Technology and Social Problems

Frank Webster & Mark Erickson. Handbook of Social Problems: A Comparative International Perspective. Editor: George Ritzer. Sage Publication. 2004.

At the outset, we would make three important observations. The first may be obvious, but it is crucial: the relationship between technology and social problems is contingent on place. While just about everyone in the North has ready access to a landline phone and the majority now even possess mobiles, the majority of the current population of the world will never even get to use a telephone. Similarly, there is a good deal of talk about the rapid uptake on the Internet and e-mail in affluent societies. This technology’s diffusion is the fastest in human history, much more rapid than electricity, the motorcar, and even television. It is a safe bet that readers of this chapter use e-mail as a matter of daily routine, scarcely able to imagine how they conduct business without it. Indeed, in North America, well over 30 percent of people now have access to the Internet (and a much higher proportion of households are wired), though the technology only became available in the 1990s. But in Africa today, scarcely 2 in 1,000 are able to connect to the Internet—a figure that worsens dramatically if the Cape is excluded from calculation (Glasius, Kaldor, and Anheier 2002:281-85). Thus, the globe is sharply divided into zones of technological saturation and technological paucity. We want at the outset to identify this as being a significant social and global problem: the uneven economic and technological development of the world.

Second, we need to note that providing precise definitions of technology is elusive. The commonsense conception of technology—machinery and tools that carry out tasks on our behalf—may exclude things we would probably also want to call technology. For instance, is computer software technology, or should we reserve the term for hardware alone? This is not simply a problem for social scientists, who are used to dealing with concepts that at times appear to defy hard and fast definition. Politicians and legislators also have difficulties: in 1993, the inventor of the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption software was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for exporting a weapon after posting a copy of PGP on an Internet bulletin board. But is an idea that generates a computer programme to be categorized in the same way as an Armalite rifle? Does “technology” encompass them both? In what follows, will we not only face problems of defining technology in terms of what we should include and exclude but also the fact that many scholars argue that we cannot readily disentangle technology from its social context, nor even from the context of the knowledge that leads to its inception, that is, science. We will revisit these issues later in this chapter when we consider more theoretical understandings of technology. For the time being, suffice it to say that we need to bear in mind the contingent nature of technology and the breadth of phenomena, artifacts, and thought encompassed by the term itself. The concept of technology has fuzzy boundaries that will make absolute definition and identification difficult.

Third, as societies become more technological, the possibilities emerge for especially complex relationships between social problems and technology. However, we need to be cautious here: the saturation of our society with so much technology and the dramatic technological changes that Western industrial societies have undergone in recent centuries can make it appear as if the relationship between technology and social problems is exclusive to our own time. The relationship of humans to technology, the possibilities technology creates for us, and the problems that emerge from this are not new questions for social scientists and philosophers, as the work of Lewis Mumford (1934, 1971) shows. Furthermore, we are by no means the first generation to consider technology as being problematical: Ned Ludd and his followers roamed the industrializing landscape of early-nineteenth-century England, smashing machines that they saw as responsible for their loss of jobs and livelihoods. These machine breakers, Luddites, paid dearly for their actions: new laws were enacted by Parliament, and at York in 1813, 17 were publicly hanged for their crimes (Grint and Woolgar 1997:46; Reid 1986).

So, we need to exercise caution in our use of the concept of technology and need to note that our own location on the globe and in a specific history will affect our understanding of technology’s relationship to social problems.

Technology and Social Problems

What is the relation between technology and social problems? At first take, technology seems related to social problems only as a solution. This is so because technologies are artifacts that allow people to achieve goals. In this light, once a social problem is identified and the decision taken to address the problem, then appropriate technologies can be sought to achieve that end. For instance, in the United Kingdom, unruly behaviour at football grounds, usually associated with young and aggressive men, was a cause for concern amongst politicians, soccer’s management bodies, supporters, as well as the police during the 1970s and 1980s. The remarkable growth of closed circuit television surveillance (CCTV) and use by law enforcers of camcorders at and around football stadiums have been the technological answers to this social problem. There has been a radical decline in disturbances on the terraces because those involved can be sure they will be filmed, identified, and in due course arrested and punished. Thus, a technological solution to the problem of violence at and around football grounds was developed. To be sure, not all technological solutions to social problems are successful, but those that do work are legion and, possibly for that reason, frequently go unobserved—from hip replacements that make the incapacitated (and usually elderly) able to walk again, to the refrigerator that keeps food fresh and thereby extends its use, to electronic tags that allow criminals to be released from overcrowded prisons while still being under supervision.

