Theories of technology

Theories of technology

There are a number of theories attempting to address technology, which tend to be associated with the disciplines of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and communication studies. Most generally, the theories attempt to address the relationship between technology and society and prompt questions about agency, determinism/autonomy, and teleonomy.

If forced, one might categorize them into social and group theories. Additionally, one might distinguish between descriptive and critical theories. "Descriptive" theories attempt to address the definition and substance of technology, how does it emerge, change, and, of course, what is its relation to the human/social sphere? More substantively, to what extent is technology autonomous and how much force does it have in determining social structure or human practice? "Critical" theories of technology often take a descriptive theory as their basis and articulate concerns and ask in what ways can that relationship be changed? The authors mentioned in this article are those that have some concern with technology or media, though they often borrow from one another and of course build upon seminal theorists that preceded them.

Social theories

Descriptive approaches

* Actor-network theory (ANT) - posits a heterogeneous network of humans and non-humans as equal interrelated actors. It strives for impartiality in the description of human and nonhuman actors and the reintegration of the natural and social worlds. For example, Latour (1992) argues that instead of worrying whether we are anthropomorphizing technology, we should embrace it as inherently anthropomorphic: technology is made by humans, substitutes for the actions of humans, and shapes human action. What is important is the chain and gradients of actors' actions and competences, and the degree to which we choose to have figurative representations. Key concepts include the inscription of beliefs, practices, relations into technology, which is then said to embody them. Key authors include Latour (1997) and Callon (1999).

* Social construction of technology (SCOT) - argues that technology does not determine human action, but that human action shapes technology. Key concepts include:
** interpretive flexibility: "Technological artifacts are culturally constructed and interpreted ... By this we mean not only that there is flexibility in how people think of or interpret artifacts but also that there is flexibility in how artifacts are designed."
** relevant social group: shares a particular set of meanings about an artifact
** closure and stabilization: when the relevant social group has reached a consensus
** wider context: "the sociocultural and political situation of a social group shapes its norms and values, which in turn influence the meaning given to an artifact" : Key authors include Pinch and Bijker (1992) and Kline.

*Structuration theory - defines structures as rules and resources organized as properties of social systems. The theory employs a recursive notion of actions constrained and enabled by structures which are produced and reproduced by that action. Consequently, in this theory technology is not rendered as an artifact, but instead examines how people, as they interact with a technology in their ongoing practices, enact structures which shape their emergent and situated use of that technology. Key authors include DeSantis and Poole (1990), and Orlikowski (1992).

* Systems theory - considers the historical development of technology and media with an emphasis on inertia and heterogeneity, stressing the connections between the artifact being built and the social, economic, political and cultural factors surrounding it. Key concepts include reverse salients when elements of a system lag in development with respect to others, differentiation, operational closure, and autopoietic autonomy. Key authors include Thomas P. Hughes (1992) and Luhmann (2000).

Critical theories

* Values in Design - asks how do we ensure a place for values (alongside technical standards such as speed, efficiency, and reliability) as criteria by which we judge the quality and acceptability of information systems and new media. How do values such as privacy, autonomy, democracy, and social justice become integral to conception, design, and development, not merely retrofitted after completion? Key thinkers include Nissenbaum (2001).

Other stances

Additionally, many authors have posed technology so as to critique and or emphasize aspects of technology as addressed by the mainline theories. For example, Woolgar (1991) considers "technology as text" in order to critique the sociology of scientific knowledge as applied to technology and to distinguish between three responses to that notion: the instrumental response (interpretive flexibility), the interpretivist response (environmental/organizational influences), the reflexive response (a double hermeneutic). Pfaffenberger (1992) treats"technology as drama" to argue that a recursive structuring of technological artifacts and their social structure discursively regulate the technological construction of political power. A technological drama is a discourse of technological "statements" and "counterstatements" within the processes of technological regularization, adjustment, and reconstitution.

An important philosophical approach to technology has been taken by Bernard Stiegler, whose work has been influenced by other philosophers and historians of technology including Gilbert Simondon and André Leroi-Gourhan.

