A Look at the Relationship between
Technology and Society
Peter Hohwan Jang
After the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800’s, too much has been happening and, in mathematical terms, the growth (if you can call it that) has been what they call exponential. Ever since the inventions of microchips and transistors, technology literally changes even as we speak. The things we used to value and use are no longer considered “in” but outdated and have become antiques. I myself have become a victim in all this even though I am still considered “young.” The tape collections that I have are no longer “in” or even encouraged by my peers because of the new subculture that has developed with compact discs (CD).
So, what do helixes and spirals have in common? These words are what would be used to describe the relationships between the technology and the society. However, though it is very easy for regular person to think of technology as objects and machines and computers, it is more than that. It is also the body of knowledge and its applications such as physics and space shuttles. But even more, it becomes the culture itself where technology becomes part of the way people think and embedded in the social structure. 1 The next question is: What is culture? According to Robertson, “culture consists of all the shared products of human society… Material culture consists of all the artifacts, or physical objects, human beings create and give meaning to – wheels, clothing, schools, factories, cities, books, spacecraft, totem poles. Non-material culture consists of abstract human creations – languages, ideas, beliefs, rules, customs, myths, skills, family patterns, political systems.” 2 Regarding technology, material culture is cars and videos, whereas the non-material culture would be cyberspace and the paradigms.
There are many views on the “reciprocal relationship” between the technology and the society and its culture. 3 There is a never-ending trend between the two and one does not have to be a genius to figure it out. Once an invention takes place, it develops further and moves to a different level. For example, take computers, the fastest growing industry. Only ten years ago, they were what is now obsolete and slow computers, and now, there are PC’s that run at 60 to 90 MHz, 100 times faster and more powerful than only a decade ago! So what causes these changes, these advancements? That is the goal of this research, to answer the drive behind the technological progress and to attempt to come to a conclusion to a question: Is technological progress really a progress (in sociological view)?
Before the research, only one aspect was considered: how the technology creates the culture, and the society, in reaction, demand the technology to meet and “improve” the product to meet the society’s needs and wants. However, there are deeper reasons for the spiral relationship. Other reasons are quite powerful. One is that there is motivation to progress and to achieve higher efficiency. Another is economic drive, for human’s desire to make more money through progress.
However, there are other reasons. One view that Robertson mentions is how technology creates problems, such as pollution and shortages of power and natural resources, and how “the emerging post-industrial society [puts] its faith in technology – including a conviction that technology can be used to solve the problems,… that earlier technologies have created.” 4 This is the exact reason why, according to Robertson, science has become so important because technological innovation depends on the research.
However, there is a deeper reasoning in Robertson. He states how many sociologists support the theory of technological determinism. This is “the view that the technology available to a society is an important determinant of its culture, social structure, and even of its history.” 5 This is very true. Though none has taken time to pursue the effects and powers of technology on culture and society, it is evident from the history. Robertson is not the only one who thinks that way. Braun also agrees on the fact that technology, produced by humans, has the relentless drive for innovation at its very core. If anything can be improved for efficiency and progress, they have to be. However, Braun’s way of thinking is that the old technology is hard to control because of its deep root. 6
Take automobiles, for example. When they were created, they were intended for luxury usage, yet after means of mass production, they have become part of our lives where we can’t possibly do much without them. They are needed to go shopping, visit friends, go to work, travel, and just about everything. It is almost as if technology molds the culture of a society. First, there is a first step of rejection for its newness and strangeness to the previous culture. 7 Yet, after a time, the culture lag, a delay between a change in material culture and the adjustment of non-material culture to the change, disappears and is then accepted.