Of course, much hinges here on what is meant by a social problem and how it comes about that it is targeted for eradication. Sociologists, as well as other critics, have long insisted that a social problem is not a given, and this means that there are hard questions to be asked about who defines what as a problem to which technologies may be applied. Even as regards the example given above, there may be some who consider fighting between fans at football grounds as unproblematic since it is largely contained conflict that is victimless (save for those who attend the games). There may be many who watch ice hockey as much for the entertainment of opponents hitting one another, rather than the puck, with their sticks. So, much depends on who conceives and what gets labeled a social problem.

Nevertheless, if we can leave to one side this matter of definition, then it remains the case that technology is generally regarded as an answer to problems. The goals for which technologies are created may be novel (e.g., recording music), or they can allow us to do things long imagined but hitherto unattainable (e.g., real-time transmission across vast distances), though for the most part technologies make more efficient established ways (e.g., improving the quality and durability of music recordings). Occasionally, technologies are invented without a clear purpose (e.g., the telephone), and more frequently, technologies are adapted by users in ways the designers did not envisage initially (e.g., text messaging with mobile phones). As a general rule, however, technologies help us meet goals, and as such they are welcomed as important, even privileged, means of overcoming social problems.

Technology as Beneficent

Regarded in this way, technology may be regarded as being of quite unrivalled beneficence to society. From it have come radical and continuous improvements in health (cheaper and more plentiful food, better medical interventions), in opportunities to travel (the railway engine, the airplane), and in access to knowledge (the paperback revolution, the photocopier). If one accepts that malnutrition and illness are to be avoided, that immobility is restrictive and cramping, and that ignorance is an anathema that can be fought by advances in publishing, then technology has manifestly been an important means of addressing these social problems.

In point of fact, technology may be seen to be contributing to the alleviation of social problems in two ways. The first, mentioned above, is the more direct, in being a “technical fix” applied more or less directly to a perceived problem. For example, elderly people living alone may be seen to be vulnerable to falls, in which circumstances they may need to call for assistance. A technical fix may involve the production of portable alarms that attach to their wrists. It is easy enough to think of instances such as this in which technology responds to a social problem.

However, a less direct but surely even more significant contribution of technology comes from its capacity to continuously increase living standards. This view is that technology is the dynamo driving the generation of wealth, alleviating suffering and allowing, through time, ordinary people to enjoy everyday luxuries such as holidays, leisure pursuits, and physically undemanding employment. Bluntly put, technological innovation contributes to an increase in human happiness by virtue of its ability to provide more. This is less directly a contribution to the solution of social problems than is the technical fix, but it is of enormous moment since technology’s capacity to increase wealth is the requisite for alleviating human misery and freedom from want. Its premise is that poverty is the most oppressive social problem there may be and that technology, in raising living standards, mitigates and even removes the condition. In support of it is the well-grounded finding that affluent people are happier than are poor. Seen in this way, it is not surprising that the utopian tradition has long held to the mediaeval idyll of the Land of Cockayne, a land of idleness and luxury that relies on there being material abundance always available and freedom from imposed labour (Davis 1981).

This perception of technology has exercised enormous influence in social thought. Indeed, it has often been a favoured way of understanding history. In these terms, the most consequential feature of human history is the Industrial Revolution, a process that began in the mid-eighteenth century and has continued unceasingly ever since (Hobsbawm 1968). It marked a break with century upon century of unchanging ways of life, caused enormous upheaval and dislocation, yet brought with it sustained improvements in standards of life. As David Landes (1969) observed, the Industrial Revolution “changed man’s way of life more than anything since the discovery of fire: the Englishman of 1750 was closer in material things to Caesar’s legionnaires than to his own great-grandchildren” (p. 5). Moreover, it is misleading to see the Industrial Revolution as a one-off event. More accurate is to conceive it as a process, which introduced profound changes in ways of life, accelerated change itself, and made change itself routine. Nonetheless, one ought not to underestimate the shock of the Industrial Revolution itself. Historians refer to the “Fall of the Roman Empire” as of enormous consequence in world history, and indeed it is. But we need to remember that this took place over six centuries and, more importantly, had little impact on habitual ways of life compared to the industrialisation process. Today, we are but three or four centuries beyond the Industrial Revolution’s commencement, yet the changes in how we live are scarcely comparable to those of our preindustrial ancestors. For instance, our life expectations are today almost double; it is confidently expected nowadays that children will outlive their parents (yet in 1800, only about one in four children survived infancy; Plumb 1950:13), and we are surrounded with affordable comforts and luxuries inconceivable to our predecessors. So much are we now beneficiaries of everyday opulence that we “can hardly understand the keenness with which a fur coat, a good fire on the hearth, a soft bed, a glass of wine, were… enjoyed” in mediaeval times (Huizinga 1924:9).

