Technological determinism – or not

I had breakfast with my supervisor last week which is always a pleasure – and pretty much guaranteed to reboot and sharpen my thinking.

We also reflected on the fact that though its a Good Thing that I have a first half first draft it is going to need taking apart and putting back together again.  I know this but its a little but heart breaking to actually do – might have to steal myself to actually swing the first blow on that.  At some point I’m going to write up something on the way I am using this blog to create the thesis as its been incredibly useful and I want to make sure that I reflect on it properly both for my research methods chapter but also because I would use this approach for other big projects (and in fact have started to with virtual police).  The most important aspect of this is the need to establish a narrative arc early on – something I didn’t do early enough – if you don’t you end up with a very modular set of pieces.  Seems really obvious as I write it now but it didn’t really come clear how important this is before I sat down and looked at the draft.

However – once we’d had a moment examining my doctoral inadequacies which are multitude we got talking more generally and started discussing the question of whether or not we can say that the transition to a network society is an inevitable one.  I am firmly of the mind that it is but Ed forced me to think about this more by accusing me (in a nice way) of technological determinism.

Technological determinism – the belief that technology shapes society rather than being a product of it – is a view that technological evangelists fall into but that anyone who looks at social change more widely will usually discount – or at least mitigate.  One way of thinking about this is to extrapolate what would happen if a specific technology were removed – what are the residual changes in society?

One of the difficulties in trying to balance practitioner and academic thinking around the same subject is that as a practitioner you need some ‘truths’ to work with where as an academic you need to keep your mind more open and questioning.  This is not to say practitioners are not open and academics do not establish at least a working definition of truth but the mindset around this is rightly different.  When you combine that with the fact that I spend a lot of time trying to persuade people to do things as we develop projects I sometimes struggle with this balance.  When you are trying to catalyse change either within your own organisation or externally then it is easy to overstate the certainties in order to drive action.

The truth is we don’t as yet know what it means for the future that the current generation of graduates have grown up with the expectation of information constantly at their finger tips any more than we know what will be the effect of them graduating into a workplace that doesn’t have the types of jobs that were implied when they went to university – all we can do is look at the evidence and make our best guess.  My best guess is that we have already reached the tipping point and that we live in a network rather than post-industrial society and this post is an attempt to explain why I believe this without resorting to the trend data that you can see on the Facts Glorious Facts page.

I often use the William Gibson quote where he says that “the future is already here, its just not evenly distributed” because I think it reflects the fact that people are at such different stages of network society adoption (and has that little frisson of inevitability which is handy when you are trying to get people to change their behaviour).  What also needs to be said however is that the speed of that adoption effects the nature of the society and culture that is being created by it.  Imagine if we had had widescale mainstream adoption of bulletin boards in the early 90’s or even of email before that?  Or imagine if the widescale implementation of telephony had not been identified as an economic priority by governments?  The speed of change is as important as the nature of the change with respect to bringing about societal shifts and one of the effects of a more networked society is that ideas spread faster.

If a technology is removed would we feel the need to replace it?  What would be the effect of shutting down Facebook at this point – have we reached a tipping point?

Cutting off internet connectivity did not ‘solve’ the problems of the Egyptian government in recent weeks – and it caused a lot of economic and reputational damage at a time when they needed to make friends rather than enemies.  It also arguably showed their ignorance of the technological landscape where more sophisticated regimes pinpoint and manage dissidents.  The point is though that it didn’t actually work – the effect was already beyond the reach of the technology.  The question is whether or not the effect would have come about without the technology in the first place?  Better access to information about other countries and cultures, simpler and cheaper tools to talk about that information on a wider scale and come to a different set of conclusions all contributed the the fact that the Egyptian people felt able to take a stand against the government but when the technology was removed the effect still stood.  Is this observation too short a timescale to be meaningful?  Perhaps – but its still instructive.

A fairer question is to ask what would be the ramifications of shutting down these services outside of a crisis situation?  Can you imagine turning off the internet?  Would our priority be coping without it or replicating it as soon as possible?  I would argue that we would be recreating the network as soon as possible.

The ephemera of your Facebook status is really the tip of the iceberg in terms of your interaction with the Network Society and rightly one which you can take or leave.  However there is now a generation of people, who will vote in the next election, who have skills and outlooks which have been shaped by these technologies and are now part of what they consider to be normal.

Nearly a year ago I wrote a post which tried to tease out what was actually new with respect to social web technologies and I came up with three things:

  • Transparency and the digital footprint – the fact that what you do is online for anyone to find
  • Aggregation and the public sphere – the fact that you can bring information together and react to it as a whole rather than item by item
  • Identity and the link to accountability – the fact that identity is both malleable and yet traceable

These are all areas in which anyone who is immersed in the social web – and in particular anyone who has grown up with it as part of their lives – have a different idea of normal.  Anyone who has grown up knowing that everything they do is more than likely online and auditable by friends have different views about a whole range of issues.  We have yet to see what the effect is of thing generation not just starting work but becoming senior enough that their past indiscretions are of interest.  Of course by the time that happens it will be there peers who are judging the information and it is difficult to see how we can fail to see a shifting of norms of behaviour around the foolish stuff you do when you are young.  This is of course a view formed by my own liberalism – we could also see a new behavioural norm that has us all acting like modern Victorians but that’s another post altogether.

