Technological Determinism: too much Optimism?

Technological Determinism is used to describe the view that technology shapes our social lives and that it is the main driver of any social change. In its most extreme form, people view that our society is entirely shaped and formed by technology. Examples like the introduction and large scale use of the book press from around 1890, television and more recently mobile phones and social media, can be examples that can support the view that social change is indeed entirely driven by technology. In terms of organisations, Technological Determinism assumes that work has to be organised to meet the requirements of a technology it is the technology and its capabilities that determine how people should be organised and how they should work.

This view of technology was already criticised more than fifteen years ago for its oversimplification: technology enables and suggests, however, it cannot determine people’s organisation and work activities! One simple reason is that we cannot predict the shape of an organisation and their exact operations and  activities, just from our knowledge from a technology. Moreover, this would mean we actually know and are aware of its capabilities and applications, which in itself is debatable at least.

At the same time however, it seems that a kind of ‘determinism’ is still very much present in our organisations and societies today. Whether in IT, health care, governments, aviation and other industries, there are plenty of  examples: the introduction of a new software system to combat fraud and at the same time make it easy for health care workers to sign up and receive their salary in time in The Netherlands recently, lead to hundreds of caretakers not having salaries, consequently businesses going bankrupt and ultimately the vulnerable, the people in need for care, not receiving the care they needed.

Criticism that the system was way too complicated and that adding policy on top of bureaucracy to be able to use the system, were not going to solve healthcare problems, were ignored. Policymakers stood their ground: the system was good, the technology infallible. Instead, it only takes some time for people to get used to it and finding their way. Later, it was admitted that the implementation may have been a little rushed, but the technology itself is ok.

In its definition, technology can be many things. However, in order to be successful, it needs to be a solution to a problem (or at least an improvement), easy to use, fit the environment and all that for the right price. Otherwise, technologies get lost and will be forgotten. Choices with regard to the design and the level of control we leave with an operator, the goal and what the technology is actually to achieve have to be made. And, crucial is the context or (work) choices the users and affected must make as only they know the details of their operation and the finesse of their activities the technology is intended to support. In this socio-technical approach it is the interrelation between technical and social elements that create performance and well-being.

Creating a system solely based on the potential impact of a technology is hardly going to be successful, as we are addressing the wrong question. Considering what technology could do for us completely ignores the real context and constraints people work and live in. Rather, technological innovation triggers a decision making and negotiation process which is driven by the perception of the people involved or who have to work with it. In so exciting times of rapid technological advancement, we can get easily carried away in focusing on the technologies alone, however, such determinism (not the technology) creates a lot of harm! Harm that was not intended with the creation of the technology and that could be reduced if we take the users, people, more into consideration again.

Sources:

Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan (2001)Organizational Behaviour- an introductory text, Pearson Educated Limited, 4th edition, England.

(http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/tecdet/tdet02.html, 2014

Richards, Paul in Bredewold (2005)

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