There are numerous dimensions to the Industrial Revolution, but at its heart was technology (Landes 1969). This brought mechanisation (and later automation) of production, the harnessing of inanimate energy (steam, later oil and electricity), and radical improvements in the getting and working of raw materials (for example, in metallurgy and chemistry). And from this combination came a cornucopia of products and processes that have continued to transform everyday life.

It was conventional amongst social scientists in the 1950s and 1960s to emphasise the confluence of modernisation, industrialisation, and technological innovation (Aron 1967). The likes of Talcott Parsons (1966) and Walt Rostow (1960) charted stages of development that (while they expanded their analyses to consider changes in the division of labour, shifts in how people related one to another, and the emergence of new social divisions) put technology at the centre of their accounts. The presumption was that a technological society was a superior form and that the wealth emanating from its development was to be welcomed precisely because it meliorated the conditions of the majority. Accordingly, the leading societies, those to be emulated, were the likes of Western Europe and especially the United States of America. There was an often explicit doctrine of progress underpinning such accounts. Many thinkers went even further to suggest that a “logic of industrialism” (Kerr et al. 1960) was driving even ideologically polarised nations such as the Soviet Union and the United States along the same developmental path, one that because of the “imperatives of technology” required much the same sorts of factory systems, bureaucracies, education, and hierarchies based on levels of expertise (Galbraith 1967).

The radicalisation of social science in the late 1960s led to a sustained assault on the perceived conservatism of this argument (Frank 1969; Webster 1990). Many of these criticisms were to the point, yet it is noticeable that the viewpoint did not disappear. Indeed, it has returned in recent decades with the suggestion that we are experiencing the emergence of an “information society.” It is worth spending some time on the thought of the major conceiver of the information society, Daniel Bell (b. 1919), because it is at once an influential strain of social science thinking and one that is underpinned by an insistence that technology is the foundation of social change and improvement. Bell’s argument in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) is that we may understand change in terms of transitions from preindustrial, through industrial, to postindustrial society by tracking where people are employed. In preindustrial society, the vast majority of people worked on the land, compelled by the exigencies of nature to labour long hours at subsistence level. The Agricultural Revolution in seventeenth and eighteenth-century England manifested in innovations in breeding cattle and crop rotation and enclosures, and led to increased production from the land such that people could be fed without all having to work there. This released them to move (and be moved) to the growing towns where they could find employment as industrial workers in the burgeoning factories. The Agricultural Revolution never ceased, such that over the years, farming—thanks to ongoing technical developments such as battery production, chemical fertilisers, the combine harvester, the tractor, and, more recently, genetically modified crops—has made astonishing leaps in output without needing many people to work the land. In the United Kingdom today, for instance, only about 3 percent of the workforce now work in agriculture, though these few produce over half the nation’s food (and it need scarcely be said that this is an enormously greater volume than that produced in the eighteenth century, when just about everyone worked on the land).

The central point is that technological innovation on the land means that we receive much more output for less input. This translates into a requirement for few farm workers but plentiful food to support a workforce that is employed elsewhere. It was in the nineteenth century that the industrial society came into being, identified by Bell in terms of where most people made their livelihoods (cf. Kumar 1978). The argument is that once there was sufficient output from the land to ensure they could be fed, then industrialisation could take off since workers could be ensured of adequate food supplies. However, Bell develops his argument to insist that the same process of technical rationalisation continues in industry itself: ongoing technological innovation leading to massive increases in output per worker. In his view, this ethos of “more for less” means that the society further enriches itself. What happens then, however, is that as wealth accumulates from the development of the assembly line, automation, and new product and process production, it becomes possible for new needs to be fulfilled by spending this wealth. For instance, education and pensions become affordable as wealth increases, as, sooner or later, does education up to the age of 21 or 22 and retirement at an earlier age than 65. This in turn generates employment in particular kinds of work, which consumes wealth in providing services of one sort or another. The beauty of this theory is that so long as additional wealth continues to be generated from industry and industrialised agriculture, then people may continue to create needs that in being met, stimulate service employment. For instance, entertainers, sports instructors, and psychotherapists are all characteristics of an affluent society, though doubtless these are nowadays seen as essential to many people.

