The following essay will discuss the relationship between technology and society with a focus on Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and the theory of Social Construction of Technology (SCOT). To better understand this relationship, the essay will center on the interactions that occur between the two entities. It will argue that although ANT and SCOT theory share a similar hypothesis, the strength and weaknesses of each theory can be found in the different way each conceptualises the interaction between technology and society.
Technological determinists theorise that technology is the driving factor in shaping culture (Jordan, 2009). McLuhan’s (1964) statement, “the medium is the message” (Mcluhan as cited in Federman, 2004) encapsulates the idea of technological determination because it implies that the technology used for the dissemination of a message has more influence on society than the message itself. Winner (1997) states that;
“Technological determinism requires two hypotheses: (1) that the technical base of society is the fundamental condition affecting all patterns of social existence and (2) that changes in technology are the single most important source of change in society” (Winner as cited in Jordan, 2009).
In practice technological determinism suggests that technology is responsible for the evolution of culture, and conditions cultural practices. The problem with this theory is that it denies any sociological input in the development of technology.
Social determinists who refute the theory of technological determinism believe that “society is responsible for the development and deployment of particular technologies” (Green in Potts, 2008). Social determinists theorise that society is in fact the driving factor in the evolution of technology (Potts, 2008). In reference to social determinism, Green (2002) also suggests that, the development and evolution of technology is controlled by “the choices of elites in our societies” (Green as cited in Potts, 2008), namely the individuals who sustain the most power within a network, control the evolution and roll out of technology within the culture (Green as cited in Potts, 2008).
Both ANT and SCOT theory focus on the interaction between society and technology. However the two theories conceptualise the interaction completely differently (Law, 1992 p382). While social constructivists make a definition between society and technology, ANT sees technology and society as equals, as actors within a network. SCOT theorises that sociological interactions with technology co-dependently dive each other (Law, 1992 p382), conversely ANT hypothosises that each interaction and actor stands alone, that every actor and interaction constitutes its own autonomous network, (Law, 1992 p383).
A network is present whenever an action needs to be redistributed (Latour, 2010). Actor-Network Theory describes both technology and society as equal actors within a network, as one entity driving itself. An entity that is solely responsible for stimulating growth and change within itself (Law, 1992 p386). Within the theoretical frame work of ANT there is little definition between, human and non-human aspects of a particular community or culture, because both entities (society and technology) exist in a fractal symbiotic relationship (Goguen, 2000). This symbiotic relationship is the primary strength of ANT because it fosters an environment where the interactions between society and technology become one, where individual actors are not only autonomous, but also the sum of the network. Therefore each actor is its own network (Law, 1992 p383).
Similar to the idea of ‘elites’ in the theory of social determinism, ANT also suggests that individual actors (whether human or ‘non-human’) who obtain and maintain the most power within the network control the direction, advancement and evolution of both entities and therefore monopolise the culture. Castell (2007) stated that;
“Power is the relational capacity to impose an actor’s will over another actor’s will on the basis of the structural capacity of domination embedded in the institutions of society” (Castell, 2007, p. 775).
The fact that a networked environment has the capacity to allow one actor to amass an inequitable amount of power, and assert control over the other, is the primary weakness of Actor-Network Theory. It is a weakness because the practical application of ANT relies on the premise that not all actors are equal, due to an environment that facilitates inequitable distribution of connections that causes an unequal power distribution (Cressman, 2009). Individual actors whether social or technological are influenced by autonomous factors, therefore the choices made by elite actors within a network must be partisan and nepotistic in nature.
Facebook is a good example of how a networked environment enables one actor to amass an inequitable amount of connections providing them partisan power. Facebook uses their elite status to ‘black-box’ the interactions between social and technological actors into product, which can be marketed and sold just like a black box. Cressman (2009, p.6) suggests that the act of ‘black-boxing’ networked technology denies the sociological relationships that are at the very core of every action redistributed through any given network. Cressman (2009, p.6) states that when a network is ‘black-boxed’ “the complex sociotechnical relationships that constitute it are rendered invisible” (Cressman, 2009 p.6). Facebook presents itself as a black-box because it focuses the attention on their product, the technological medium of delivery, rather than the sociological relationships that are so important to its network. The theory of Social Construction of Technology serves to open up the ‘black-box’ of technologies such as Facebook and theorises, similar to the theory of social determinism, that technological evolution is directed by the needs of society (Prell, 2009, 1.1). The SCOT theory challenges the notion of ANT and asserts that society and technology influence one another. Therefore all technological aspects of our lives are in someway defined by our culture. Similarly, society is directly influenced by the technology we use.
Social Construction of Technology
The theory of Social Construction of Technology or SCOT, suggests that technologies are developed, advanced and maintained through social interaction (Prell, 2009). Prell (2009) states that “technologies emerge from social interactions among social groups and actors” (Prell, 2009 2.7). In other words, SCOT suggests that technology is developed by society to meet its pre-existing needs (Forlano, n.d). Therefore the theory suggests that new technology or social practice do not evolve autonomosly, but are co-dependently developed through interaction with each other. Social constructivists suggest societies and technologies that are networked through the process of a redistributed action ”build up a common interpretation of an artifact” (Prell, 2009 2.7). So unlike ANT, SCOT suggests that new technologies and network evolution are forged from the interaction between pre-existing technology and society.
Because SCOT is heavily reliant on the successful interaction between society and technology, it is arguable that the strength of the theory is also its biggest weakness. Prell (2009 2.7) states that;
“If actors fail to arrive at a similar interpretation, then actors will likewise fail in building a technological frame and establishing a social group. If a technological frame gets built, however, it will then structure the behaviors, thoughts, and interactions among actors in that social group” (Prell, 2009, 2.7).
The SCOT theory’s success relies on the network’s ability to utilise pre-existing resources (Prell, 2009, 5.3). If a network fails to build a successful technological framework, neither the group, nor the technology, will be successful (Prell, 2009, 2.7). However, if pre-existing resources are successfully utilised, the technological framework that is developed by the network, will foster association between social and technological actors and advance technology, which not only meets the needs of the network, but also possesses fluid and evolutionary characteristics.
While both social and technological determinists suggest only society or technology can be the driving force in the relationship, as this essay has shown, to better understand the relationship, the focus should be the interaction that occurs between the two. While both ANT and SCOT theory do focus on the interaction between society and technology, they conceptualise the interaction completely differently. While SCOT theory suggests that both society and technology are autonomous, it also theorises that their interaction drives each others development. SCOT theory’s strength is also it’s weakness because it relies on successful interaction between society and technology to build frameworks for development; If those frame works are not constructed neither technology or society will develop to their full potential. Conversely, ANT sees technology and society as actors within a network, each playing an equal roll, and suggests that all actors and the interactions that have produce their own network. ANT theory’s primary weakness is the ability for one actor in the network to amass an inequitable amount of connections potentially giving them the ability to influence the rest of the culture from a partisan or nepotistic position. However the equality of blackballed autonomy, would not be possible without the possibility of an infinite network of connections, and this equality of actors within ANT is it’s primary strength.
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