These shifting norms are about how people relate to each other – its not the fact that you are connected to 150 people on Facebook which changes things as much as the fact that your view of who you are is formed not just by what you say in passing but by what you said over the whole course of that association as this is now accessible and part of your identity.  The fact that you can see conversations within your network that do not include you changes how to see yourself and how you see others.  How does it feel when you know your friends have gathered but you were not there?  Its always happened but now you can see it happen in real time.  The degree of ‘public-ness’ in our relationships effects have they are conducted and how we judge people’s behaviours.

I am reading The Net Delusion (one of the consequences of the PHD is that I feel obliged to read the book rather than the reviews of the book – will post more when I finish it!) and one of Morozov’s points is that the fact that we are using technologies that we don’t understand and that we  ascribe qualities of openness to the internet that are overstated.  True openness depends on strong privacy and net neutrality and these issues are not being discussed by mainstream media or politics both of whom are seduced by the idea of connecting people together.   The point here is that behaviours are changing without direct reference to the technologies which are bringing about the conditions for change – and this speaks of a bigger shift than the cause and effect of technological determinism.

Our attitudes to privacy form a major part of our identity – what we choose to reveal to others and what we choose to reveal selectively has an impact in a world where we increasingly write ourselves into being.  Openness is about more than data.
Mark Zuckerberg believes that privacy is no longer considered a social norm and he runs Facebook on that principle – something it is important to keep in mind every time they do a system update or release a new piece of functionality.  Democracy done the Facebook way would mean that your views, your networks and your affiliations are public knowledge – as they are right now if you are not vigilant about your privacy settings.  The data is there for people to see and use and as Morozov points out this is true for oppressive regimes as well as Western liberals.  Our views on privacy are evolving alongside the technology.  Danah Boyd talks about this in terms of a shift in where we are private as much as what we are private about but there is no doubt that our views are changing.

If we look beyond the individual and see what happens when our personal data is out in the world then we can see that information – even bad information – is embedding itself in even the most trivial of decisions.  Because data is there and available we want to know what it says – what’s more we expect to know what it says and expect levels of transparency that were not considered and were not possible before networked technology became endemic.  Our attitudes to risk change in response to this and our statistical illiteracy allows us to make pointless extrapolations from insignificant numbers.

But its not just the hard facts of the data – we have a constant reference point form our network in terms of what people think, what their experience is and what we should do.  We don’t even have to decide where to eat without reference to the network as make vague plans and end up in the same place at more or less the same time by dint of SMS and twitter.  This power of the network means that on the flip side of the pseudo-science of mass statistical openness we see urban myths and stories take hold and spread swiftly – heard the one about a fictional Manchester twitter Tsar started by a government minister?

As the data about us becomes more and more detailed we expect and are delivered more personalisation of services and opportunities.  Anyone else occasionally freaked out to be served a well timed advert or to get just the right book pop up on Amazon?  Granulated customisation may not deliver uniqueness but it does deliver the expectation that your environment is going to be tailored to your needs – is it any surprise then that we are more likely to campaign on a specific issue than join a political party?  And is it any wonder that we are increasingly dissatisfied by parties which force us make sweeping rather than granular choices?

Where am I going with this? I think there is murmur at the moment of people saying that this technology stuff is not all that they hoped, Malcolm Gladwell, Evegeny Morzov, Sherry Turkle from all accounts are all being written up as presenting an alternative to the cyber-evangelism (Morozov’s phrase) that has typified press coverage of the social web where its made it off the technology pages and into the mainstream news.  I’m not counting the Daily Mail “Facebook breeds paedophiles” type coverage but more around the use of social networking to support activism and participation.  Some of this is the relieved writings of print journalists who are keen to jump on anything that stems the disintegration and reformation of their industry but there are also some people who are starting to think about the longer term impacts that go beyond a of a bunch of people flash mobbing a protest.


Social change is hard and it takes time – even speeded up by internet dog years which move 7 times faster than the physical world.  If we accept that these changes are real then we need to recalibrate our views on this and start consider the up and down sides of change.  We need to realise that we are seeing shifting social norms and not just reactions to technological innovations.  Technology has an effect – but its what we do with it that brings social change and we have now been, in my view, irreversibly altered by the ability to connect to other people, to their lives and data, online.

