CSE268D: Social Aspects of Technology and Science
Notes for the Second Meeting
2. Technological Determinism (continued)
        (This discussion began in the notes for the first meeting.)

We discussed the question: why, given the deficiencies of technological determinism, do people find it so persuasive? Why is it so common in advertisements, newspaper and magazine articles, websites, and other places? One answer is that causal explanations are built into our language. For example, the sentence

John hit the ball.
has an actor and an action, which are its subject and its verb. Readers want to understand this sentence, not in isolation, but as a part of a story, say about baseball, where the actor has an intention to perform the action, because of its consequences. That is, we are interested in the cause, which is the bat connecting with the ball, because of its effect, which might be a home run, and our effort to understand the sentence is an effort to find such cause/effect relations, in order to relate events with human intentions. (In linguistics, there are extensively developed theories of stories, which can add many interesting details to this discussion; see the narratology homepage at ERIC (the Educational Resources Information Center, Urbana Illinois).

An example where we can see the interplay of an underlying acausal model with human causal explanation is a simple ecological system, with one predator species and one prey species, say wolves and rabbits. The basic Volterra-Lotka differential equation is well known, and has as a solution (given suitable coefficients and initial values) two periodic functions with a time lag; that is, the numbers of wolves and rabbits fluctuate up and down over some fixed time period. (Of course, most real ecological systems are much more complex than this, but simple cases where the assumptions of this model are satisfied have been observed in nature.)

For more on Volterra-Lotka models of predator-prey systems, see the Lascaux Graphics webpages, and for much more background information on ecological systems and their models, see the Population Ecology Reference List (by Alexei Sharov, of the Dept. Entomology at Virginia Tech). (It is really amazing what you can find on the web now - there is even a link to a virtual reality exploration of solution spaces of the Volterra-Lotka equation!)

In understanding this system, it helps to make causal assertions, such as "a large number of wolves will decrease the number of rabbits" and "a small number of rabbits will decrease the wolf population". Most people are happier with such assertions than with differential equations, and even experts often use this kind of causal language informally.

So we should not conclude that causal assertions cannot be used at all, but rather we should be aware of their limitations. Causal assertions are normal and useful for talking about entities that have intentions. However, they are often misleading in talk about non-intentional entities, and are open to deliberate misuse, e.g., in advertisements for new technical devices. (Applying concepts to non-humans that are only appropriate for humans is called anthropomorphism,)

Another example is the relationship between two stock market variables: the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and investor confidence. It is easy to find articles which say things like "Decreases in the Dow have eroded investor confidence" or conversely that "Decreased investor confidence is eroding the Dow." But it is hard, maybe impossible, to find articles that say that these two variables are mutually interdependent and reflect a system where this kind of cause/effect assertion can be misleading.

So the conclusion here is that if we look more carefully into real social systems, we will see that, insofar as there is lawfulness, the laws tend to be like laws about physical systems, that is, acausal relationships among variables, rather than assertions of cause/effect relationships. On the other hand, such relationships are truly useful in understanding the actions of people, as well as corporations, governments, etc., because such entities do have (or can be said to have) intentions - that is, goals - and do tend to carry out actions in order to achieve their goals. This is in sharp contrast with systems, like the stock market and the global telecommunications system, which do not themselves have goals, and do not intentionally perform actions.

We next discussed the claim that when we speak of "a technology", we are actually speaking of an abstraction, rather than something "real" that we can actually find in the world. This needs a little explanation, because of course we do find objects like TV sets and telephones in the world. To make this discussion more concrete, consider a sentence like

The telephone makes communication easier.
Here a technology is referred to using the noun phrase "the telephone", and is said to have a certain effect. To understand this sentence, some context is needed; for example, 150 years ago, there was no such technology, and 100 years from now it may well be obsolete. Also, the sentence makes no sense for communities that do not use telephones, such as tribes deep in the Brazilian jungle. So despite the way the phrase "the telephone" seems to refer to some absolute in a heaven of idealized technologies, even such a general sentence only makes sense for certain times and locales. (Of course, this sentence is also an example of technological determinism, since it ignores the role of people in communication.)

The best way to understand some technology like the telephone is to be as specific as possible, to look at actual uses of actual instruments, e.g., my calling a division of the UCSD medical school at 10:32 on the morning of 8 October 1998, to reserve a place for a lecture, only to get a "telephone tree" with 6 top level nodes (taking more than a minute to get through), only the last of which had the possibility of reaching a real person, as was needed for this purpose, but which I did not get; instead I left a message, which was never returned, so that I did not go to the lecture. Through such concrete events, we can begin to see how a technology is actually used, and what its effects actually are. In fact, concrete experience usually brings deeper insights than speculations about generalities and abstractions. (For example, in this case, the technology actually impeded communication!)