Such was the case with computers. When they were first massively introduced in the 80’s, no one wanted them because they were unfamiliar to the society. However, as they became more “user-friendly” and known of what they were to the receivers, the consumers, computers were accepted more. Now, they are the life and heart of the business systems, governments, and penetrating into the family. A keen example is the spreadsheet software, Lotus 1-2-3 by Lotus. In earlier forms, they were unpopular because were difficult to learn and operate. Yet, through collaborative work, other competitions took the hint and provided greater functionality; however, at sacrificing network abilities that Lotus had. 8
There is, from the technological determinism, a drive and a force that makes it powerful to the society, almost unstoppable. For example, take video camcorders. In the 60’s and the 70’s, 8 mm cameras and projectors reigned. Yet, from the 80’s, with improving technology, video cameras overtook the what is now obsolete 8 mm’s. It is true that the resolutions of the pictures have become far better with liquid crystal technology. However, to those who prefer the “older” technology for sentimental reasons, “new” means no more of their favorite 8 mm movies. In order to view them, because support for 8 mm no longer exists, one needs to change them into VHS format. Is there really satisfaction? Does it make us happier? 9
I have a similar experience. Over the years, I have gathered a large collection of audio tapes. Yet, now, they are, to the society’s values, obsolete. Peers don’t consider them as “in”. However, I have gotten accustomed and attached to the tapes, and being stubborn being by nature, refuse to change to CDs. Technically speaking, society and culture have progressed. But is it really progress? What about human’s individual values? This is what exactly Leo Marx questions as he shows his preference of social progress over the technological progress. 10 Others, if not agree, share the view that technological development is a social process. 11
One view is this. “Technology itself is neutral; it is human beings who decide whether or how to use it.” 12 Going further on this, it is human beings who decide whether the current technology should be advanced to make them more efficient, towards progress. However, it is important to note that the cycle never quite brings one to same point even though the cycle is reciprocal. One never gets to the same place ever again. The computer that existed last year is not the same as those in research right now. The concept cars of the future are not the same, though basic functions may be, as today’s. This is why the relationship between technology and society is spiral, continuing to reach a higher level. The German sociologists seem to support this in saying that “technological development is a spiraling rather than a linear process.” According to a process called “implementation.” Maybe this is because it is a learning process with iteration. 13
But everyone agrees on the FACT that rapid innovations and changes are added to current products and make the current ones obsolete. And because of such high speed in changes, people find that the world changes too fast for them, culture lag appears along with dissatisfaction of the society. 14
Then, there is the forever power and presence of money. The corporations and businesses has been that of “primacy of service to profits” which “has been built not only into the very structure of professional association and education, but into the ideology of engineering as well.” 15 A very good example of this is Nintendo, a very powerful video game entertainment company. With the introduction of 8-bit systems in the late 80’s, video games that were only available in the arcades were brought home, and it became very popular and powerful among the young populations, especially the teens. It was the in-thing back then to have a set. Because of such high demand, however, two things happened. First, prices were high until competitors came in. Second, seeing the high demand and success, they developed the 8-bit technology and expanded it to 16-bit and beyond. Technology introduced a “new” product to the society, and the society welcomed it and accepted it. Then, the society encouraged the companies, the technocrats, to develop them further. This shows clear example of helix cycle. Though it is still video games, back to the same point, it isn’t quite the same anymore, but now at a higher plane. Dierkes and Hoffmann seem to agree with this view because they say that in markets that develop rapidly with high uncertainty, coupling occurs where there is collaborative development. 16
This brings up the point of values – the things and ways people take and consider as important. There are two views on how technology and values are related. One way is “where technology influences values (the Marxist thesis) or the way values impede or foster technological growth (the approach of Max Weber).” 17 Why is values important? Because they define the culture and the norms of the society. However, though it is not clear which is dominant, it is true that they are both interdependent. In regard to the example with video games, the kids took value in these tech wonders and then technology followed upon it. However, it must NOT be forgotten that it was the technology that began the video game saga from the beginning.
What’s more, the modern technology takes over and infect the ways of high culture and leisure is powerful. 18 Such is the case with information highways. Not just the computers, but the cellular phones and faxes. I found my friends who are in “high” culture with cellular phones, e-mails, and even with faxes! They have become a trend with the high class. It seems like without them, certain kinds of people will look at you differently, not keeping in touch with the present but being buried in the past. So, is the progress (and following it) the only way? There is constant emphasis on a view that one needs to continuously keep up-to-date or the society will mock and reject the person. And because of this thought process, the society values the technology. It may not necessarily know what it is that they are taking values, but it encourages the technological advances. This is that deeper reason for existence of progress. People continue to desire to see new things and means of doing things. It is like an addiction that never knows when to stop.
