Theorizing Technology

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Scientific knowledge and technology have contributed highly to societal development, shaping the ways tools and information pervaded the modern world. Science and Technology Studies (STS) aim to develop a further understanding of how scientific knowledge and technology fit into social relations. The way technologies are interpreted, accepted and implemented in users’ everyday lives have undoubtedly shaped future technological innovations and design. Rarely has technological innovation been interpreted by users exactly as the creator intended. Users often find their own ways to make technology or scientific information fit into their world, thus creating a need for a deeper, sociological understanding of innovation and its consequences and benefits in terms of the user. Previous research has offered an historical approach to understanding the stages of development in media and information and communication technologies. Historical approaches to these phenomena can sometimes, however, skim over the implications to societies, especially overlooking the inverse relationship. It is important to look at the technology-society relationship as a two-way street in order to best understand the way the technology and the user have shaped the domestication, or rejection, of various technological innovations, while understanding that both the technology and the user play a role. Recognizing that technologies have the ability to take on a life of their own beyond their designer’s original intention is the underpinning of the STS approach.

Pinch and Bijker argue it is no longer acceptable to merely say that “science is about the discovery of truth whilst technology is about the application of truth” (402), because of the interdependent relationship between technology and science that is ultimately shaped by sociological factors. The linear model of innovation is contested in this chapter, as it suggests technology today is a direct result of all the consciously directed decisions made in technology up to this point. In a way, it is easy to understand the linear model as a way to explain how things came to be, because of our natural instinct to develop and perfect current practices to better serve our needs and simplify tasks. However, it is difficult to divorce the user from the development of any technology, because even the linear understanding of technological progression points to the user as an agent of change through its acceptance or rejection of the technology. It isn’t enough to say that certain technologies have succeeded simply because of subsequent developments. Rather, we can understand the success and failures of specific technologies by the way technologies have been domesticated. The phenomenon that needs explanation is less the existence of a technology, but more how the existence of that technology is related to the user. 

Different social groups associate different meanings to different technologies. An artifact could mean something completely different at various times throughout its existence depending on who is using it. As society begins to accept specific technologies as part of their everyday lives and develop thoughts and feelings towards those technologies, the technologies not only affect and change the user, but the technologies themselves will take shape. Technological innovation often lends itself to the ways users make sense of the product or technology. The way users understand the technology influences the way they use it, thus shaping the meaning of the technology to the user. This shaping happens as people find ways to makes sense of the technology within their lives. This is why different models of similar technologies can exist at the same time; for example, pickup trucks, minivans and two-seater sports cars can exist simultaneously because of the individual car owners’ interpretations of the automobile’s uses and functions. As the automobile, and other forms of transportation (such as the bicycle), quite literally transport individuals from the domestic to the public world, it can also intertwine these two worlds. Transportation and communication technologies provide a blur between the domestic and public spaces, allowing the world to get that much bigger in the eyes of the individual, and also affording the designers of technologies new problems to solve through further innovation.

In order to fully understand the implications technologies have on societal groups we must also understand how the technology makes sense within the user’s world. In their analysis of the automobile, Kline and Pinch look not only at the way that automobiles have impacted society, but the way society has also shaped the development of the automobile. In an attempt to avoid the technologically deterministic attitudes often offered by previous technology histories, “in which autonomous technological forces drive social change” (764), Kline and Pinch’s approach names the user of a technology as the agent of change. As Silverstone and Haddon explain in their chapter, “one could hardly make sense of [radio] history without understanding its status and role as a broadcast medium” (59)—an example of how impossible it is to fully understand any innovation in technology without understanding how it is used, as well as the impact that innovation had on the lives of the individual who used it. Challenging McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” theory, Silverstone and Haddon’s chapter explains that we must look at both the medium and the message to develop a sociological understanding of technological innovations to understand why some developments stick and others are resisted or rejected.

It is not enough to simply understand the intended uses or functionality of the technology itself either. People form their own interpretations of technology in ways that satisfy their individual needs, which could have been totally unrecognized at the technology’s inception. The telephone, for example, was originally designed to facilitate interactions of business but was soon accepted as a means of social interaction because of people’s natural drive to make social calls. People needed a way to stay connected to others while maintaining the life they were already living. Sure, the telephone solved a problem that could have been solved by other means (traveling to visit or finding a home closer to friends and family), but the convenience of the telephone mixed with users’ natural motivation to stay connected developed the uses of the telephone and shaped the overall success of the medium. This same user-driven explanation of development mirrors the way that the automobile and bicycle technologies were shaped and developed in order to fit the needs of the user. While technologies themselves did change the user by introducing means to ends that weren’t already there, the domestication of technology is only made possible when the user accepts the technology as necessary or fulfilling. The success or domestication of a product depends little on whether it actually executes the functions of its original conception, but rather that the technology makes sense within the life the user is already living.  

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