Essay: Sociotechnical debate in information systems

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  • Subject area(s): Sociology essays
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  • Published on: July 28, 2019
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The sociotechnical debate in information systems literature is concerned with the role technology plays in driving human evolution. When discussing this topic, writers often draw from two opposing viewpoints: technological determinism and social determinism. Technological determinists cite technology as a magic bullet in society, acting as a catalyst for all social change. American sociologist and economist, Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘’technological determinism’’ during the 1920s however, it is widely associated with socioeconomic Marxists who often extensively discuss the implications of technology on human social relations and organisational structure. Critics, however, condemn the notion that ‘’technology’’ is a powerful enough agent to determine human actions and control human destiny, due to the abstract, intangible and quasi-metaphysical nature of the word (SMITH, M. & MARX, L., 1994). This is reminiscent of the social determinist perspective, which, posits that technologies such as the printing press and the internet are merely products of society created for the purpose of not only transporting ideologies across borders but also transforming and shaping beliefs. Simpson (1995) suggests ‘’technology can be viewed as that constellation of knowledge, processes, skills and products whose aim is to control and transform’’.

Technological determinists believe that like science, technology is an autonomous, neutral and apolitical force, with intrinsic characteristics associated with positive and beneficial effects. The words ‘’science’’ and ‘’technology’’ are often used interchangeably. This is because Science is concerned with acquiring knowledge through observation and experimentation in order to explain natural laws and phenomena while technology is concerned with the creation of products or entities in order to resolve problems or simply improve human life. Thus, it is possible to argue that technology is the practical application of science as tacit knowledge and experimentation is required in order to seek explicit knowledge or take certain actions towards certain innovations.

However, social determinists would argue that if technology is in fact, an application of scientific knowledge, then it is not innovative, as scientific knowledge already exists. They also accentuate the interpretive flexibility of technology, which contrasts the objectivity found in science. For example, some may view the printing press as an empowering tool, encouraging freedom of expression whilst others may see it as one of the many means that allow those in power to transmit their ideologies and subtly shape the beliefs of the public.

Prior to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440, the process of bookmaking was very time consuming and expensive as it entailed replicating all words and illustrations by hand. However, Gutenberg’s intelligent design of a machine that had the ability to produce a large quantity of pages at an incredible speed, allowed more people to gain direct access to reading materials. Hence, one of the implications of the emergence of the printing press in the middle ages was an increase in the demand for books and other literal materials among less wealthy individuals as they had become more affordable. Furthermore, there was a growth in the demand for more books in the English language as opposed to Latin, which was the language of scholarship, making it easier for all individuals to comprehend texts. Technological determinists thus, emphasise the tremendous impact the printing press had in societies. Most importantly, the way, in which the emergence of the printing press led to the formation of other industries such as papermaking and book trading, consequently leading to a stronger economy and a more literate populace.

The printing press is also of great importance due its role in contributing to major social changes. For example, the printing press was one of the virtual initiators of the reformation, a sixteenth century movement characterised by strong criticism of the religious sphere, which directly affected the spiritual, societal and political sphere. (SMITH, M. & MARX, L., 1994). This is because before it was widely available, with the exception of the clergy, not many individuals had held copies of the bible. This meant that the church exploited its power and authority and insisted on interpreting the meaning of the bible for the public. However, after the emergence of the printing press it meant that ordinary people could gain direct, personal access to the word of god. As a result, the printing press became an empowering force, allowing oppressed individuals to explore alternative views and ultimately decide for themselves what they should believe.

While social determinists do not undermine the opportunities and benefits that rose from the implementation of the printing press, they argue that the emergence of the printing press was not a newly established and innovative phenomenon. This is because society sets up the conditions for all technologies. Thus, the implementation of the printing press was only possible because there were already existing infrastructure that enabled it. Mackenzie and Wajcman (1985) hence propose that ‘’new technology then typically emerges not from flashes of disembodied inspiration but from existing technology, by a process of gradual change to and new combinations of that existing technology’’. Furthermore, social determinists would argue that the implementation of the printing press is merely reflective of the attitudes of the given society. Hence, it was only possible to develop the printing press in the west because the practice of authorship, freedom of the press and intellectual property were recognised and valued.

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