Felix Stalder on Wed, 10 Dec 1997 21:04:56 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> What Does Technology Do?

What Does Technology Do?

At the core of much confusion in the thinking about the so-called
Information Society lie different, often unchecked assumptions about the
role of technology in the associated social/economic/cultural changes.
There is a  broad agreement that information has become the single most
important resource for increasingly large sectors of society. It is also
widely recognized that these sectors are dependent on and influenced by
a technology-intensive information and communication infrastructure.
About the role and significance of the technology or its consequences,
however, the opinions are extremely divergent. 
Three different concepts about this role can  be distinguished roughly.
The role of technology in a post-modernist account is one of having
created a condition which dissolves the very fundaments of modernity,
universality and the stable referentiality of the sign. This is the
single most important effect of technology and the explorations of this
effect often take precedence over questions of how this condition came
about or how it is maintained. Paradoxically, while generally critical
to the concept of a coherent reality, the reality of technology is, by
and large, taken for granted and the ramifications of the newly created
hyper-reality are presented as the privileged aspect from which the
current situation must be understood. The underpinning social or
economic arrangements are of less interest because of the assumed
independence of the media reality and as well as the fracturation of

Technology is taken for granted in a different sense in those views
which conceptualize it as the key agent. Here technology usually stands
at the beginning of the account which investigates into the impact of
the technology. This idea of technology as the unchangeable actor
underlies the techno-utopians and their “Californian ideology” as well
as the conservative critics who announce the death of the civil society.
This is also somewhat paradoxical. If technology is the key agent in
society, then describing it as an external fixed and purified system
makes it impossible to account for one of the main characteristics of
the key agent, its social dimensions. 

In a surprisingly similar way, technology is external also in accounts
for which the social institutions are the determining key actor in
society. In this view, technology is external to society until it is put
into use by dominant social actors to facilitate their activities and
expand their influence. This perspective underlies most thinking of
political economy or generally of leftist background. What unites those
three perspectives to a certain degree is that they all view technology
as a thing, either as the agent or as the tool.

Daniel Bell in the early seventies and Manuel Castells in the late
nineties put forward a somewhat different concept of the role of
technology in society. For them, technology is primarily a process that
develops in parallel to other social processes with results that are
then integrated (and adjusted) by social actors in order to advance
their agenda. This can subvert the activities of the dominant social
actors and decrease their influence or it can expand it. Central in this
concept is the idea of a deep interpenetration of society and technology
without conflating them into one, or privileging one over the other.
Castells stresses that “technology does not determine society: it
embodies it. But neither does society determine technological
innovation: it uses it. [There is a] dialectical interaction between
society and technology”. Unfortunately he does not trouble to detail to
how this embodiment happens. I suspect, however, that this is the
interesting question to ask in order to understand the role of
technology in the current social changes.

In the Information Society technology and society do interpenetrate each
other to such an extend that they cannot be separated anymore. Looking
at society, one finds that technology plays a role in almost all of its
aspects. By investigating technology one finds the social arrangement,
those which it embodies and those in which it is applied. It is
therefore necessary to think of technology and society at the same time
as they spiral into and out of each other. To understand the role of
technology it seems promising to conceptualize technology as a process
in which society is reorganizing itself into ever new forms. One can
think of this as occurring in two phases: A new arrangement of
heterogeneous elements -- some of them are institutional, some of them
are technical and others are cultural -- stabilizes in new technological
artifacts. These artifacts open up new possibilities of doing things
and, in the process of putting the artifacts to use, they are actuated.
Frequently, this occurs in unanticipated ways. This then changes the
arrangement of heterogeneous elements, which is then brought into a new
stable relationship with a new set of artifacts: __Technology is Society
Made Durable__, so the title of one of Bruno Latour’s essays.

Within technology, a large but limited number of heterogeneous actors
are knit into a network which allows one to do things in a way in which
they have not been done before. The processes of stabilization of such a
network take place during the emergence of a technology. Once the
technology has stabilized, the networks still have to be actively
maintained. This maintenance is the day-to-day usage of the technology,
in which the network is reenacted over and over. Technology, then,
provides a stage plan for society by being a blue print -- like culture
or a shared value system -- of how to do things over and over again, in
a reproducible manner. In difference to culture or shared value systems,
this blue print is embedded in things and not in people. However, people
and things together, in all relations they have among each other, form

The stage plan offered by technology is never final. In the process of
doing something in a way in which they have not been done before, actors
begin to change and/or new ones arise. The reenactment of the network
might become more and more difficult as the actors mutate. Existing
networks may disintegrate -- technologies do disappear -- and other
networks, other technologies put into place. Technological change, then,
is the reconfiguration of (parts of the) society becoming temporarily
stable in new technologies. 

NOTE: I encourage cross-posting, however, please let me know about it.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
||||| http://www.fis.utoronto.ca/~stalder |||||

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