Group theories

There are also a number of technology related theories that address how (media) technology affects group processes. Broadly, these theories are concerned with the social effects of communication media. Some (e.g., Media Richness) are concerned with questions of media choice (i.e., when to use what medium effectively). Other theories (Social presence, SIDE) are concerned with the consequences of those media choices (i.e., what are the social effects of using particular communication media).

* Social presence theory (Short, et al. 1976) is a seminal theory of the social effects of communication technology. Its main concern is with telephony and telephone conferencing (the research was sponsored by the British Post Office, now British Telecom). It argues that the social impact of a communication medium depend on the "social presence" it allows communicators to have. Social presence is defined as a property of the medium itself: the degree of acoustic, visual, and physical contact that it allows. The theory assumes that more contact will increase the key components of "presence": greater intimacy, immediacy, warmth and inter-personal rapport. As a consequence of social presence, social influence is expected to increase. In the case of communication technology, the assumption is that more text-based forms of interaction (e-mail, instant messaging) are less social, and therefore less conducive to social influence.

* Media Richness Theory (Daft and Lengel 1986) shares some characteristics with social presence theory. It posits that the amount of information communicated differs with respect to a medium's "richness". The theory assumes that resolving ambiguity and reducing uncertainty are the main goals of communication. Because communication media differ in the rate of understanding they can achieve in a specific time (with "rich" media carrying more information), they are not all capable of resolving uncertainty and ambiguity well. The more restricted the medium's capacity, the less uncertainty and equivocality it is able to manage. It follows that the richness of the media should be matched to the task so as to prevent over simplification or complication.

* Media synchronicity theory (MST, [ Dennis and Valacich 1999] ) redirects richness theory towards the "synchronicity" of the communication.

* The Social Identity model of Deindividuation Effects (or SIDE model, Postmes, Spears and Lea 1999; Reicher, Spears and Postmes, 1995; Spears & Lea, 1994) was developed as a response to the idea that anonymity and reduced presence made communication technology socially impoverished (or "deindividuated"). It provided an alternative explanation for these "deindividuation effects" based on theories of social identity (e.g., Turner et al., 1987). The SIDE model distinguishes cognitive and strategic effects of a communication technology. Cognitive effects occur when communication technologies make "salient" particular aspects of personal or social identity. For example, certain technologies such as email may disguise characteristics of the sender that individually differentiate them (i.e., that convey aspects of their personal identity) and as a result more attention may be given to their social identity. The strategic effects are due to the possibilities, afforded by communication technology, to selectively communicate or enact particular aspects of identity, and disguise others. SIDE therefore sees the social and the technological as mutually determining, and the behavior associated with particular communication forms as the product or interaction of the two.

* Time, Interaction, and Performance (TIP, McGrath 1991) theory describes work groups as time-based, multi-modal, and multi-functional social systems. Groups interact in one of the modes of inception, problem solving, conflict resolution, and execution. The three functions of a group are production (towards a goal), support (affective) and well-being (norms and roles).

* Media naturalness theory (Kock, 2001; 2005) builds on human evolution ideas. This theory argues that since our Stone Age hominid ancestors have communicated primarily face-to-face, evolutionary pressures have led to the development of a brain that is consequently designed for that form of communication. Other forms of communication are too recent and unlikely to have posed evolutionary pressures that could have shaped our brain in their direction.

Analytic theories

Finally, there are theories of technology which are not defined or claimed by a proponent, but are used by authors in describing existing literature, in contrast to their own or as a review of the field.

For example, Markus and Robey (1988) specifically propose a general theory of technology consisting of the causal structures of agency (technological, organizational, imperative, emergent), its structure (variance, process), and the level (micro, macro) of analysis.

