Understanding the Modern Condition--P. Brey (2003)

This is an excerpt from the following article:
Brey, P. (2003). ‘Theorizing Technology and Modernity,’ Modernity and Technology. Eds. Thomas Misa,
Philip Brey and Andrew Feenberg. MIT Press, 33-71. 

2. Modernity Theory: Understanding the Modern Condition
The Structure and Aims of Theories of Modernity
Modernity is the historical condition that characterizes modern societies, cultures and human agents. Theories of modernity aim to describe and analyze this historical condition. A distinction can be made between cultural and epistemological theories of modernity, most of which are found in the humanities, and institutional theories, which are common in social theory – although in both traditions many theories of modernity can be found that blend cultural, institutional and epistemological aspects.
Cultural and epistemological theories of modernity focus on the distinction between premodern and modern cultural forms and modes of knowledge. These theories usually place the transition from traditional society to modernity in the Renaissance period, in 15th and 16th century Europe. The transition to modernity, on this conception, is characterized by the emergence of the notion of an autonomous subject, the transition from an organic to a mechanistic world picture, and the embrace of humanistic values and objective scientific inquiry. Some theories locate the transition to modernity later than this, as late as the 18th century, during
which Enlightenment thought had culminated into a genuine project of modernity, with universalistic pretensions to progress, and with fully developed conceptions of objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art (e.g., Habermas, 1983). The cultural- epistemological approach to modernity dominates in philosophy, with Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger as early icons, and is also well represented in cultural history and cultural studies.
Many studies in the humanities that analyze modernity as a cultural phenomenon also focus on modernism, which is a phenomenon distinct from modernity. Modernism, or aesthetic modernism, as it is also called, was a cultural movement that initiated in the mid-19th century as a reaction against the European realist tradition, in which works of art intend to ‘mirror’ external nature or society, without any additions or subtractions by the artist. Modernist artists, in often quite different ways, rejected this realism and held that it is the form of works of art, rather than their contingent content, that guarantees authenticity and liberates art from tradition. Modernism has been very influential in literature, in the visual arts, and in architecture, with movements as diverse as naturalism, expressionism, surrealism and functionalism being counted under it. The emergence of modernism has often been explained by reference to major social transformations in 19th and early 20th century modernity. David Harvey, for instance, has argued that modernism was a cultural response to an crisis in the experience of space and time, which was the result of processes of time-space compression under late 19th century capitalism.2 The label ‘modernism’ is also used in a broader sense, in which it does not refer to an aesthetic movement, but to the culture and ideology of modernity at large (e.g., Bell, 1976). ‘Modernism’, in this sense, stands for positivism, rationalism, the belief in linear progress and universal truth, the rational planning of ideal social orders, and the standardization of knowledge and production. When used in this latter sense, the notion of modernism becomes almost interchangeable with the notion of modernity construed as a cultural or epistemological condition (cf. Berman, 1983).
Institutional theories of modernity focus on the social and institutional structure of modern societies, and tend to locate the transition to modernity in the 18th century, with the rise of industrial society in Europe. Institutional theories of modernity are as old as social theory itself, with early proponents like Weber, Marx and Durkheim outlining key structural features of modern societies and theorizing major transitions from traditional to modern society. Modernity, on the institutional conception, is a mode of social life or organization rather than a cultural or epistemological condition. It is characterized by institutional structures and processes like
industrialism, capitalism, rationalization and reflexivity. It is with this institutional meaning of ‘modernity’ that one can correlate the notion of modernization, which is the transformation of traditional societies to industrial societies. ‘Modernity’ used to be a condition emerging in 18th century European societies, but nowadays characterizes industrial societies around the globe.3
In my discussion of modernity theory, I will give special emphasis to the social theory tradition, with the understanding that much of this work analyzes not only institutional aspects of modernity, but cultural and epistemological dimensions as well. Indeed, it is quite common to see these aspects combined in social theories of modernity, even if institutional features receive the most emphasis. This blending of traditions has been particularly strong in critical theory, with authors like Habermas, Marcuse and Adorno referring to Hegel and Heidegger as liberally as to Marx and Weber. But it is also quite visible in more recent theories of modernity, such as those of Giddens, Harvey, Wagner and Castells, as well as in the early institutional theories of modernity developed by Weber and Marx.
Theories of modernity in the social theory tradition present an account of the distinct structural features that characterize modern societies and the way these features came into being. Typically, they contain most or all of the following elements:
  • They draw the boundaries of modernity as a historical period, contrasting it with a premodern period and sometimes also with a postmodern period.
  • They describe and analyze the special features of modernity, with an emphasis on institutional, cultural or epistemological dimensions. They almost invariably do this through macro-level or ‘abstract’ analysis. However, they may contain various elaborations, case studies or illustrations of the macro-theory.
  • They (optionally) describe the dynamics of modernity, delineating (a) the historic changes that led to modern society, (b) various epochs within modernity (e.g., early, high and late modernity; classical and reflexive modernity), and (c) the transitions between these epochs.
  • Some theories of modernity also contain normative evaluations or critiques of the condition of modernity. Some propose visions of an alternative society or speculate how present modernity may transform itself into another type of social formation.
Next to grand theories of modernity, such as those of Marx, Weber, Habermas and Giddens, one can find studies of particular eras within modernity, of major transitions and developments within the modern era, and of particular features or structures of modernity. Theories of particular eras within modernity attempt to characterize a particular historical epoch within modernity and to analyze the transitions that led to it. Many contemporary social theorists focus on late modernity, as a historical epoch emerging in the second half of the twentieth century, and attempt to characterize its special features. Thus, one finds theories of reflexive modernity (Beck, Giddens & Lash, 1994), ‘the risk society’ (Beck, 1992), ‘postindustrial society’ (Bell, 1976; Touraine, 1971), ‘the information age’ and ‘the information society’ (Castells, 1996; Schiller, 1981), ‘the global age’ (Albrow, 1996), and many others. Akin to these theories, one finds theories of postmodernity, that hypothesize that we have already left (late) modernity and have recently entered a new postmodern era (e.g., Jameson, 1991; Harvey, 1989).
