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, the ways it has emerged, changed and its relation to the human/social sphere. More substantively it addresses the extent of which technology is autonomous and how much force it has in determining human practice or social structure. Critical theories of technology often take a descriptive theory as their basis and articulate concerns, examining what way the relationship can 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

Key authors include MacKensie and Wajcman (1985).

Critical approaches

Critical theory goes beyond a descriptive account of how things are, to examine why they have come to be that way, and how they might otherwise be. Critical theory asks whose interests are being served by the status quo and assesses the potential of future alternatives to better serve social justice. According to Geuss's definition, "a critical theory, then, is a reflective theory which gives agents a kind of knowledge inherently productive of enlightenment and emancipation' (1964). Marcuse argued that whilst matters of technology design are often presented as neutral technical choices in fact they manifest political or moral values. Critical theory is a form of archaeology that attempt to get beneath common-sense understandings in order to reveal the power relationships and interests determining particular technological configuration and use.

Perhaps the most developed contemporary critical theory of technology is contained in the works of Andrew Feenberg including 'Transforming Technology' (2002).

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, Steve 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. In the Schumpeterian and Neo-Schumpeterian theories technologies are critical factors of economic growth (Carlota Perez).

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, media naturalness) are concerned with the consequences of those media choices (i.e., what are the social effects of using particular communication media).

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) propose a general technology theory 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:

  1. Technological imperative: focuses on organizational characteristics which can be measured and permits some level of contingency
  2. Strategic choice: focuses on how technology is influenced by the context and strategies of decision-makers and users
  3. 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:

  1. Decision-making: the view of engineers associated with positivist, rational, systems rationalization, and deterministic approaches
  2. 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
  3. 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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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).
  3. 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)


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