Ultimately, the theory goes, just about everyone will be employed in services (which have the advantage of being immune, by and large, from substitution by technology) because technology will take over the bulk of agriculture and industry at the same time as it ensures continued increases in wealth. It appears that neither individuals nor societies ever become incapable of spending their wealth, since each can create an infinity of new needs: a shorter working week, personal trainers, lifelong education facilities, and so on. At a certain point, we enter a postindustrial society, since while the wealth generated by industry continues unabated, most people will work in the service industries. These, adds Bell, are much more desirable and satisfying than other forms of work, since they are “people-to-people” activities, the major element of which is information (consider the teacher educating her charges, the scriptwriter with his story, the journalist with her angle) rather than machine operation or working with and against the elements. Accordingly, a postindustrial society is an “information society” and much more appealing than what went before.

What we would emphasise here is the current popularity of Bell’s vision of how change has come about and where it is going (Webster 2002). For example, in recent years Francis Fukuyama (b. 1953) has produced his influential “end of history” thesis (Fukuyama 1992). Simply, this argues that the capitalist West has triumphed over the communist alternatives because of its capacity to outproduce it. Though Fukuyama’s praise is for “liberal capitalism,” at base it is the same as that offered by Bell in that its central proposition is that technological innovation is what really counts and the open market economies are the means by which technology advances most propitiously. Thus, Fukuyama notes that “the unfolding of technologically driven economic modernization creates strong incentives for developed countries to accept the basic terms of the universal capitalist economic culture” (pp. 96-7). In this view, the West won the cold war because it could most effectively make available the consumer goods such as television, compact disc players, and video recorders. When Fukuyama refers to the “victory of the VCR,” he is ploughing a similar track to that of Daniel Bell: technology is the major expression of change. Not surprisingly, he too embraces a convergence theory of development. Revealingly, Fukuyama’s more recent work follows a similar line of technology determining the form of human society: biotechnology is changing our attitude toward the world we live in and toward ourselves as human beings (Fukuyama 2002).

In all such thinking, the fulcrum of change is technology or, to use Bell’s terminology, a guiding principle of “more for less.” Productivity is the key to development, and this stems from advances in technology. Without greater output from fewer people, then a service society, and all that accompanies it, is unthinkable. As Bell observes, this is not a novel interpretation of history: his understanding draws on Max Weber’s (1864-1920) notion of instrumental action (efficiency expressed by minimum investment for maximum return), which, says Bell, is most often expressed in technological form, and, further back, in Henri St.-Simon’s (1760-1825) celebration of the emergence of engineers and other technicians (Taylor 1976).

It has to be said that Max Weber was famously glum about the future, however much more efficient it would come to be (Turner 2000). But the theory of postindustrialism slews off pessimism, insisting that productivity increases mean that social problems can be identified and addressed. Furthermore, Bell observes that many social problems that are identified in postindustrial society would have been ignored, or not even imagined, in previous epochs. It fits logically with his thesis that only an affluent society can be concerned about, say, the environment or the quality of working life. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for instance, scarcely anyone objected to the waste tips and belching smoke from collieries and manufacturing centres (one of these tips, after heavy rain, slipped and overwhelmed a school in 1966 at Aberfan in Glamorgan, claiming the lives of almost 150 children). The mining towns of North East England and South Wales had a Klondike character—housing was assembled next to the place of work at cheapest cost with little regard for those who had to live there (Beynon and Austrin 1994). In Bell’s view, this was because, at that time, an “economising” ethic predominated, which sought maximum return on investment irrespective of the harm done to the natural or human environment (during the late nineteenth century, no less than one in five or six miners were injured underground every year, and several thousand were killed there annually; Benson 1980:41).

