CSE 275: Social Aspects of Technology and Science

4. Inseparability of the Technical and the Social

4.1 Introduction

There are three main points for this chapter:

  1. social, and in particular political, issues are ubiquitous in technology;
  2. more generally, technology is inseparable from its social context; and
  3. more generally still, meaning is dependent on context.
Because both technological and social determinism each presuppose a separation between the technological and the social, the inseparability asserted by point 2 above is another nail in the coffin of these two seductively simplistic explanatory principles.

One rather dramatic example of the intertwining of technical and social factors can be seen in the controversies surrounding the investigation of the deadly crash of EgyptAir 990 on 31 October 1999. I have put two news articles on this topic on the class website, one on the American investigation, and the other on some Egyptian reactions. The Egyptians are extremely sensitive about what they take as criticisms of their country, and accuse the Americans of bias, in order to protect the American manufacturer of the aircraft, Boeing. Questions about the cultural significance of "religious remarks" made by the relief pilot are intermixed with questions about the technical significance of a "rare inflight split in direction of the plane's elevator panels," and the entire situation ascended to the level of a diplomatic dispute, and simultaneously descended to the level of a public relations exercise.

Now let's consider some common object, such as a mug; in fact, let's consider three very specific mugs (which were actually brought into class), in line with the dictum to be as specific as possible in any social investigations. Of course mugs are very low tech compared to current information technology, but this only makes it easier for us 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. Who is now responsible for their maintenance, and why do they care to do so?

  1. The first mug, though mass produced, has a clean elegant design featuring the Harvard University logo with some gold paint, and a broken handle. It was 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 (I was told that Harvard no longer uses this shipping company). I use this mug mainly to drink instant miso soup in my office.
  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, paid for out of the huge grant that founded that center, in order to encourage social cohesion among senior members in the earliest days of the Center; the mugs were stored on a special shelf in the common room. I use this mug mainly for drinking hot water (sometimes called "white tea" in Chinese) in my office.
  3. The third mug is mass produced and not very well designed - it is overcrowded with the logos of all the 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 of my office, waiting for a visitor who wants some tea or water.
We can see an interesting diversity among the original purpose, design, manufacture, distribution, and the 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 ways that technology and society can be interrelated. The moral here is that if we look in detail at any technical object, we are likely to see some interesting, complex and subtle social phonemena at work. (You can try this yourself - look at: car habcaps; door knobs; table tops; forks; ... . Note: It can help to compare a number of different instances of the same kind of object; looking at just one object may not be enough to bring out the differences in context, use, etc.)

Economics can be a great help in understanding many things about technology. For example, why does the US have such a poor public transportation system, especially in comparison with Europe and Japan? The answer (in part) is that automotive transport is heavily subsidized, in that public roads are almost totally subsidized, whereas other public transportation systems, such as trains and trolleys, are little subsidized, if at all. Note also that highways are very expensive, costing the order of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars for a single interchange. So one reason public transport is so much worse in the US than in Europe and Japan is that the alternatives to the highway system are much less subsidized in the US; this is not well explained by any facts about technology; and of course, 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 battle of some years ago. 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 then later they invested heavily in media (Sony records, Sony movies, etc., which they call "software" because it "runs" on their hardware), to avoid similar problems in the future. This is an interesting example of a dynamic interaction between technology and society, and of an organization learning from experience and changing its behavior. In fact, Sony is now an unusually dynamic and adaptive organization. (However, it is not clear that Sony's media investments will actually pay off.)

4.2 Politics and Conflicts

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 a 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 very common and very important.

4.3 Technology and its Effects

Let us now notice that when we speak of "a technology", we are actually speaking of an abstraction, not 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 that the phrase "the telephone" seems to refer to some definite fixed concept in some realm 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. Also, a technical word for the process of making a "thing" in this way, is reification.)

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, new systems announced or planned, companies that market long distance service, companies that market local service, companies that sell actual telephones, satellites, failed systems like Iridium, and much much more, all of which 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 can be quite different for different people and different situations.

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, at some particular time and place. For example,

At 10:32 on the morning of 8 October 1998, I called a division of the UCSD medical school to reserve a place for a lecture. What I got was a "telephone tree" having 6 top level nodes, which took more than one minute to get through, where only the last node allowed for the possibility of reaching a real person, as was needed to reserve a place. However I did not get to a real person; instead I had to leave a message, which was never returned. As a result, I did not go to that 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.) And no doubt if an audio (or better, video) of this interaction were available, we could notice many other things that would be very hard to think of in a more abstract setting.

A famous example of how politics and technology mix is the bridge from Manhattan to Staten Island, built in the 1950s with its height limit deliberately chosen to prevent buses from using the bridge. The purpose was to keep the poor people (e.g. in Harlem) who don't have cars from using the beaches in Staten Island (which is a rich commuter community). Here the politics is, metaphorically speaking, right in the steel. There are many less dramatic examples of a similar kind.