Besides theories of particular eras in modernity, there are many studies of major sociocultural, technological or economic transitions within modernity. These range from studies of the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution to studies of the control revolution (a revolution in technologies of control that is claimed by Beniger (1989) to have paved the way for the information society) or the emergence of Fordism, to theories of the historical development of the modern subject and of new modern forms of power (e.g., Foucault, 1979). Not all these works explicitly situate the developments they analyze within the wider context of modern social institutions and culture. Finally, one can find studies that are concerned with particular aspects or structures of modernity, such as modern identity (Lash & Friedman, 1993; Giddens, 1991), capitalism (Sayer, 1991), pornography (Hunt, 1993), consumer culture (Slater, 1997) and gender (Marshall, 1994; Felski, 1995).
Not every work in social theory is a work in modernity theory. For it to qualify as such, it would have to be centrally concerned with major institutional, cultural or epistemological aspects of or transformations within modernity, such as capitalism, the autonomous self, modern technology and the Enlightenment. Alternately, for phenomena that are not inherently tied to modernity or at least not defining of it, such as pornography, adolescence, or the automobile, it would study these in relation to the larger institutional, cultural and epistemological context of modernity. Thus, an analysis of adolescence would be a study in modernity theory if it would explicitly consider the historical, cultural, and institutional constructions of adolescence in the
modern era and changes in its construction over time, but not if it would treat adolescence in a largely ahistorical way (e.g., as a set of locally enacted constructions with little historical continuity), or if it would study its historical treatment in a particular country or setting without reference to its relation to modern social institutions and culture.4
Modernity and Social Theory
Theories of modernity have always held a prominent position in social theory. What follows is a brief review. Any such review will have to start with Karl Marx and Max Weber, who are often identified as the fathers of modernity theory. They are both known for their theory of the transition between feudal and industrial society, and their theories of (capitalist) industrial society. They are hence early proponents of institutional theories of modernity and of the transition of the premodern to the modern period. In Marx’s historical materialist conception of modernity, the difference between the modern and the premodern era is characterized by qualitative differences in the economic structure. The economic structure of a society is made up of production relations, and changes when the development of the productive forces (means of production and labor power) results in greater productive power. According to Marx, the transition from feudal to capitalist society was caused by large increases in productive power in feudal society. These increases caused changes in production relations, and hence in the economic structure. The resulting economic structure was capitalist in late 19th century modernity, but Marx of course envisioned a transition to a post-class socialist society, a transition that would occur when further increases in production power make a socialist state possible. He hence envisioned an early, capitalist, and a late, socialist state of modernity. Both are characterized by an industrial system of production, but their social form and culture are significantly different.
Weber (1958[1905]) did not see the transition from feudal to industrial society as caused by the development of productive power. Instead, he held that the capitalist economic system that made industrial society possible was an outgrowth of the Protestant work ethic, which demanded hard work and the accumulation of wealth. Because capitalism is profit-based, it demanded rationalization so that results could be calculated and so that efficiency and effectiveness could be increased. In this way, rationalization became the distinguishing characteristic of modern industrial societies. The rationalization of society is the widespread
acceptance of rules, efficiency, and practical results as the right way to approach human affairs, and the construction of a mode of social organization around this notion. According to Weber, rationalization has a dual face. On the one hand, it has enabled a liberation of humanity from traditional constraints and the has led to a progress of reason and freedom. But on the other hand, it has produced a new oppression, the “iron cage” of modern bureaucratic organizational forms that limits human potential.5
Weber’s notion of rationalization as the hallmark of modernity has been very influential in modernity theory. It has been particularly influential in critical theory, particularly with members of the Frankfurt school such as Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse and Habermas, who built on Weberian notions, as well as Marxist ideas, in formulating their sweeping critiques of modern society.6 Jürgen Habermas, without doubt the most influential scholar in the critical theory tradition, has advanced a theory of modernity with strong Weberian and Marxist influences, in which he analyzes modernity as an ‘unfinished project’ (Habermas, 1983). He theorizes an early phase of modernity and a later phase. Early modernity witnessed the rise of the ‘bourgeois public sphere,’ which mediated between the state and the public sphere. In late modernity, the state and private corporations took over vital functions of the public sphere, as a result of which it became a sphere of domination (Habermas, 1989).
Although critical of late modernity, Habermas sees an emancipatory potential in early modernity, with its still intact bourgeois public sphere. He hence sees modernity as an ‘unfinished project’ and has attempted to redeem some elements of modernity (the Enlightenment ideal of a rational society, the modern differentiation of cultural spheres with autonomous criteria of value, the ideal of democracy) while criticizing others (the dominant role of scientific-technological rationality, the culture of experts and specialists). Central in this undertaking has been his distinction between two types of rationality: purposive or instrumental rationality, which is a means for exchange and control, and which is based on a subject-object relationship, and communicative or social rationality, which is geared towards understanding and based on a subject-subject relationship, and which is the basis for communicative action. Habermas claims that there has been an one-sided emphasis since the Enlightenment on instrumental, scientific-technological rationality, which has stifled possibilities for expression. The result has been a colonization of the lifeworld by a amalgamated system of economy and state, technology and science, that carries out its functional laws in all spheres of life. Habermas
regards communicative action as a means to put boundaries on this system, and to develop the lifeworld as a sphere of enlightened social integration and cultural expression.
Looking beyond critical theory, one cannot escape the powerful analysis of modernity in the work of Anthony Giddens (1990; 1991; 1994). Giddens analyzes modernity as resting on four major institutions: industrialism, capitalism, surveillance, and military power. These and other institutions in modernity moreover exhibit an extreme dynamism and globalizing scope.