Orlikowski (1992) notes that previous conceptualizations of technology typically differ over scope (is technology more than hardware?) and role (is it an external objective force, the interpreted human action, or an impact moderated by humans?) and identifies three models:
# technological imperative: focuses on organizational characteristics which can be measured and permits some level of contingency
# strategic choice: focuses on how technology is influenced by the context and strategies of decision-makers and users
# technology as a trigger of structural change: views technology as a social object

DeSanctis and Poole (1994) similarly write of three views of technology's effects:
# decision-making: the view of engineers associated with positivist, rational, systems rationalization, and deterministic approaches
# institutional school: technology is an opportunity for change, focuses on social evolution, social construction of meaning, interaction and historical processes, interpretive flexibility, and an interplay between technology and power
# an integrated perspective (social technology): soft-line determinism, with joint social and technological optimization, structural symbolic interaction theory

Bimber (1998) addresses the determinacy of technology effects by distinguishing between the:
# normative: an autonomous approach where technology is an important influence on history only where societies attached cultural and political meaning to it (e.g., the industrialization of society)
# nomological: a naturalistic approach wherein an inevitable technological order arises based on laws of nature (e.g., steam mill had to follow the hand mill).
# unintended consequences: a fuzzy approach that is demonstrative that technology is contingent (e.g., a car is faster than a horse, but unbeknownst to its original creators become a significant source of pollution)


*Bimber, B. (1998). Three faces of technological determinism. In Smith, M. and Marx, L., editors, Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, pages 79-100. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
*Callon, M. (1999). Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of Saint Brieuc Bay. In Biagioli, M., editor, The Science Studies Reader, pages 67-83. Routledge, New York.
*Daft, R. L. and Lengel, R. H. (1986). Organizational information requirements, media richness and structural design. Management Science, 32(5):554-571.
*Denis, A. and Valacich, J. (1999). Rethinking media richness: towards a theory of media synchronicity. Proceedings of the 32nd Hawaii International Conference on Systems Science.
*Desanctis, G. and Poole, M. S. (1990). Understanding the use of group decision support systems: the theory of adaptive structuration. In J. Fulk, C. S., editor, Organizations and Communication Technology, pages 173-193. Sage, Newbury Park, CA.
*Desanctis, G. and Poole, M. S. (1994). Capturing the complexity in advanced technology use: adaptive structuration theory. Organization Science, 5(2):121-147.
*Kock, N. (2001). The ape that used email: Understanding e-communication behavior through evolution theory. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 5(3), 1-29.
*Kock, N. (2005). Media richness or media naturalness? The evolution of our biological communication apparatus and its influence on our behavior toward e-communication tools. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 48(2), 117-130.
*Latour, B. (1992). Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts. In Bijker, W. and Law, J., editors, Shaping Technology/Building Society. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
*Latour, B. (1997). On Actor Network Theory: a few clarifications. (Part [ 1] and [ 2] )
*Luhmann, N. (2000). The reality of the mass media. Stanford, Stanford, CA
*Markus, M. and Robey, D. (1988). Information technology and organizational change: causal structure in theory and research. Management Science, 34:583-598.
*McGrath, J. E. (1991). Time, interaction, and performance (tip): A theory of groups. small group research. 22(2):147-174.
*Nissenbaum, H. (2001). [ How computer systems embody values] . Computer, 34(3):120-118.
*Orlikowski, W. J. (1992). The duality of technology: rethinking the concept of technology in organizations. Organization Science, 3(3):398-427.
*Pfaffenberger, B. (1992). Technological dramas. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 17(3):282-312.
*Pinch, T. and Bijker, W. (1992). The social construction of facts and artifacts: or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other. In Bijker, W. and Law, J., editors, Shaping Technology/Building Society, pages 17-50. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
*Postmes, T., Spears, R., and Lea, M. (1999). Social identity, group norms, and deindividuation: Lessons from computer-mediated communication for social influence in the group. In N. Ellemers, R. Spears, B. D., editor, Social Identity: Context, Commitment, Content. Blackwell., Oxford.
*Reicher, S., Spears, R., & Postmes, T. (1995). A social identity model of deindividuation phenomena. In W. Stroebe & M. Hewstone (Eds.), European Review of Social Psychology (Vol. 6, pp. 161-198). Chichester: Wiley.
*Short, J. A., Williams, E., and Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications. John Wiley & Sons, New York.
*Spears, R., & Lea, M. (1994). Panacea or panopticon? The hidden power in computer-mediated communication. Communication Research, 21, 427-459.
*Stiegler, B. (1998). . Stanford: Stanford University Press.
*Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S., & Wetherell, M. S. (1987). Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.
*Woolgar, S. (1991). The turn to technology in social studies of science. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 16(1):20-50.

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