There is a myth, which most of us know is not really true, but which we still have somehow internalized, that technological progress is inevitable, and inevitably leads to social progress. Of course, technology has continued to evolve for a long time, but whether its results can always be called progress is open to question, in many different ways. One problem is defining progress. But if we look at specific cases, most of us can probably agree about the outcomes. Because it is all too easy to think of examples where technology has had positive outcomes, lets consider some cases where the outcome is (most likely agreed to be) negative.

Weapons have certainly evolved enormously over the last few centuries. But are their effects on human society positive? For an extreme case, imagine that each adult human has a hydrogen bomb, with detonator built into their hand (or mouth or whatever); most of us probably get mad enough occasionally that we might actually use such a weapon to get rid of someone who really annoys us, even though it also gets rid of us and a few million others at the same time. Are the availability of handguns, assult rifles, Uzzi's, AK-47's, the ease of making chemical and biological weapons, etc., really contributing to the general health and happiness of humanity? (I heard on the radio that the ongoing development of lighter weight automatic weapons has made it possible for younger and younger children to participate in warfare, so that there is now a higher than ever death rate for children in war, especially in Africa.)

Or how about the recent very rapid progress in highly addictive drugs (e.g., crack cocaine)?

An article by an (anonymous!) lawyer in the Summer 1998 issue of In Formation (p.69ff - handed out in class) discusses some effects of technology in law, including: (1) elimination of many support personnel, particularly typists and legal researchers; and (2) making it more difficult for poorer people (meaning most of us, to say nothing of homeless people, prisoners, etc.) to match the quality of legal work done for wealthy clients, such as large corporations. This example illustrates another common phenomenon, which is that people at the bottom of the social hierarchy often suffer the most from negative effects of technology (e.g., consider the chemical plant at Bhopal, India - and consider that even in the US, poor people much more often live near hazardous waste dumps, chemical plants, etc.)

It is also interesting to consider the effects of modern medicine and agriculture on many developing countries, e.g., Bangladesh, where millions of people live in incredible poverty. (Does anyone know a good reference for this?)

The paper Effects of Technology on Family and Community, by J.A. English-Lueck, reports on a study of the effects of technology on family life in Silicon Valley, claiming that it has actually decreased the quality of life of many people.

Despite all the examples above, and many others which are very widely known (such as the Titanic, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island), our culture inclines us to give the benefit of the doubt new to new technologies. Hence the myth of progress has a strong synergy with the myth of technological determinism in making the kind of high tech advertisements that we have been studying work effectively.

Of course, not all effects of technology are negative, and personally I am more of an technological optimist than a technological pesimist. My purpose here is to make it clear that there indeed can be negative aspects to technology. It is strange but true that many engineers wish to deny this obvious fact.

4.4 Requirements Engineering

"Requirements engineering" is the name for an early phase of system development (including but not limited to software systems) which determines what properties the system must have in order to succeed. This is where the "rubber meets the road" for the real-life construction of large systems, and where the material of this course becomes most relevant to practicing computer scientists. In particular, it is important to know that negative social aspects should be considered when designing a complex computer system that is supposed to be used by real human beings in real social environments, and to have some idea of what kinds of negative impacts to look for.

Although requirements engineering is more practical than academic, it has mainly been carried out in a very technical way, largely ignoring the social aspects of systems. However, it has become more and more clear that ignored social factors have been a major cause of many large failures, and current practice, under some pressure from the academic world, is starting to take social aspects more seriously.

One way to describe the problem with the traditional practice of requirements engineering is to say that it has tried to proceed under the assumption that requirements can be developed and stated in a way that is largely independent of context, in the way that has become familiar for the semantics of programs and of programming languages: we expect a FORTRAN program to compute the same function no matter where in the world it is run, or who runs it, or who gets the result. However, this is not the right way to think about building complex systems for ordinary real world users. Different users may have different needs, and different expectations, e.g., for operating systems; some prefer Unix, some prefer Windows, and often for good reasons; for example, blind users cannot handle graphical interfaces, and might prefer Unix because it is easier to turn its commands into speech.)

For a general example of how context affects meaning, consider someone shouting "Fire!" in the following environments: a crowded movie theater; a military firing squad; an employee evaluation meeting; and a police academy firing range. So obviously the meaning of words is very strongly dependent on context. But this only hints at the complex webs of interconnected meanings that come into play in real workplaces where computers (or any other physical objects) are used.

To sum up a bit, let's consider chairs (noting that to speak this way is to reify a large and very diverse collection): they make little sense purely as physical objects; to understand chairs, you must understand sitting, and not just as a physical act, but the social situations in which sitting occurs, since these determine the kind of physical object that is appropriate. For example, a throne is very different from a dentist's chair, and both are very different from a living room arm chair. A chair is to sit, not in the abstract, but in actual concrete social situations. This is typical of the way that the social (another reification) and the technical (another reification) are inseparable. But to speak in a fully accurate way which does justice to this inseparability would be very complex and tedious; therefore ordinary people (i.e., everyone except a few sociologists and philosophers) never speak in such a way; therefore ordinary language can be very misleading on such points.

To Section 5 of CSE 275 notes.
To Section 3 of CSE 275 notes.
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Last modified 12 October 2000