Digital Diplomacy
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Why is the critique of technological determinism still relevant?

Although technological determinism has long been critiqued in the social studies of technology, it remains central to political and media depictions of technological forces. But what is technological determinism, and why does it matter?

Photo by Yuyeung Lau on Unsplash

Identifying and critiquing technological determinism has been central to the social study of technology. Indeed, key analytical frameworks for understanding technology, such as the Social Shaping of Technology (SST), the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), and Actor-Network Theory (ANT) emerged as critiques of technological determinism [1].

But what is technological determinism and why does it matter?

Technological determinism is the idea that “technologies change, either because of a scientific advance or following a logic of their own; and then they have effects on society”[2]. So, rather than technological change being something we can shape, it is perceived as an ‘unstoppable force’ that society has to continuously adapt to.

Although technological determinism has long been critiqued in the social studies of technology [3], it remains central to political and media depictions of technological forces. For example, Oliver Dowden MP’s Ministerial Foreword to the UK’s National Data Strategy describes data as being “the driving force of the world’s modern economies” and media headlines question whether ‘robot lawyers’ will “revolutionise trade” or whether “football playing robots [will] beat the World Cup winners by 2050.”

What these depictions of technology don’t ask is: should data be the driving force of our economy? Should robot lawyers revolutionise trade? Or should robot football players be competing against the World Cup winners?

These questions matter because accounts which promote technological determinism shield those in charge of developing technology from scrutiny about their impact on society. As Sally Wyatt puts it: technological determinism “remains in the justifications of actors who are keen to promote a particular direction of change, it remains as a heuristic for organizing accounts of technological change, and it remains part of a broader public discourse which seeks to render technology opaque and beyond political intervention.”[4] As a result, accounts which promote technological determinism portray it as a force beyond our control, which in turns helps to shift accountability for the negative impacts of technology to technology itself.

A key example of this occurred during the A-Level results crisis, where statistics were used to calculate students’ grades based on factors such as their previous exam results and their school’s historical results records. There was, unsurprisingly, huge uproar about the use of school data to determine an individual’s grade, since those who attended disadvantaged schools were more likely to have their grades marked down. However, Boris Johnson blamed the result on a ‘mutant algorithm’, exemplifying the way in which technological determinism is used in political discourse to present technology as ‘following its own logic’ and therefore shielding those responsible for technology design (in this case, Ofqual) from accountability.

In the divide between academic and public understandings of technology emerges an important distinction: whilst we can conceptualise technological determinism as ahistorical or unfounded, it remains a powerful tool for those who want to shape the direction of technology development. As a result, it’s important to take Wyatt’s call to treat technological determinism ‘symmetrically’ seriously [5]. By treating the existence of technological determinism with the same analytical curiosity as technological determinism itself, we can start to challenge not only whether it’s an accurate depiction of how technology develops, but also why it’s used and who it benefits.

[1] See e.g. MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999; Pinch & Bijker, 1984; Sismondo, 2004; Williams and Edge, 1996; Latour, 1996

[2] MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999, p1

[3] MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999; Russell, 1986; Pinch & Bijker, 1984; Hughes, 1979

[4] Wyatt, 2008, p176

[5] Wyatt, 2008

Bibliography

Calder, A. (2021) ‘Robot lawyers aren’t the distant future — they’re real and will revolutionise trade’, City A.M., 29 September. Available at: https://www.cityam.com/ai-future-trade-artificial-intelligence/ (Accessed: 30 October 2021).

Coughlan, S. (2020) ‘A-levels and GCSEs: Boris Johnson blames “mutant algorithm” for exam fiasco’, BBC News, 26 August. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-53923279 (Accessed: 30 October 2021).

Debusmann Jr, B. (2021) ‘Can football-playing robots beat the World Cup winners by 2050?’, BBC News, 27 September. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-58662246 (Accessed: 30 October 2021).

Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (2020) ‘National Data Strategy’. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-national-data-strategy/national-data-strategy (Accessed: 30 October 2021).

Hughes, T.P. (1979) ‘The Electrification of America: The System Builders’, Technology and Culture, 20(1), pp. 124–161. doi:10.2307/3103115.

Latour, Bruno. (1996) Aramis : or the love of technology / Bruno Latour; translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

MacKenzie, D. and Wajcman, J. (1999) ‘Introductory essay: the social shaping of technology’, in The social shaping of technology. Second. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, pp. 3–27.

Pinch, T.J. and Bijker, W.E. (1984) ‘The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology might Benefit Each Other’, Social Studies of Science, 14(3), pp. 399–441. doi:10.1177/030631284014003004.

Russell, S. (1986) ‘The Social Construction of Artefacts: A Response to Pinch and Bijker’, Social Studies of Science, 16(2), pp. 331–346.

Sismondo, S. (2004) ‘Actor-network theory’, in An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 65–75.

Williams, R. and Edge, D, (1996) ‘The Social Shaping of Technology’, Research Policy, Vol. 25, pp. 865–899.

Wyatt, S. (2008) ‘Technological Determinism is Dead; Long Live Technological Determinism’, in Hackett, E. J. et al., The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. 3rd edn. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 165–180.

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Tech, digital, and innovation, at the intersection with policy, government, and social good.

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Sophie Taylor

Sophie Taylor

Sophie is a Senior Digital Ethics and Innovation Consultant at Sopra Steria.

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