To account for this dynamism, Giddens identifies three developments. The first is the separation of time and space, through new time and space-organizing devices and techniques, from both each other and from the contextual features of local places to which they were tied, to become separate, ‘empty’ parameters that can be used as structuring principles for large-scale social and technical systems. The second development is the disembedding of social life, which is the lifting out of local contexts of social relations and institutions by disembedding mechanisms, which are media like money, time-tables, organization charts, and systems of expert knowledge. Disembedding mechanisms define social relations and guide social interactions without reference to the peculiarities of place. The third development is the reflexive appropriation of knowledge, which is the production of systematic knowledge about social life, which is then reflexively applied to social activity. Jointly, these developments create a social dynamic of displacement, impersonality and risk, which can be overcome through reembedding (the manufacture of familiarity), trust (in the abstract systems that disembed social relations) and intimacy (the establishment of relationships of trust with others based on mutual processes of self-disclosure).

Risk, trust and the reflexive appropriation of knowledge are also a central themes in Ulrich Beck’s theory of (late) modernity (Beck, 1992). Beck distinguishes two stages of modernization, the first of which is simple modernization: the transformation of agrarian society into industrial society. The second stage, which began in the second half of the twentieth century, is that of reflexive modernization. This is a process in which modern society confronts itself with the negative consequences of (simple) modernization, and moves from a conflict structure based around the distribution of goods to a model based on the distribution of risks. Current society is the risk society, in which risks are manufactured by institutions and can be distributed in different ways. The distribution of risk occurs at the backdrop of major social transformations, in which traditional social forms such as family and gender roles, that continued
to play an important role in industrial society, are moreover undergoing radical change in the risk society, which has led to a progressive ‘individualization of inequality.’
The idea that modernity has recently entered a new phase is pervasive in contemporary social theory, even among those authors that stop short of claiming that we have entered or are entering a phase of postmodernity. Intensifying globalization, the expansion and intensification of social reflexivity, the proliferation of nontraditional social forms, the fragmentation of authority, the fusion of political power and expertise, the transition to a post-Fordist economy that is no longer focused on mass production and consumption and in which the production of signs and spaces becomes paramount -- all have been mentioned as recent developments that point to a new stage of reflexive or radicalized modernity (e.g., Lash and Urry, 1994; Beck, Giddens and Lash, 1994; Giddens, 1990, 1994; Albrow, 1996; Lipietz, 1987), with most authors identifying the late 1970s as a transition period. Many authors point specifically to the information technology revolution in claiming that we have entered an information age (or, equivalently, a postindustrial age), in which not an economy of goods but an information economy has become the organizing principle of society (e.g., Bell, 1996; see Webster, 1995 for an overview). In the transition from industrial society to the information society, the economic system is transformed, and along with it the occupational structure, the structure of organizations, and social structure and culture at large. According to Manuel Castells, who has presented the most comprehensive theory of the information society to date, the basic unit of economic organization in the information age is the network, made up of subjects and organizations, and continually modified as networks adapt to their (market) environments. Castells argues that contemporary society is characterized by a bipolar opposition between the Net (the abstract universalism of global networks) and the Self (the strategies by which people try to affirm their identities), an which is the source of new forms of social struggle (Castells, 1996, 1997, 1998).
Modernity and Postmodernity
Not all scholars agree that modernity is still the condition that we are in. Theorists of postmodernity claim that we have recently entered an era of postmodernity, which follows modernity. Postmodernity is usually considered, like modernity, to be a historical condition. Most postmodern theorists who consider postmodernity in this way place the transition from
modern to postmodern society somewhere in the 1960s or 1970s, although some hold that we are still in the middle of a transition phase. They hold that changes in society over the last century have accumulated during these decades to arrive at a society whose institutional, cultural or epistemological condition is sufficiently different from that of modern society to warrant the new label.
Many postmodern theorists point only to cultural changes to support this claim. Some, however, emphasize technological and economic changes and see changes in cultural and social forms as resulting from them. David Harvey emphasizes the 1970s transition from a Fordist economy of mass production and consumption to a global post-Fordist regime characterized by greater product differentiation, intensified rates of technological and organizational innovation, and more flexible use of labor power (Harvey, 1989). Frederick Jameson has theorized a transition to ‘late capitalism,’ which is global, and in which all realms of personal and social life, and spheres of knowledge, are commodified. He claims that late capitalism comes with its own cultural logic, which is postmodernism (Jameson, 1991). Lash and Urry (1994) point to the shift from an economy of goods to an economy of signs and spaces, as does Jean Baudrillard (1995), who claims that information technology, media, and cybernetics have yielded a transition from an era of industrial production to an era of simulation, in which models, signs and codes determine new social orders. The culture of postmodernity is often characterized by consumerism, commodification, the simulation of knowledge and experience, and the blurring if not disappearance of the distinction between representation and reality, a temporal present that both erases past history and a sense of a significantly different future. The cultural shifts also include a decline in epistemic and political authority, the fragmentation of experience and personal identity, and the emergence of a disorienting postmodern hyperspace.
Not all postmodern theorists hold postmodernity to be a historical condition, however. For some, like Jean-François Lyotard, postmodernity is rather a cultural or epistemological form that is not essentially tied to a particular historical period. Lyotard holds that within contemporary society, one can find both modern and postmodern forms existing together.7 The characteristic of postmoderns like Lyotard is that they resist the modern form. For Lyotard, modernity is equivalent to reason, Enlightenment, totalizing and universalizing thought, and grand historical narratives; it is equivalent to what I identified earlier as modernism in a broad sense, that is, the culture and ideology of modernity. Lyotard criticizes the modern form of
knowledge and calls for new knowledges, that do not impose a grid on reality but that emphasize difference. Lyotard’s cultural critique is also a critique of scholarly method. He argues that postmodern scholars should not do theory. They are also not to produce new grand narratives of society, but should deconstruct and criticize modernist claims for universalistic knowledge, by doing local, micro-level studies that emphasize heterogeneity and plurality (Lyotard, 1984a). He rejects the old methodology of social theory, along with any and all of its theoretical claims. This call for a postmodernization of the social sciences and humanities has been echoed by Richard Rorty, Jaques Derrida and Zygmund Bauman, and can be seen in the profusion of postmodern case-studies and analyses that uncover difference and heterogeneity and celebrate cultural Others.