We may begin to see how "the telephone" refers to a huge and very diverse collection that includes automated answering systems, real operators, cost cutting, marketing plans, fiber optic cables, ICC regulations, different uses in different situations, actual instruments on particular desks, future systems that have been announced or planned (such as Iridium), companies that market long distance service, companies that market local service, companies that sell actual telephones, satellites, and more, much much more, that is involved in using telephones, a complex mixture of physical objects, corporate structures, legal constraints, social patterns, etc.; such a "thing" can only exist in our minds, and may be quite different for different people and different situations.

3. Inseparability of the Technical and the Social

Two main points for this section are:

  1. social, and in particular political, issues are ubiquitous in technology; and
  2. more generally, technology is inseparable from its social context.
Because both technological and social determinism presuppose a separation between the technological and the social, this inseparability is another nail in the coffin of these seductively simplistic explanatory principles.

Let's consider a common object like a mug; in fact, let's consider three specific mugs (these were actually brought into class), in line with the dictum to be as specific as possible. Of course mug technology is very low tech compared to many current information technology developments, but this actually makes it easier to see some of the issues that are involved. Each mug was produced and designed somehow, and ended up being used somewhere (in this case, by me, in my office). One good way to understand what is going on is to look at economic and social factors: who paid for the design, manufacture, and distribution, and why did they do so? Presumably, it was thought worth the cost and effort involved.

  1. The first mug, although mass produced, has a clean elegant design featuring the Harvard University logo with some gold paint, and a broken handle. It was recenly mailed to me by the Harvard Alumni Association, in conjunction with their efforts to raise money for the Harvard University endowment (which is already the largest in the world). The handle was broken in transit due to inadequate packing (and I was told that Harvard no longer uses this shipping company). I use this mug mainly to drink instant miso soup.
  2. The second mug is hand made, with a design similar to a famous Japanese pottery style. It was given to founding members of the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University, and paid for out of the huge grant that founded that center, in order to encourage social cohesion in its earliest days; the mugs were stored on a special shelf of the common room. I use this mug mainly for drinking hot water.
  3. The third mug is mass produced and not very well designed, in fact it is rather overcrowded with all the logos of organizations that supported the 1996 conference where it was handed out, basically as advertising. I don't use this mug, it sits in an obscure corner waiting for a visitor who wants some tea or water.
We see an interesting diversity among the original purpose, design, manufacture, distribution, and final use of these three mugs, correlating in an interesting way with the organizations that were responsible for their production. All this illustrates some of the extraordinarily diverse variety of different ways that technology and society can be interrelated.

Economics can be a great help in understanding many things about technology, such as why the US has such a poor public transportation system, especially in comparison with Europe and Japan. The answer (in part) is that cars are very highly subsidized, because roads are almost totally subsidized (e.g., freeways), whereas public transportation systems, such as trains and trolleys, are very little subsidized, if at all. Note that roads are extremely expensive, costing the order of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars for a single interchange. So the reason public transport is so much worse in the US than in Europe and Japan is that public transport is much less subsidized in the US; it is in no way explained by any facts about technology; in fact, subsidization is a social phenomenon. So this is a counter-example to technological determinism.

Another counter-example to technological determinism is the BetaMax versus VHS that went on some years ago regarding video recording formats. BetaMax was actually the superior technology. But it lost to VHS because the movies that people wanted to see were available on VHS but not on Beta. It seems that Sony accepted technological determinism to the extent of believing that a better technology would win; as a result, they lost billions, and invested heavily in media (Sony records, Sony movies, etc.), which for they call "software" (because it "runs" on their hardware). This is an interesting example of a dynamic interaction between technology and society.

Because technologies are developed and used for particular purposes by particular persons or groups, we should expect that there will be conflicts with the goals of other persons and groups, and that such conflicts will be the key to understanding many otherwise strange things. According to Webster's Dictionary, politics is the art or science of government, or of influencing government, or of winning or holding control over a government. By extension of the meaning of "government", politics has come to refer to control over any organization or part thereof. Therefore the political context is another important aid to understanding any technology.

Political conflicts are inevitable in any workplace; people compete for status, salary, perks, space, and all kinds of resources. Workers often form subgroups, which compete with other subgroups and individuals. Of course, companies compete in the market place. In information technology, conflicts about standards and standards organizations are becoming increasingly common and important.

        (This discussion continues in the notes for the third meeting.)

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Last modified 12 October 1998