By the late twentieth century, such are the needs that may be addressed by a “post-scarcity” or “postmaterialist” society (Inglehart 1990) that a “socialising” ethos—which prioritises the “communal” elements of life—comes to prevail, one that urges shorter working hours and concern for the conditions of labour and can express a desire to maintain an “unspoilt” environment. That is, only affluent societies can imagine certain matters as social problems: until they attain a given level of wealth, they are caught in the strictures of imposed conditions. A thought experiment demonstrates this point readily enough: imagine, if one can, a worker in the nineteenth century needing paid annual holidays of six weeks (the current norm in Western Europe, though a good deal less in the United States) or yearning for the weekend breaks that adorn our newspaper supplements. In truth, the concept of holidays, beyond the occasional feast day, is an outcome of advanced industrial societies that provide the wealth to pay for them as well as the technologies and organisational techniques to make them affordable (notably the package tour; Urry 2002). Similarly, it is salutary to be reminded that poverty, perceived as a social problem that might be remedied, is a product of the modern age. Of course, there have long been the poor and destitute, but as the biblical adage puts it, “The poor are always with us.” It was only in the early nineteenth century that poverty was “discovered” and imagined as something that might be removed by effective social policies (Himmelfarb 1984; Inglis 1971).

Daniel Bell’s orthodox sociology finds an echo in much Marxian thinking about technology and its connections with social problems. It is generally acknowledged that Marxian analysis locates the cause of social problems in the unequal class relations that characterise capitalist societies. The familiar advocacy is that transformation of capitalism is required to solve social problems. However, a closer look at Marxian accounts reveals that this is by no means the case as regards technology. Recurrently in the writings of Marx and Engels, as well as in many followers, there is an insistence that a prerequisite of reform is a certain level of technological development. That is, in the Marxian tradition, one encounters time and again the claim that a foundation for all else is a given technological base. This being so, it carries the necessary presumption that technology per se is an essential contributor to solving social problems. This much is clear in Marx’s well-known distinction between the “realm of freedom” and the “realm of necessity” and his argument that “the true realm of freedom …can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis” (Marx, as cited in McLellan 1977:496-7). Marx’s insistence that politics could not be meaningfully addressed until a certain sufficiency was attained—here we encounter the (in)famous base/superstructure division that runs through most Marxian analysis (Gouldner 1980)—is evident in his claim, in The German Ideology (1848), that “the development of productive forces…is an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it privation, want, is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again” (Marx and Engels 1976:49). This amounts to arguing that until one is fed adequately, sheltered securely, and able to have adequate time away from work, meaningful politics are impossible. Certain social problems must be addressed as a prelude to the class struggle.

It is because of this similarity in argument that Daniel Bell’s work was received even by sympathisers as “fairly familiar Marxist stuff” (Schonfield 1969:20) and even as “apolitical Marxism” by Seymour Martin Lipset (1981:22), and it is surely why he could identify 1960s Soviet accounts of the “Scientific Technological Revolution” (Dahrendorf et al. 1977; Gouré et al. 1973) as consonant with his own vision of postindustrial society (Bell 1973:106-12). The common thread is the assumption that technology is a foundational principle for social life and something that addresses problems such as the arduous physical demands of labour and inadequacy of food supply, which must be solved prior to engagement in politics. We can also identify echoes of Herbert Marcuse in Bell’s thesis. Marcuse (1968) represents a strong trend in Marxian thinking toward an idealized future of a leisure society:

Within the advanced societies the continued application of scientific rationality would have reached a terminal point with the mechanization of all socially necessary labour. Further progress would mean the break, the turn of quantity into quality. It would open the possibility of an essentially new human reality—namely the existence of free time on the basis of fulfilled vital needs. (Pp. 230-31)

Similarly, it should not be surprising that André Gorz (b. 1920), an influential contemporary voice within the Marxian tradition, has called for socialism to be constructed around “leisure,” which is founded on the plentitude produced by advanced technologies. Urging that the Left revoke its commitment to struggle as workers, Gorz (1982) advocates the goal of “winning power no longer to function as a worker” (p. 67). In his view, technology now meets “primary needs” (p. 97), so socialism should be conceived as freedom from work so long as conditions of life are ensured. With basic needs satisfied by technology, socialism may be constructed in “leisure” activities in what Gorz, recalling Marx’s distinction between “necessity” and “freedom,” calls the “sphere of autonomous activity” (p. 93).

