed. His most famous quote is "The medium is the message". Claims that writing, or later on printing, changed society have been around for a long time. McLuhan extended this to newspapers, radio, and television. The media love to cover this sort of theory.

In physics, there are no cause/effect laws. Newton's third law, F = ma, is a relationship between measurable quantities: it says that force, mass and acceleration are related in a certain regular way; it does not say that acceleration causes force, or that force causes acceleration. It allows either possibility, and it even allows mass to be used to alter force, as when an aircraft jetisons fuel before a dangerous landing. All of the equations of physics, chemistry, and engineering have this same acausal character

Nevertheless, physicists do use the language of cause and effect, for example, in an experiment where a magnetic force is applied to a metal ball in a vacuum, the experimenter thinks of the force as the cause and the acceleration as the effect. All cause/effect language arises through asymmetries that are introduced by an observer in a similar way. They are not part of nature, they are part of human culture. In fact, we lack a good language for talking about the kind of acausal laws that are used in physics.

It is often said that good science is reductionist, and the success of the hard sciences is given as an example that the social sciences should try to follow. A prime example is the reduction of chemistry to physics. However, if we look carefully at what really happens in chemistry, we will see that chemists are not doing a specialized kind of physics. On the contrary, they are using concepts at the level of chemistry, such as valance. It is impossible in practice to solve Schroedinger's equation for any but the very simplest atoms, so quantum calculations cannot be used to do chemistry.

This situation is often described by saying that chemistry is an emergent level above physics, meaning that partial reductions are possible and can be very valuable when they occur, but concepts and theories that are distinctly chemical and not physical as such are regularly used, and in fact are primary for practical applications. This does not deny that reduction might be possible in principle, and most scientists believe that it is in this case.

If we look at higher levels, such as biology, psychology, and sociology, we again see emergent phenomena, but it is more difficult to support the belief that reduction to lower levels must be possible in principle, and indeed most social scientists today do not believe this.

So where does all this leave us? It seems that simple cause/effect explanations are not characteristic of the hard sciences, and even the general principle of reductionism does not take a simple form in the hard sciences. So we conclude that arguments in favor of technological determinism based on a claim that it is in some sense more scientific than alternatives are fatally flawed. Going a little further, I think we should conclude that it is very wise to be suspicious of simplistic principles and simplistic arguments in complex areas like the relationship between technology and society. Technological determinism is a prime example of such a simplistic principle.

        (This topic continues in the notes for the second meeting.)

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Last modified 4 October 1998