Postmodern theorists hence range from those like Jameson and Harvey who study postmodernity as a historical era, to those, like Lyotard and Rorty, who criticize modernist ideology and develop and employ postmodern methodologies for the humanities and social sciences. Postmodernism, as a critique of modernist thought, is moreover an intellectual orientation that is different from, even if overlapping with, aesthetic postmodernism, which has emerged in literature, architecture and the visual arts since the 1960s and 70s as a response to aesthetic modernism. Critics of (academic) postmodernism, which include Habermas and Giddens, criticize both the hypothesized transition from modernity to postmodernity, and the intellectual attitude of postmodern scholars. Giddens, for example, claims that in spite of the discontinuities cited by postmodernists, the major institutions of modernity as it existed in the 19th and early 20th century, industrialism, capitalism, surveillance, and military power, are still in place, and he therefore only wants to go as far as to theorize a late, or ‘radicalized’ stage of modernity (Giddens, 1990). He and Habermas have both criticized postmodernism’s anti- theoretical attitude, its epistemological and moral relativism, its irrationalism, and its laissez- faire attitude to politics (Giddens, 1990; Habermas, 1987). Similar debates exist within postmodern theory, with Harvey (1989) theorizing a transition to postmodernity while criticizing postmodernist thought, and Lyotard (1984b) criticizing Jameson’s ‘totalizing dogmas’ and defense of master narratives.8
3. Technology Studies: New Visions of Technology
Technology Studies as a Field
‘Technology studies’ is the name for a loosely knit multidisciplinary field, with a wide variety of contributing disciplines, such as sociology, history, cultural studies, anthropology, policy studies, urban studies and economics. Technology studies is concerned with the empirical study of the development of technical artifacts, systems and techniques, and their relation to society. Technology studies is part of science and technology studies, or STS, a larger field that emerged in the 1970s and that is concerned with studies of science and technology, and their relations to society that are both empirically informed and on sound theoretical footing. STS is nowadays an established discipline, with departments and programs around the world, as well as specialized conferences and journals.9 A full review of theories and approaches in technology studies is well beyond the scope of this paper, and is complicated because of the relative youth of the field and the diversity of its topics and approaches. In what follows, I will focus on two subfields of technology studies that are at the core of many STS departments and programs. They are social studies of technology, which studies social and cultural aspects of technology, and history of technology, which studies the historical development of technologies and their relation to society.10 In discussing the history of technology, moreover, I will focus on contextual approaches, which are dominant in STS, and which study the historical development of technologies in relation to their social context, instead of taking an internalist approach which focuses on purely scientific and technological contexts only.11 This selective choice means that I will ignore, amongst other work, the important work that has been done in the economics of technology and philosophy of technology.12
Contemporary technology studies, with its focus on social, cultural and historical dimensions of technology, covers a wide variety of topics. Scholars rarely consider ‘Technology- with-a-capital-T’. Instead, they examine specific technologies such as genetic engineering or nuclear technology, specific engineering fields and approaches such as mechanical engineering or cold fusion research, specific techniques such as rapid prototyping or cerebral angiography, and technical artifacts, machines, materials and built structures such as ceramic vases, Van de Graaff generators, polystyrene, and the Eiffel tower. Additionally, many scholars study large technological systems such as railroad systems or early warning systems in missile defense, and
processes of technological change such as the development of the bicycle in the 19th century or the invention and development of electric lighting.
Technology studies analyzes these technological entities in their relation to their social context. Roughly, this is done in one of three ways. In one set of studies, the focus is on the shaping of the technology itself and the role of societal processes therein: how did the technology come into existence, what (social) factors played a role in this process, what modifications has it undergone since its first came into being, and why did these occur? In other studies, the focus is on the shaping of society by technology, or, alternatively, on the social changes that accompany the introduction and use of the technology. In yet other studies, these processes are considered together, emphasizing how a technology and its social context co- evolve, or co-construct each other. A significant proportion of work that takes up this co- construction theme even denies that there is a meaningful distinction between technology and society, and attempts to study ‘sociotechnology,’ which consists of dynamic seamless webs of entities that are only labeled ‘technological’ or ‘social’ after they have fully evolved (Bijker & Law, 1992; Latour, 1987; Callon, 1987). There is also a fourth category of studies in technology studies, which historian John Staudenmaier (1985) calls ‘externalist,’ that do not focus on technology per se but only on contextual aspects, such as engineering communities, technological support networks, or public images of technology.13
The core of contemporary technology studies is constituted by social studies of technology and the history of technology, both of which have been influenced by New Left critiques of science and technology. I will now discuss these two subfields in order. In social studies of technology, the research focus is on the social contexts in which technologies are developed and used, such as engineering labs, factories and homes, and it is examined how elements in these contexts interact with each other and with the technology in question. Such elements include individual agents and social groups, along with their behaviors, interactions, identities and statuses (gender, race, class), as well as organizational structures, institutional settings and cultural contexts.
Contemporary social studies of technology are in large part an outgrowth of social studies of science. The specific tradition of social studies of science of which it is an outgrowth is sometimes called Social Studies of Knowledge (SSK). The SSK-approach in sociology of science, which is the dominant approach nowadays, is distinguished by the fact that it holds that
scientific knowledge itself, and not just the social and institutional context of scientific inquiry, ought to be the key focus of the sociology of science. SSK holds that scientific knowledge is not a ‘rational’ process exempt from social influences but a social process, and that scientific truth is not objectively given but socially constructed. The SSK-approach in this way deviates from the dominant approach in sociology of science until the late 1970s, the Mertonian approach named after Robert K. Merton, which only focused on the institutional context of scientific inquiry while assuming that scientific inquiry itself is by and large rational and objective. It also distinguishes itself from traditional (positivist) philosophy of science and epistemology, which also holds scientific inquiry and truth to be rational and objective. Instead, it takes inspiration from the work of philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn’s work on the structure of scientific revolutions, which is critical of images of science as a rational and cumulative process.14
It was a founding principle of SSK that ‘nature’ and ‘rationality’ and ‘truth’ in science are not explanatory of the process of scientific inquiry but are themselves contingent social constructs that must be explained. This central principle is extended in the early eighties, when some SSK’ers start to publish work in social studies of technology. The principle is modified to read: the working of machines does not provide an explanation of technological and social change, but is itself something that must be explained, at least in part by investigating social agents, their interactions and their beliefs about technology.15 Technology is regarded, in part or wholly, as a social construction that must be explained at least in part by reference to social processes, and within which no appeal can be made to objective standards of truth, efficiency of technological rationality.