Shifting norms are less exciting to write about than ‘paradigm shifts’ but more realistic in terms of what is observable.  What would happen if the social web were removed?  We would still have amended views on privacy and there corresponding impacts on our identity, we would still have an expectation of information richness and we would continue to have an awareness of a network that goes beyond our physical environment.  Can we imagine accepting the absence of the social web in our lives?  Perhaps at this point.  Would we accept the absence of the internet?  Probably not.  The data in terms of adoption of the social web shows a steep upward curve in all demographics – how long before we cannot imagine accepting its absence whether or not we understand its impact?

  1. Loulouk

    February 6, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    I’ve grown up on the web, to a certain extent, certainly I think as much as it’s possible to say that when 33 years old. I read the first part of Net Delusion and became frustrated at the intimation that groups like the BNP and KKK somehow will become more ‘successful’ because of the web, or that no one is taking into account the negatives of the web. Anyone who knows the history of the web knows that almost every single piece of tech we currently have is because of the porn industry. And not just the er…’mainstream’ porn industry either. Zines evolved prior to the web, people who look for certain kinds of information be it racist, sexist or something else will always find a way to communicate. We just didn’t ‘see’ it so easily before. Flip it and surely it’s also easier to monitor via that great big server farm in East Anglia somewhere, monitoring every single email or online communication sent for certain keywords.

    I keep coming back to the tools vs use argument as do many other people. Lots of people on Twitter saying it’s not about the tech, it’s about what can be built on it. I would argue that we’re quickly becoming a world who cannot conceive of there not being a Facebook and who have yet to be exposed to the fickleness of the next big thing destroying, for example, My Space, and leaving a gap for the next big thing. And the focus will again shift from the use to the tool as we all try and get our heads around the sandpit and its changing edges again.

    Sorry, this is something I’m thinking a lot about at the moment too, reading The Facebook Effect.

    • curiouscatherine

      February 6, 2011 at 9:08 pm

      Completely share your frustration with the Net Delusion – I think in his defence that he is is frustrated by the black/White nature of media coverage but doesn’t actually discuss the media effect – but perhaps he will talk about this in the second half – will let you know!!

      I think my point is that the effect is now there irrespective of the next big thing.

      However – people are thinking in terms of technology still and this is why I think the more reflective coverage is encouraging – it starts to focus us on thinking about the impacts of those technologies and how they are shifting our behavioural norms.

      • Loulouk

        February 6, 2011 at 10:16 pm

        Nope agreed totally. What I am struggling with currently is that it appears everyone elses experience of the web is entirely to the contrary to mine. For example, @exmosis linked to this thisbook which mentions web interaction deadening personal interactions. My own personal experience has been entirely the opposite, and so I wonder, what next for activism, what next for unconferences, what next for revolutions? The very things the web has made easier (not enabled, they’d have happened anyway) and which has connected people and I suspected enabled life long friendships within those groups of people?

  2. chrisconder

    February 6, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    I think this is a great post, lots to think about and lots to agree with. The main thing that is sticking in my mind is the dog years…
    … the dinosaurs running the country haven’t realised how fast everything is moving and don’t understand tech.
    They are going to have to catch up quickly. Time and tech wait for no man.

  3. Anthony Zacharzewski

    February 6, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    Is there any point (genuine question) in considering parallels with the transformation of Britain following the industrial revolution? Was there a post-industrial society distinct on the individual rather than the general level from a pre-industrial society, and if so how did it come about?

    In some ways the Railway = Internet parallel is overdone, but there may be links in the way that mass industrialisation more generally:

    1. Caused people to move from one very settled way of life where you were generally known for good or ill (in villages) into an unsettled, instable but private way of life in the big anonymous cities. China is heading in one direction physically. We are returning to the “known” way of life, but in a manner that allows us to create our own villages, and distribute our personality around geographical and non-geographical communities as we see fit.

    2. Changed the face of politics by (a) shifting large populations of people around faster than the boundaries could catch up (Birmingham’s population grew by 1,100% in one lifespan, 1760 – 1830), (b) creating a new set of political interests in the labour movement and within the Conservative party, which shifted from a high aristocratic party to a capitalist party, and (c) permitting, through closeness of habitation, greater common action through marches, meetings, Temperance movements and so on

    3. Created (with the affective revolution of the late 18th C) a false nostalgia for a pre-industrial Old England that had never really existed, but which persists today (if a bit updated).

  4. Ben Proctor

    February 7, 2011 at 8:12 am

    Much to think about in this post.

    I think I am as guilty as anyone of getting excited about the shiny new technology and not considering enough the uses of the technology. Technology is morally neutral but human beings are not.

    Do we have a duty to

  5. Ben Proctor

    February 7, 2011 at 8:16 am

    Sorry typing on a tablet. Badly.

    Do we (advocates of the technology) have a duty to try to shape the moral dimension of how the technology impacts on society. Or is it the worst hubris to imagine we can control how real people choose to use their tools?


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