And then, the wanting of profits, and money, comes in. Durbin emphasizes the point that “technology values profits, so technologists value innovations.” 19 This is saying that as long as humans have greed, there will definitely be technological progresses. And knowing the human nature, greed will never disappear from the mankind. Braun supports this idea even more strongly. He believes that technology CREATES wealth. 20
This is where media plays a vital role. Ellul supports in this that televisions, computer super highways, and commercials and advertising. The video games of kids’ favorite shows, ad on a sports car, and phone shopping network, it is all a part of playing with out minds to buy and to like the item… even if it didn’t talk about the item itself. 21
Then, Rammert provided the “social dynamics of technology development.” This was a continuation of Marcuse’s theory that “modern technology grew out of domination, Rammert conceived of technical development as a sociohistorical process of increasing reliance on technology, one in which economic interests, constellations of political power, and cultural values come into play and are thereby simultaneously changed.” 22 It is interesting to see, but not surprising, that politics come into play. This is quite easy to see once military comes into view, for military is sub-branch of government. The developments on planes were primarily from the wars that were fought during the World Wars that “forced” the nation to advance. The Apollo project was hurried because the government wanted to insure its public that it was ahead of the Russians and to get the public’s approval (though NASA had other plans, as we know).
In terms of progress once again, which is the ultimate question to be answered, Ellul, the leading interdisciplinary sociologist on technology, speaks on how all technical progress has its price. The very costly price is the rural depopulation along with the destruction of rural workers. 23 Ellul also points out the case of exhaustion. He definitely relates nervous tensions among people to the case of technical progress. In addition to that, there are other costs such as functional constraints. 24 Ellul points out the great costs such as pollution and the fact, according to him anyway, that technical progress raises more, larger, and more dangerous problems that it solves. 25
Ellul presents a very good fundamental aspect on humanistic point of view: that the development of technique is for humanity alone. Everything is, might I add, and should be oriented to humanity and its happiness. 26 If the technological progress is making people miserable, why should it continue? If there are people who are happy with the classic ’69 Vettes, why should they be talked into buying (or even trading, whoa!) a ’95 Vette? Should I have to throw away my precious collections of tapes and switch over to CDs just because the peers tell me that cassettes are obsolete?
Though it may not be clear whether technology affects the society or the society shapes technology, it is clear that once the focus is on the right one, mainly the human beings who were created and built to feel and think, it is clear that technological progress demoralizes the human kind and ignores our very nature. It is just sad that not many people think twice about that, and the only thing I can do is do my best job as an engineer keeping the focus on humans and NOT on progress or efficiency, even if fellow engineers say otherwise.
1 Westrum, R. Technologies and Society: The Shaping of People and Things. 1991, p.7.
2 Robertson, Ian. Sociology. Third edition. Worth Publishers, Inc., 1987, p.55.
3 Durbin, Paul T. A Guide to The Culture of Science, Technology, and Medicine. The
Free Press, New York, 1980, pp.470 – 471.
4 Robertson, p.108.
5 Robertson, p.512.
6 Braun, Ernst. Wayward Technology. Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn., 1984, p.39.
7 Robertson, p.595.
8 Dierkes and Hoffmann, eds. New Technology at the Outset. Campus/Westview Press,
9 Robertson, p.600.
10 Marx, Leo. “Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?” eds. Steven E. Goldberg
and Charles R. Strain, from Technological Change and the Transformation of
America. Southern Illinois University, 1987, pp.23 – 35.
11 Dierkes and Hoffmann, p.9, 31.
12 Robertson, p.601.
13 Dierkes and Hoffmann, p.39.
14 Robertson, pp.600 – 601.
15 Durbin, p.329.
16 Dierkes and Hoffmann, pp.43 – 45.
17 Durbin, p.329.
18 Durbin, p.327.
19 Durbin, p.498.
20 Braun, p.192.
21 Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Bluff. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand
Rapids, MI, 1990, p.351.
22 Dierkes and Hoffmann, pp.71 – 72.
23 Ellul, pp. 41 -42.
24 Ellul, pp. 43 – 45.
25 Ellul, pp. 47 -54.
26 Ellul, p.127.