Although some contemporary work in (contextual) history of technology finds inspiration in social studies of technology, the history of technology is itself a much older field (Westrum, 1991; Staudenmaier, 1985). Yet, although there has always been an interest in the social context of technology in history of technology, contextual approaches that put this social context at center stage have only recently come to dominate. A typical study in contextual history of technology considers how a particular technology, such as mechanical power transmission, the internal combustion engine or the personal computer, evolved historically, and considers how the technology came to reflect the contexts in which it has been developed and used. The investigation is often bounded in time (a particular historical era or development stage of the technology) and space (a particular geographical area or setting). Contextual elements that
historians consider may include organizational, policy, and legal settings, including relevant individual actors, social groups, and organizations (engineers, firms, industries, governmental bodies, activist groups) and their discourses and behaviors. In sociohistorical studies of technology, in which social studies of technology intersect with the history of technology, the development of technologies is studied with special reference to its social contexts and uses.16
Most studies in social studies and history of technology are case studies that consider particular settings or events in which technologies are developed are used.17 Other studies are what John Staudenmaier calls ‘expanded studies,’ which look more broadly at several types of technologies or several types of settings or historical episodes.18 Yet other studies are primarily theoretical or methodological, focusing on issues like technological determinism or the interpretive flexibility of technological artifacts, or on methodological issues within technology studies. Most studies operate at a micro- or meso-level of analysis, focusing on individual actors, social groups and organizations, and their interactions, rather than on the macro-level of institutions and cultural frameworks. Research methods are diverse, and include textual analysis, discourse analysis, participant observation, ethnomethodology, and quantitative analysis.
Theoretical Claims of Technology Studies
The strong empirical orientation of most work in social studies and history of technology is visible not only in its case analyses, but also in its theoretical and methodological assumptions, which have often been inspired by, or modified as a result of, these case studies. As a consequence of this, there has been a fair amount of agreement on a number of theoretical assumptions. I will try to characterize some of these assumptions, along with some others that are also salient but more controversial.
One of the most central theoretical assumptions in technology studies is the assumption that technology is socially shaped. Technological change is conditioned by social factors, and technological designs and functions are the outcome of social processes rather than of internal standards of scientific-technological rationality; technology is society made durable.19 The social shaping thesis denies the technological determinist idea that technological change follows a fixed, linear path, which can be explained by reference to some inner technological ‘logic,’ or perhaps through economic laws. Instead, technological change is radically underdetermined by such constraint, and involves technological controversies, disagreements and difficulties, that
involve different actors or relevant social groups that engage in strategies to shape technology according to their own insights.
Some scholars may discern technological or scientific constraints on technological change, but others point out that such constraints, if they exist at all, are themselves also socially shaped -- for example, expectations of growth within the business, engineering or user communities. Also, while some scholars recognize separate stages in the development of technology (e.g. invention, development, innovation), others, particularly in social studies of technology, analyze technological change as an entirely contingent and messy process, in which heterogeneous factors affect technological outcomes, and in which the process of invention continues after technologies leave the laboratory or factory. These scholars emphasize that users, regulators, and others also affect the design and operation of technologies, and the way in which technologies are interpreted and used (Bijker, 1992; Lie and Sørenson, 1996; Oudshoorn and Pinch forthcoming). Against a linear path model of technological change, proposals have been made for a variation and selection model, according to which technological change is multidirectional: there are always multiple varieties of particular design concepts, of which some die, and others, which have a good fit with social context, survive (e.g., Pinch and Bijker, 1987; Ziman, 2000).
The social shaping thesis implies a weak constructivist claim that technological configurations are variable and strongly conditioned by social factors. Social constructivist approaches go beyond this claim to arrive at the strong constructivist claim that technological change can be entirely analyzed as the result of processes of social negotiation and interpretation, and that properties of technologies are not objective, but are effectively read into them by social groups. Social constructivism is hence a contemporary form of idealism, denying the possibility or desirability of a reference to any ‘real’ structures or forces beyond the representations of social groups. Whether a certain technology ‘works’ or is ‘efficient’ or ‘user-friendly,’ and what are its functions, powers and effects is not a pregiven, but the outcome of social processes or negotiation and interpretation.20
That the meaning or use of technologies is not pre-given is also recognized by those social shaping theorists who do not embrace social constructivism. They mostly agree that technology has interpretive flexibility, meaning that technologies can be interpreted and used in different ways (Pinch and Bijker, 1987). When social negotiations surrounding technological
change come to a close, interpretive flexibility is held to diminish because the technology stabilizes, along with concomitant (‘co-produced’) meanings and social relations. Stabilization implies the embedding of the technology in a stable network consisting of humans and other technologies, and the acceptance of a dominant framework on how to interpret and use the technology. Stabilization of a technology implies that its contents are ‘black-boxed,’ and are no longer a site for controversy. Its stabilized properties come to determine the way that the technology functions in society. Yet, black boxes can be reopened at any time. The history of technology shows how technologies such as the telephone, the Internet or the automobile take on particular functions or societal roles that may vary from time to time and place to place.
