Creating Technology for Social Change

How Does Technology Work?

I have recently spent a great deal of time thinking about technology. This may come as no surprise. After all, I am a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working in a lab which makes civic technology, and writing my thesis about how people use social technology.

But though I spent my day surrounded by and studying about technology, what I’ve been struggling with is a somewhat deeper and more difficult question: how does technology work?

By this, I do not mean how does it mechanically or electronically work, which is to say how pulleys move or how bits flow. Rather, I have been trying to figure out how technology does the work it does – or perhaps appears to do – in the world.

Please forgive my tortured phrasing. It comes from stepping very carefully around several conceptual landmines.

For example, I could – and once would – have simply said “how technology affects or changes the world.” But this presumes, or at least implies, that technology does have an affect or agency independent of the people around it.

This presumption, if formalized as theory, is called technological determinism. At the risk of further reducing a reductive theory, the strong form of technological determinism basically says that certain technologies drive history in directions as if by their own accord and apart from the conditions into which they are introduced. Technologies are like medicines which, once injected into the patient, have predictable and uniform effects. Some peg Marx as a technological determinist when he argued “the handmill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist” and “modern industry, resulting from the railway system, will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labor, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power.” The ideology of technological determinism underlies those who believe the printing press inevitably led to the democratization of Europe, and who believe that the Internet inevitably leads to the democratization of the world.

Roughly opposed to the technological determinists are the technological constructivists. Constructivists would argue that the printing press, rather than driving democratization in Europe, was instead mustered towards that end by Europeans. The press’ apparent effects were cultural contingencies, not technological inevitabilities, which is why the invention of the printing press had different results in the East than in the West. If strong determinists argue that technology shapes the world, strong constructivists argue that the world shapes technology.

Perhaps because these are strong arguments, and thus meant more for intellectual provocation than accurate description, I am satisfied with neither.

This is what I meant when I said I had been struggling to understand how technology works.

It seems clearly counterfactual that technology has inevitable effects, as we see in the divergent cases of the printing press. But neither does it seem so simple to me as that people somehow choose to shape technology to their clean, preexisting will. When I said in seminar a few weeks ago that I felt that somehow technology had some agency or effect which operated outside of individuals, a perplexed classmate asked me “well, how would that work?” I confess don’t know. But then, I don’t understand how individual agency is supposed to work either.

I still don’t know how technology works. But I think I might have some sense of the outlines of an explanation.

Let me illustrate something of what I mean. Consider the technology of a highway. A highway allows people (when equipped with certain modes of transport) to travel long distances comparatively quickly. As such, it enables, among other things, certain commuting patterns, and thus patterns of living.

I grew up in the southern New Hampshire exurbs. My family wanted to live in a relatively rural setting, but my father’s job was in the Lowell area. Without highways, commuting from Lowell to southern New Hampshire would have been prohibitively costly for most people. With highways, it was very manageable.

Highways (and cars, and cheap gas, and rural telephony, and everything else that goes into living in the exurbs) were socially constructed technologies. They were produced by people who hoped to achieve particular ends.

But the type of life enabled by highways also affected the people who lived those lives. When I was growing up I loved living in a semi-rural environment. That love influenced my perspective, my goals, and the sorts of technologies I wanted to see in the world (like high speed rail to rural places). But my love of that environment was only made possible by the highways which preexisted me, because the world they made possible was a world I liked living in and wanted to reproduce.

McLuhan says somewhere that “we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” As was so often the case, the Oracle of Ontario speaks in aphorisms that are sexy but simplistic. We are shaped by our tools, but we also reshape them, and this is an ongoing process. It is an interaction, not an action. But how does that interaction work?

I would like to suggest that technologies do not have effects, nor are they effected upon. Instead, their design characteristics offer certain frameworks of compliance and resistance. These frameworks are used by people, but they are not totally subordinate to people. A hammer can do many things (drive a nail, stop a door, kindle a fire, bang a gong), but its features enable (or, in the language of design, “afford”) certain uses, and through that enablement continue to suggest uses, and by extension ways of thinking and seeing the world.

I don’t think this is mysticism, or that I am imbuing a hammer with some magic power. This theory is, instead, born of a deep skepticism about the magic which supposedly allows individuals to be the autonomous agents in their own lives.

This framework of compliance and resistance is how I’ve come to think about the interaction of people and technology. Of course, saying “it’s complicated, it’s messy, and it depends” isn’t the sharpest analytical tool in the shed. But I feel like it helps me muddy slowly towards the truth.