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Theories in technology evaluation
Theories in technology evaluation

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1.4.2 Theories and paradigms of technology and society

In Evaluating technology (T887_1), Section 4.1 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , two opposing positions on the benefits and costs to human kind (and the planet more generally) of the development and use of technology – techno-optimism and techno-scepticism – were introduced. To recap briefly, some of the core claims of techno-optimism are that:

  • the general direction of technological development is right and positive
  • the benefits of technology outweigh the risks
  • ‘progress’ will rectify the problems caused by existing or past technologies.

By contrast the core claims of techno-scepticism are that:

  • technological progress is a flawed concept
  • the control of technological development by powerful corporations and states is anti-democratic
  • the vision or belief that there will always be technological solutions to social problems (this claim nowadays transfers to environmental problems too) is a dangerous illusion.

As should be clear to you, embedded in these claims and propositions – call them what you will – are paradigms and theories of the relationship between technology and society. A particularly powerful element of the techno-optimist view is that technology is politically neutral and almost always historically inevitable. It is this latter claim that highlights the link between techno-optimism and technological determinism and the theories and explanations of the relations between technology and society that flow from it.

Technological determinism

Technological determinism emerged from the growth of the biological and social sciences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the widespread interest in the ideas of modernity and progress. Technological determinism holds that human and social factors merely mediate technological developments that are essentially inevitable (i.e. they are simply the medium for technological development).

Contemporary variants of technological determinism have softened this highly deterministic viewpoint somewhat so that it is recognised, for example, that human/social factors may perhaps influence or even control the timing of such developments. An example is the computerisation of many manufacturing and production processes. Through the 1980s in particular, trades unions representing workers in many industries in various countries across the developed world took action against the computerisation of many manual activities. The automotive sector was a particularly high-profile example, although printing, logistics and postal services were also heavily affected. Fierce and often violent opposition in some locations certainly slowed the pace of computerisation and may well have affected the timing of its adoption elsewhere. Ultimately, however, resistance to a technological development that apparently represented ‘progress’ – and without which, it was argued, economies would no longer be competitive – was regarded as futile by many sections of society and computerisation was accepted as inevitable.

Activity 5 gives you the opportunity to research your own examples of technologies that have been introduced on the back of technological determinism-inspired views of their ‘inevitability’. There are many to choose from, not the least being the attitudes that currently underpin the belief that new technologies can be developed to tackle increasing carbon dioxide emissions. On this assessment, climate change is viewed as primarily a technological challenge rather than a social, political or environmental one, and policy research and development and evaluation is directed accordingly.

Activity 5 The inevitability of technology

You will have read my argument about the influence/impact of technological determinism on technological development. The objective of this activity is for you to research your own specific example. Do not replicate the broad based approach that I took as I did that to allow my example to be unpacked and specific examples of the computerisation of manufacturing and production identified.

Identify one specific example of technological development that you believe has a technological determinist dimension to it.

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As the discussion of spheres of technology assessment in Evaluating technology (T887_1), Section 4.1 illustrated, underlying almost every example of the inevitability of technology is the dominant macro-economic paradigm or theory (and ideology) at that particular point in time and context. Thus, the current approach to tackling climate change regards any developments or policies that threaten economic growth as anathema. Consequently, argument such as that put forward by Naess (2006, p. 197) ‘that there is a fundamental contradiction between a profit-orientated economic system and long-term environmental sustainability’ seldom get much publicity or debate.

Although the popularity of technological determinism accounts of technology and its relationship to society have dissipated in the past decade or so as they have come under attack from newer theories (see below) they remain powerful. There are at least two reasons for this, in addition to the macroeconomic and techno-optimist ones previously discussed. The first is that in contemporary society it becomes ever more difficult to divorce the human from the technological. Consequently, it can seem that human development is inevitably tied to technological development. The second is simply the seductive nature of deterministic accounts of any kind of human activity. To a great extent people want to believe that technology can solve the problems of humankind (whether personal or collective) and by so doing is ‘liberating’. A food processor, coffee grinder, mobile phone or car are all obvious examples. However, let us not forget that technology can just as easily be considered an instrument of control, oppression and exploitation; hence the objection of some people to ID cards, and the Orwellian ‘big brother’ view of CCTV.

Overall if there is nothing else that you choose to take away from this discussion of technological determinism, the one point I do want you to register is that the technological determinism ‘bias’ feeds through into any theory or model of how a particular technology, project or programme is supposed to function and how we define the form and impact of likely outcomes. The design and direction of any evaluation or assessment is then ‘guided’ accordingly. Perhaps the most significant outcome of this is that an evaluation would not be designed in such a way as to explore whether a technology should have been developed or implemented in the first place, or whether a non-technological (or low-tech) development would have been more appropriate (in terms of benefits and costs). Indeed, it can be argued that where technological determinism is particularly strong, technology assessment (i.e. ex-ante evaluation) will be similarly constrained.

Activity 6 Alternatives to technology

Research an example of technological development where you can argue (based on an outline evaluation and comparison) that a low- or non-tech solution to the issue or problem that your example technology was designed (or assumed) to address might have been ‘better’ (in terms of benefits and costs) than the technology that was adopted.

To gain the most value for this activity it is worth using the same example as in the previous activity if possible.

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