The flipside of the claim that technology is socially shaped is the claim that society is technologically shaped, meaning that technologies shape their social contexts. This claim goes considerably beyond the claim that new technologies may open up new possibilities that change society, or that technologies may have side-effects. Obviously, the steam engine changed society by making new types of industrial production possible, and the printing press effected change by making written information more available and easier to distribute. Obviously, also, technologies may have side-effects such as environmental pollution or unemployment. The technological shaping thesis does not just refer to such recognized functions and side-effects of technologies, but to the multiplicity of functions, meanings and effects that always, often quite subtly, accompany the use of a technology. Technologies become part of the fabric of society, part of its social structure and culture, transforming it in the process. The idea of society as a network of social relations is false, because society is made up of sociotechnical networks, consisting of arrangements of human and nonhuman actors linked together.
The notion of a sociotechnical network is a central notion in actor-network theory (ANT), which is a third influential approach technology studies next to the social shaping and social- construction approaches. It studies stabilization processes of technical and scientific objects as these result from the building of actor networks, which are networks of human actors and natural and technical phenomena. Actor-network theorists employ a principle of generalized symmetry, according to which any element (‘social’, ‘natural’, or ‘technical’) in a heterogeneous network of entities that participate in the stabilization of a technology has a similar explanatory role (Callon, 1987; Latour, 1987; Callon and Latour, 1992). Social constructivism is criticized by ANT for giving special preference to social elements, such as social groups and interpretation processes,
on which its explanations are based, whereas ‘natural’ or ‘technical’ elements, such as natural forces and technical devices are prohibited from being explanatory elements in explanations. Actor-network theory allows for technical devices and natural forces to be actors (or ‘actants’) in networks through which technical or scientific objects are stabilized. By an analysis of actor networks, any entity can be shown to be a post hoc construction, but entities are not normally socially constructed, because stabilization is not only the result of social factors.
The notion that society is technologically shaped means, according to most scholars in technology studies, that technology seriously affects social roles and relations, political arrangements, organizational structures and cultural beliefs, symbols, and experiences. Technology scholars have claimed that technical artifacts sometimes have built-in political consequences (Winner 1980), that they may contain gender biases (Wajcman, 1991), that they may subtly guide the behavior of their users (Sclove, 1995; Latour, 1992), that they may presuppose certain types of users and may fail to accommodate non-standard users (Akrich, 1992) and that they may modify fundamental cultural categories used in human thought (Akrich, 1992; Turkle, 1984, 1995). Latour (1992), for example, discusses how mundane artifacts, like seat belts and hotel keys, may induce their users towards certain behaviors. A hotel key, for example, has heavy weights attached them in an attempt to compel hotel guests to bring their key to the reception desk upon leaving their room. Winner (1980) argues that nuclear power plants require centralized, hierarchical managerial control for their proper operation. They cannot be safely operated in an egalitarian manner, unlike, for example, solar energy technology. In this way, nuclear plants shape society by requiring or suggesting a particular mode of social organization for their operation. Sclove (1995) points out that modern sofas with two or three separate seat cushions define distinct personal spaces, and thus work to both respect and perpetuate modern Western culture’s emphasis on individuality and privacy, in contrast to e.g. Japanese futon sofa-beds. Turkle (1984), finally, discusses how computers and computer toys affect conceptions of life. Because computer toys are capable of behaviors that inanimate objects are not normally capable of, they lead children to reassess the traditional dividing lines between ‘alive’ and ‘not alive’ and hence to develop a different concept of ‘alive’. Most authors would not want to claim that technologies have inherent powers to affect such changes. Rather, it is technologies-in-use, technologies that are already embedded in a social context and been assigned an interpretation, that may generate such consequences.
To conclude, the major insights of technology studies have been that technologies are socially shaped and society is shaped by technology, or, alternatively, society and technology co- construct each other. They are not separate structures or forces but are deeply implicated in each other. Technological change is moreover not a linear process but proceeds by variation and selection, and technologies have interpretive flexibility, implying that their meanings and functions and even (according to social constructivists) their technological content are constantly open to renegotiation by users and others.
4. Technology Studies and Modernity Theory: Mutual Criticism
The Treatment of Technology in Modernity Theory
It is difficult to overlook the pervasive role of technology in the making of modernity. As argued in section 1, technology is a central means by which modernity is made possible. It is a catalyst for change and a necessary condition for the functioning of modern institutions. But it is more than that. What can be learned from technology studies is that the institutions and culture of modernity are not just shaped or influenced by technology, they are also constituted by it. The social systems of modernity are sociotechnical systems, with technology an integral part of the workings of social institutions. Social institutions are societal structures that regulate and coordinate behavior and in this way determine how certain societal needs are met. In the modern age, however, their regulative functions are no longer a direct outcome of collective actions, since most collective actions have become thoroughly mediated and shaped by modern technologies, which function as co-actors. For example, collective acts of voting are nowadays thoroughly mediated by voting technologies that help determine whether people get to vote at all, how votes are defined, and whether votes are counted. Modern culture is, likewise, a technological culture, in which technologies are not just means by which cultural symbols and artifacts are realized, but have become constitutive of their meaning or content. Information technology, for example, is transforming basic cultural concepts and experiences like those of time, space, reality, privacy and community, and is also affecting fundamental shifts in cultural practices.
