What Does Technology Do?

By: Felix Stalder, 12.1997

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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 perception.

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 of the "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 their interrelations, form society.

In the process of doing things 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.

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