Apply the sociotechnical debate to the emergence of two technologies

Apply the sociotechnical debate to the emergence of two technologies

Apply the sociotechnical debate to the emergence of two technologies - one developed before 1920 and one after. What are the implications of your analysis for our understanding of technological innovations? 





Few would dispute the fact that technology has had a dramatic impact on the way humans live today. From technological devices that keep us informed and in touch with each other such as today’s smartphones and computers or those that move us from one place to another such as airplanes, technology has merged itself with humanity to such an extent that it is now a determinant of social, economic and even political change. Advanced information technology has made it possible to realise virtual organizations like Amazon in the business world (Mowshowitz 1994). The internet is seen as even shaping democratic processes and institutions (Weare 2002). This account of how technology shapes and impacts on society is known as technological determinism.In simple terms, technological determinism is the premise that technological innovations revolutionise society. 

However, not everyone agrees with this view of technology. In the sociotechnical debate, social determinism or constructivism is based on the premise that it is society conditions that enable any technological innovation in the first place. This proposition is that technology is the result of society and its needs with technology being simply a tool. According to MacKenzie and Wajcman (1985), social determinists recognise that technological innovations do indeed change the way humans live and that technology matters. But they argue, to attribute entire sociocultural and political changes to technological innovation is an oversimplification, at best only a partial truth that distorts key historical changes as outcomes of simple cause-and-effect factors, when the reality is more complex.

In order to understand this sociotechnical debate, we shall apply it to the emergence of two technologies - one developed before 1920 (the printing press) and one after (the internet). This debate will help us in our understanding of technological innovations today and whether their emergence impacted society (determinism) or was impacted by society (constructivism).

The impact of the printing press on society according to technological determinism

Most historians who have tried to explain the impact of technology on society have certain favoured machines; the printing press, the telegraph, computer etc. It is the printing press perhaps which has been at the forefront of the sociotechnical debate because the impact of its emergency can best illustrate whether technologies impact society or social factors shape technological innovations. It is the classic chicken or egg conundrum: does technology shape society or does society shape technology?

The printing press was invented around 1451, and although the exact year is under contention, what is not disputed is the impact it had on European civilization. There are two camps of thought surrounding the invention of the printing press. The first camp seen from a technological determinist point of view is that it drove European history. That it literally changed European culture forever. Eisenstein (1979) is perhaps the best known of the historians who argued in detail that the printing press had changed European civilization.

In her two part book series “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change” first printed in 1979, she argued that the printing press had done more than just enable text communication; it had actually, given rise to the political, social and cultural transformations historically known as the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. Eisenstein argued that by enabling the standardization, and dissemination of information via printed books on a mass scale like never seen before, it helped the scattered populations of Europe adopt new ideas, styles and modes of behaviour. It led to new found levels of curiosity and coupled with the creation of a wider literate reading population, the process led to the scientific revolution and the age of enlightenment.

By taking book copying out of the hands of the Church, which until then had the monopoly on any religious or bible text written, the printing press made it very easy for the general wider population in Europe to print their own copies of religious text at a fraction of the cost, making it much harder for the Church to control or censor what was being written. Each new printed Bible was another hole in the Church’s grip on power and it is no coincidence that the breakup of Europe's religious unity during the Protestant Reformation corresponded with the spread of printing. When the occurrence of the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution are all taken into account, Eisenstein (1979) is in essence declaring, printing drove history.

Eisenstein’s assertion provoked widespread debate, with implications for our understanding of technological innovations even to today. No one has critiqued Eisenstein’s stand more than Adrian Johns. In his journal article “How to Acknowledge a Revolution” Johns (2002) critiqued Eisenstein’s assertion that printing drove history. In the exchanges that followed, one of the major issues discussed was how to look at print culture.

The impact of the printing press on society according to social determinism

Social determinist Johns (2002) argued that rather than focussing on how printing and print culture drove history, what ought to be reviewed was how printing’s historic role came to be shaped. Johns was more concerned with what shaped printing which then shaped history. Both Eisenstein’s and Johns’ arguments can be claimed to be valid but they albeit reflect the classic chicken or egg conundrum; do guns kill people or do people kill people?

Johns (2002) argued that a history of print was constructivist in nature, and print had no intrinsic power in itself to change society (guns don’t kill people). Any impact of print thus has to take into account both the machinery of the printing press and also the social relations that shaped it. To answer questions constituting the impact of print, we thus need, quite simply, to look at what people actually thought and did. Johns for example critiqued Eisenstein’s stance on processes such as dissemination and standardisation being linear. He notes that many of such revolutionary changes attributed to printing such as standardization of text required human agency and emergency of entirely new cultures that enabled such changes work.

While John admits there is no major problem with suggesting textual standardization or uniformity was a consequence of printing technology, at least on a generalization level, beyond this, he is more concerned with how standardization and distribution came about, not just in the abstract but in how they were achieved. Of course, Eisenstein claimed standardisation was an attribute of printing. But Johns critiqued this stance, noting that any textual standardization exhibited by printed materials could be attributed as much to the social actions of human agents as well as to any inherent properties of the printing press technology.

He further goes on to state that even a key text as the fifteenth century missal Eisenstein uses as an example to endorse the view that printing created fixed, identical texts, in itself demonstrates his point. Whenever the Bishop of Freising had such missals printed, he would order every single copy individually checked against an original manuscript by personnel. The aim of this process was to detect and remove mistakes in order to achieve uniformity of text. The Bishops' example hence demonstrated the role of social relations in achieving uniformity rather it being an effect of printing. In other words, people created strategies that made print reliable, using personal processes that achieved standardization rather than relying on any intrinsic reliability print itself may have possessed.

Thus Johns was of the view that there were existing social forces that shaped printing which then drove the historical social changes Eisenstein talks about, rather than such changes being an effect of print technology in itself (Headrick 2002; Johns 2002). The core argument by Johns in this sociotechnical debate, which helps us understand technological innovations is that, technology doesn’t impact or happen on its own without existing social relations that support it and enable it to have further impact (Headrick 2002). In fact as Winner (1999) noted, technological innovations are rarely autonomous agents that impact a passive society; rather, society actively helps in shaping technology before it even has any sociocultural, political, economic impact on that same society that brought it about.




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