If this analysis of the role of technology in modernity is anywhere near correct, then it is surprising, to say the least, to find that technology is not a central topic in the vast literature in modernity theory. Indeed, of the many hundreds of books that bear the word ‘modernity’ in the title, less than a handful also refer to ‘technology’ or one of its major synonyms or metonyms (e.g., ‘technological,’ ‘computers,’ ‘biotechnology,’ ‘industrial,’ etc.).21 Many of the major works in modernity theory only make passing reference to technology. For example, technology is only referenced once in the recent edited volume Theories of Modernity and Postmodernity, it is not mentioned at all in Zygmunt Bauman’s Intimations of Postmodernity, and there are only four or five brief references to it in Alain Touraine’s Critique of Modernity.22
What can explain this apparent neglect of technology in modernity theory? It is not the denial that technology has an important role in the constitution of modernity, for most authors would agree that its role is pivotal. A better explanation is that the dominant dimensions along which modernity has traditionally been analyzed (institutional, cultural and epistemological) have not allowed technology to play a major identifiable role, but have instead assigned to it the status of a background condition. Technology is often analyzed as a mere catalyst of institutional, cultural and epistemological change, or as a mere means through which institutions, cultural forms and knowledge structures are realized. In institutional analyses of modernity, modernity is analyzed as constituted by institutions and their transformations. Technology is not usually recognized as an institution itself; it is not seen as a separate regulative framework like capitalism, government, or the family, but rather as one of the means through which these frameworks operate. More often than not, institutions like capitalism, industrialism or military power are discussed without specific reference to the technologies that sustain them. The role of technology in transforming these institutions (e.g., in the transition to an information society) is more difficult to ignore. But here one often finds technology subsumed to a broader phenomenon, such as rationalization (Weber), productive forces (Marx) or disembedding mechanisms (Giddens), of which technology is only a part. Even in Marxist theory, which assigns an important role to production technology in the making of modernity, production technology still only serves as an external constraint on economic structure, which ultimately determines the social forms of society.
In most cultural and epistemological theories of modernity, technology is either analyzed as a mere catalyst of cultural and epistemological changes, or it is robbed of its materiality and
reduced to knowledge, language or ideas. In Heidegger’s critique of modernity, in which technology ‘enframes’ us and turns the world into ‘standing reserves,’ technology turns out not to be defined a material process or as a mode of action, but as a particular mode of thinking (Heidegger, 1977). The same idealism is also visible in much of Critical Theory, in spite of its greater emphasis on social institutions. There, technology is often identified with technological or formal rationality, which is a mode of thinking that does not just characterize modern technology but also modern thought and economic and social processes. Habermas, moreover, has defined technology as ‘technological knowledge and ideas about technology’ (Habermas 1987). In postmodern theory, finally, technology is often reduced to language, signs, or modes of knowledge, along with everything else.
When technology is referred to in modernity theory without being reduced to something else, still other problems emerge. One is the level of abstraction at which technology is discussed. Technology is usually treated as a monolith, as a macroscopic entity, Technology- with-a-capital-T, over which broad generalizations are made that are supposed to apply equally to nuclear technology and dental technology, to vacuum cleaners and gene splicers. This abstract, undifferentiated treatment leads to vagueness, obscures differences between technologies, and fails to distinguish the different ingredients that make up technology (knowledges, artifacts, systems, actions) and the way these relate to their context. Giddens, for example, employs the notion of an ‘expert system,’ which is a key mechanism for the decontextualizing of social relations. He defines expert systems as “systems of technical accomplishment or professional expertise that organize large areas of the material and social environments in which we live today”.23 He discusses few examples of expert systems, but makes clear that virtually any system in which the knowledge of experts is integrated and that contains relevant safety measures qualifies as an expert system, including automobiles, intersections, buildings, and railroad systems. Giddens moreover hardly goes into any detail on the way in which expert systems decontextualize social relations.
A monolithic treatment of technology easily leads to essentialism and reification. On an essentialist conception, technology has fixed, context-independent properties that apply to all technologies. As Andrew Feenberg has argued, technological essentialism usually construes technology’s essence as its instrumental rationality and its functionalism which reduces everything to functions and raw materials.24 This essentialism often correlates with a reified
conception of technology, according to which it is a ‘thing,’ with static properties, that interacts with other ‘things’ like the economy and the state. Essentialism and reification, in turn, have a tendency to promote technological determinism, according to which technology develops according to an internal logic, uninfluenced by social factors, and operates as an autonomous force in society, generating social consequences that are unavoidable.25 Technological determinism is evident in dystopian critiques of modernity, such as those of Heidegger, Marcuse, and Ellul, in which technology engulfs humanity and rationalizes society and culture. In many other theories of modernity, it is also present, albeit in a more subtle way. Marx’s thesis that the productive forces determine or constrain production relations has often been interpreted as a form of technological determinism. Daniel Bell (1976) presents a similar view in characterizing the transition to a postindustrial society as the result of economic changes due to increased productivity, which is conditioned by information technology. Baudrillard (1995) construes the transition from modernity to postmodernity in technological determinist terms by analyzing it as the result of information technology and media, whose models and codes yield a new social order. In James Beniger’s (1989) detailed historical study of the making of the information society is also built on technological determinist principles, with technological change being a cause of social change, while itself relatively independent of social influences.
In conclusion, the treatment of technology in modernity theory is problematic in several respects. Technology is often not assigned a major role in modernity, it is often subsumed to broader or narrower phenomena or one-dimensional phenomena, its treatment is often abstract, leading to vagueness, over-generalization, detachment from context and a failure to discern detailed mechanisms of change. In addition, technology is often reified and essentialized, and the conceptions of technology are often deterministic. There is also the problem that modernity theory’s sweeping generalizations over technologies do not normally rest on micro-level elaborations of the macro theory, or on case-studies. Modernity theory’s generalizations, it will be clear by now, tend to go against many key ideas of technology studies (the social character of technology and its interpretive flexibility, the path-dependency of technological change, etc.). Moreover, when theories of modernity provide inadequate accounts of technology and its role in modernity, their accounts of social institutions, culture and the dynamics of modernity suffer as well. There are theories that avoid many of the listed problems (e.g., Castells, 1996), but they are exceptions against the rule.
