Social Justice · Technology Reviews

Changing the Unhealthy Way We Look at Technology

Do a search on the term Internet, and you find a wealth of business ads and news stories. Do a search on the term capitalism and you find a wealth of books and news articles. Do a search on the term social entrepreneurship and you find articles, grants, and jobs. Do a search on sociotechnical system and you find scholarly works. It is not a term that has ignited popular thinking, but I have increasingly become impressed that our society’s unhealthy approach to technology is the result.

Sociotechnical systems refers to the emergent properties that come from the tight interactions between the social and the technical that create a singular whole instead of two side-by-side systems. Further, sociotechnical systems privilege the social as the guiding component for development of the whole. Community goals and needs, human rights, and ethics are no longer afterthoughts in the design of technical artifacts, but guiding principles.

When I suggest society has an unhealthy approach to technology, what I mean is that we often elevate technology to one of artificial significance. From the Industrial Revolution to the Internet and Digital Revolutions, our language animates technology and technical systems, suggesting they are doing the heavy lifting of changing society. Or take for instance the subtitle of the book “Twitter Revolution: How Social Media and Mobile Marketing is Changing the Way We Do Business & Market Online”.  How small a role humans must have to not even get subtitle billing.

The lenses through which we see the world shape our understanding of it. Someone who grows up in the country sees and interprets an event differently than someone who grew up in the center of a city. Someone who grows up in an economically wealthy family likewise has a different lens than someone from an economically poor family.  Our geographic, cultural, and other historical contexts shape our understanding of the world and the events around us.

So too our philosophical framings impact our views of the world, whether they have been formally developed or informally modeled through our communities. We all have some sense of why we exist as individuals and a species, of how we know and what is valid knowledge, of what is ethical and true.  Our actions and interpretations are based on these philosophical lenses. I propose that our approach to technology has been dominated by a lens of technocentrism. Whether formally considered or not, our language and actions reflect a value system that is centered on technology and its ability to control, protect, and build a better society.

I literally grew up in the wood business, taking my first steps around and in the family sawmill right next to our house. So when I search for an analogy, my thoughts often turn to something wood related. So let’s consider a wood-centric approach to home building. We make many choices in building homes that are not the most efficient use of wood. We could use far less wood if we increased the spacing between the studs in walls, if we stopped putting hardwood flooring on top of the subfloor, but just left the subfloor show. And why put siding on top of the wood that covers the studs on the walls. We could just go with the siding to protect the studs. Granted, our homes wouldn’t stand up to storms or furniture bumping against them as well, but with the savings in wood we could just plan on regularly rebuilding. And the homes would certainly not be as warm, but why not just keep that coat on when you get home. We certainly understand this to be just plain silly. Human comfort, safety, and aesthetics are critical considerations that go into the building of a home.

But lets think about our approach to digital technologies. How often do we compromise the user or the community for the efficiency of the technology? So I become frustrated not at myself but at the company that produces the software if I find I need to relearn how to use a package when it is not clear to me that I will see any benefits from an upgrade. Indeed, that upgrade may be be part of a larger corporate policy of planned obsolescence.  And I certainly am frustrated when the timing of an upgrade comes at the most inconvenient time for me. On the other hand, I also recognize that my use of a program that has defects potentially leading to a security compromise impacting others means I have an ethical responsibility to upgrade to avoid those negative impacts.

Let’s return to the analogy of our home. The home, at least in urban and suburban areas, exists within a neighborhood. How it is built impacts the homes around. There are therefore codes and policies developed by engineers, architects, and urban planners put in place by municipalities through the consent of the electorate. In the technical realm, then, we need to likewise begin to stop giving sole privilege to the expertise of the engineer and computer scientist. Instead, within a sociotechnical systems approach, we begin to seek the equivalent of the urban planner to inform codes and policies. Indeed, I’ve come to appreciate just how well suited the library and information science professional is to lead in this process.

For me, the checkout line has become one way to put into action my ethics regarding a sociotechnical system. We see an increasing number of stores that now provide self-checkout lanes. From the website of one self-checkout systems manufacturer, they state that self-checkout lanes provide the shopping convenience consumers want, greatly enhancing the shopping experience. Further, self-checkout lanes allow personnel to be redeployed for in-aisle functions, increasing overall revenue for labor hour.

Ultimately, self-checkouts are supposed to be a model of modern efficiency and convenience. But do we see more sales staff in the aisles? Or do we just see a decrease in labor costs through layoffs to maximize profit. We can also ask if the self-checkout process leads to a time savings in most cases, or increased frustration when items don’t scan well, special codes are unknown when trying to scan fruits and vegetables, and coupons aren’t processed. But we might also ask how many people whose cashier positions were eliminated are now on unemployment? Still further, we can ask how our community is built by greeting and having a conversation with the automated machine instead of a person at the register? For me, the sociotechnical system of the marketplace that includes the checkout process leads me to choose to use a staffed checkout lane. Indeed, I look forward to the friendly banter when I see the same person each week. Shopping and checking out is no longer just about me, but about community.

If we move from a techno-centric consideration of computers, programs, and networks, to a sociotechnical systems approach, we start looking at both the social and technical aspects that lead to the system before us. We begin to appreciate that from design to mining of minerals to production to use and on to disposal, choices are made that have positive and negative impacts on individuals and communities. We start to dig deeper to understand the mix of social, economic, political, and technical choices and constraints found at each point in the lifecycle of a given technical artifact. And we try to predict and strategically influence the emergent properties that result when this mix of choices and constraints come together, giving rise to the technical artifact as a piece of a larger sociotechnical system.

In opposition to technological determinism, then, we come to appreciate that the choices and constraints surrounding an innovation are not predetermined or irrevocable, but that individuals and communities can have agency in the process. We stop seeing the technical artifact as a universal and singular thing, but something that is defined only once it is put to use within a given context. There is not a singular Internet, but an Internet as I use it, or you use it. An Internet as it is used in a school, or in a state, or in a nation. In each case, different social, economic, political, and technical choices and constraints impact what “THE INTERNET” is in use. We realize that this innovation-in-use is defined differently in every different context.

From here, we can begin a more holistic consideration of who benefits and who is harmed through the sociotechnical system. In what ways does the particular innovation-in-use reinforce existing power structures and privileges, and in what ways does it challenge those structures? In what ways does a particular innovation-in-use lead towards community goals, and in what ways does it come into opposition with those goals, not just in relation to a specific technical artifact, but as a piece of a sociotechnical system, intentionally designed and harnessed by the community of users, as craftsmen, to create a more inclusive community.

We will spend this semester considering a variety of different technical and social building blocks underlying our information technologies today. But instead of seeing them as two side-by-side systems, with the priority ultimately being given to the technical system, I am putting forward a different lens, a sociotechnical systems lens. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and as long as we have a sociotechnical gap in our approach to innovations, we default to a thing-oriented instead of a people-oriented society, thereby missing opportunities to build a more just society.

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. 4 April 1967, “Beyond Vietnam

(Originally recorded as a podcast for my students at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, January 28, 2014. Creative Commons License
Changing the Unhealthy Way We Look at Technology by Martin Wolske is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at…-at-technology/.)

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