The Treatment of Modernity in Technology Studies
Modernity theory must provide an account of technology, because of its major role in the shaping of modernity. Technology studies, on the contrary, does not seem to require a consideration of modernity in its analyses of technology. It is not obvious that a historical study of the telephone or an analysis of the development and advertisement of fluorescent lighting must refer to macroscopic structures and events like disembedding mechanisms and changes in capitalist production modes. And in fact, most work in technology studies does not refer to such macro-structures but instead remains at the micro- (and meso-) level. It studies actors (individuals, social groups, organizational units), their values, beliefs and interests, their relations and (inter)actions, and the way in which these shape or are shaped by specific technologies. Case-studies and extended studies based on this approach contain rich descriptions of complex dynamics that lead to social and technological outcomes. However, the aim of many of these studies is not just to describe what happens, but also to explain why it happened. For example, in analyzing the history of the Penny Farthing bicycle, Pinch and Bijker (1987) do not just want to write a description of various bicycle models and various social groups involved in their manufacture and use; they want to understand the factors that determine what models are successful and the reasons why social groups assign certain meanings to a model.26 I will argue that micro-level accounts cannot be sufficiently explanatory of technological and social change unless they are linked up with macro-level accounts.
The main reason for this is that a sufficiently rich account of actors and their relationships, beliefs and behaviors requires an analysis of the wider sociocultural and economic context in which these actors are operating. This broader analysis is required to explain why actors have certain attitudes, values, beliefs or relationships, and may even be necessary to infer their very existence. For example, an understanding of why certain types of men were are attracted to high-wheeled bicycles in late 19th century England, and perhaps also the identification of social groups with this attraction, is likely to require an account of masculine culture in late 19th century England. Failure to look at this cultural context would result in superficial and possibly also unreliable actor descriptions. More generally, to base explanations of technological and social change merely on observations of actors and their behaviors would be to subscribe to a form of methodological individualism, a questionable form of reductionism
which holds that social explanations are reducible to facts about individuals and hence that no reference to supra-individual social structures is required (Lukes, 1994).
Granted, the actors in technology studies also include more complex actors, such as social groups and organizations, and nonhuman actors like machines, but these are still particular actors to which agency is attributed, frequently along with beliefs and attitudes. If the actions, beliefs and attitudes of these actors are not related to wider sociocultural contexts, then explanation is likely to fall short. This is a recurring problem in most approaches in technology studies that emphasize an actor perspective, including social-shaping and social-constructivist approaches and the actor-network approach of Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, John Law and their associates. This latter approach does relate the properties of individual actors to a wider context, which is the network of actors in which they are operating, and holds that this network defines these properties. However, the networks are limited in scope, usually comprising only the actors thought to have a direct role in the development or functioning of a particular technology. Actor-network studies rarely provide sufficiently complete accounts of the networks that shape the behaviors or attitudes of the other actors in the network (e.g., engineers, corporations or politicians), who therefore tend to be analyzed in a methodological individualist way.27
There is also another reason why micro-level approaches have only limited explanatory power. As Paul Edwards points out (this volume), a major distinguishing feature of modern societies is their reliance on infrastructures, large sociotechnical systems like information and communications networks, energy infrastructures, and banking and finance institutions. As Edwards argues, these infrastructures mediate between the actors that are studied in micro-level analysis. In this sense they function as disembedding mechanisms (Giddens), defining social relations and guiding social interactions over large time and space distances (see also Brey, 1998). But these infrastructures themselves are best studied at the macro-level. Micro-level approaches that ignore infrastructures hence run the risk that they provide insufficient account of the relations between actors in modernity (whereas accounts of social relations in premodern societies can more easily remain at the micro-level because they are not usually mediated by infrastructures). The recent transition to a post-Fordist, global economy has imposed further limitations on micro-level analyses by fragmenting industrial production and marketing and reorganizing it at a global scale (Rosen, 1993).
Social constructivists, while acknowledging the need to consider the societal context in which actors operate, have sometimes objected to an appeal to social theory because of its ‘realism,’ which would be incompatible with (strong) social constructivism.28 However, there is no inconsistency in invoking categories of social theory in social constructivist analyses. Social constructivist explanations proceed by ‘deconstructing’ entities in terms of the activity of other entities, specifically social groups. These entities are often not deconstructed themselves, for pragmatic reasons, because deconstruction has to stop somewhere. For instance, Bijker’s (1992) social constructivist analysis of fluorescent lamps refers to the involvement of General Electric, as a ‘real’ entity. As Bijker (1993) later explained, his primary interest had been the social construction of fluorescent lamps, and not the social construction of General Electric. Because of this specific interest, it was excusable to present ‘some parts of the sociotechnical world’ as ‘fixed’ and as undeconstructed entities that function in the explanation of the development of fluorescent lamps, even though these entities are social constructions as well. But if reference can be made to General Electric in social explanation, then surely reference can be make to Fordism, disembedding mechanisms, and other ‘socially constructed’ entities of social theory.29
Another criticism of modernity theories, and a reason cited for avoiding them, is their alleged tendency to totalization, universalization, functionalism, rationalism, panopticism and determinism, not just in their treatment of technology, but in their treatment of society as a whole. This mirrors the criticism of postmodernists of macro-level metanarratives. Tom Misa has argued, for instance, that macro-level theories tend to “impute rationality on actors’ behalfs or posit functionality for their actions, and to be order-driven,” and that these tendencies quickly lead to “technological, economic or ecological determinism.” Micro-level studies, instead, focus on “historical contingency and variety of experience” and are “disorder-respecting”.30 While the former tendencies are clearly visible in the majority of theories of modernity, I hold that they are not inherent to macro-theorizing. The macro-structures postulated in macro-theories inevitably impose constrains on individual action, but this does not mean that they must also determine it. Macro-structures can moreover be defined as contingent, heterogeneous, and context-dependent, such as Castells’ ‘networks’.
A final objection to macro-theories is that they are often speculative and not elaborated or tested empirically. While there are good exceptions (again, Castells), these virtuoso performances confirm the general rule. My point is not that this category of theorizing should be
rejected, but instead that these theories should be developed, tested, and refined. I conclude, tentatively, that there are no good reasons for scholars in technology studies to avoid macro- theories of modernity, and that there are good reasons to employ them. Working towards integrated studies of modernity and technology involves, then, developing and testing macro- theories and working to bridge the micro-macro gap that now often separates modernity theory from technology studies. These two tasks will be the topic of my next section.