Theoretical Knowledge

If technology is perceived, apparently consensually, as the prerequisite of any desirable society because it ameliorates the most basic of social problems, then there is also an important change in the character of technological development that needs to be appreciated. This involves the central role of theory, by which is meant knowledge that is abstract, generalisable, and codified. It is abstract in that it is not of direct applicability to a given situation and generalisable in so far as it has relevance beyond particular circumstances, and it is presented in things such as books, articles, television, and educational courses. Theoretical knowledge has come to play a key role in contemporary society, in marked contrast to earlier epochs when practical and situated knowledge were predominant. If one considers, for instance, the makers of the Industrial Revolution, it is clear that these were what Daniel Bell (1973) has referred to as “talented tinkerers” who were “indifferent to science and the fundamental laws underlying their investigations” (p. 20). Abraham Darby’s development of the blast furnace, George Stephenson’s railway locomotive, James Watt’s steam engines, Matthew Boulton’s engineering innovations, and any number of other inventions from around 1750 to 1850 were the products of feeton-the-ground innovators and entrepreneurs, people who faced practical problems to which they reacted with practical solutions. Though by the end of the nineteenth century, science-based technologies were shaping the course of industry, it remained the case that just a century ago,

Vast areas of human life continued to be ruled by little more than experience, experiment, skill, trained common sense and, at most, the systematic diffusion of knowledge about the best available practices and techniques. This was plainly the case in farming, building and medicine, and indeed over a vast range of activities which supplied human beings with their needs and luxuries. (Hobsbawm 1994:525)

In contrast, today, innovations start from known principles (though these principles may be understood only by a minority of experts). These theoretical principles, entered in texts, are the starting point, for instance, of the advances of the Human Genome Project and of the physics and mathematics that are the foundation of modern computing and electronic engineering. Areas as diverse as aeronautics, plastics, medicine, and pharmaceuticals illustrate realms in which theoretical knowledge is fundamental to life today.

Moreover, theoretical knowledge’s primacy is not limited to leading-edge technological innovations. Indeed, it is hard to think of any technological applications in which theory is not a prerequisite of development. For instance, road repair, house construction, sewerage disposal, or motorcar manufacture are each premised on known theoretical principles of material durability, structural laws, toxins, energy consumption, and much more. This knowledge is formalised in texts and transmitted especially through the educational process, which, through specialisation, means that most people are ignorant of the theoretical knowledge outside of their own expertise. Nonetheless, no one today can be unaware of the profound importance of this theory for what one might conceive as everyday technologies, such as microwave ovens, compact disc players, and digital clocks. It is correct, of course, to perceive the architect, water engineer, and mechanic to be practical people. Indeed they are: but one ought not to overlook the fact that theoretical knowledge has been absorbed by these practitioners and in turn integrated into their practical work (and often supplemented by smart technologies of testing, measurement, and design that have incorporated theoretical knowledge).

The primacy of theoretical knowledge nowadays reaches far beyond science and technology. Consider, for instance, politics, and one may appreciate that theoretical knowledge is at the core of much policy and debate about social problems. To be sure, politics is the “art of the possible,” and it must be able to respond to contingencies, yet wherever one looks, be it transport, environment, or the economy, one encounters a central role ascribed to theory (costbenefit analysis models, concepts of environmental sustainability, theses on the relationship between inflation and employment). In all such areas, criteria that distinguish theoretical knowledge (abstraction, generalisability, codification) are satisfied. This theoretical knowledge may lack the law-like character of nuclear physics or biochemistry, but it does operate on similar grounds, and it is hard to deny that it permeates enormous amounts of contemporary life.

There are several important consequences of this rise to prominence of theoretical knowledge. First, if it is the case that “the theorists (have been) in the driving seat … telling the practitioners what they were to look for and should find in the light of their theories” (Hobsbawm 1994:534-55), then this provides considerably enhanced control over social problems than hitherto. With theory leading, there comes necessarily an enhanced command over affairs. For instance, known demographic patterns can be modeled into the future based on fertility rates, life expectancy, morbidity, and so on, thereby allowing for long-term planning of solutions to anticipated problems. Again, traffic growth and its flows and energy consumption can be mapped and measured, projected forward, and integrated with other forms of transportation in such a way as to foresee problems such as bottlenecks, noise pollution, and accident rates—and planners and policymakers can make necessary adjustments to best plan transport networks. Similarly, environmental conditions may be tracked and projected in terms of “What if?” scenarios, to which appropriate measures may be taken to thwart the worst consequences of a particular tendency. Second, the prominence of theory places greater emphasis on its codification and transmission across the generations, which, in turn, raises the significance of education and the credentials that are issued. It is remarkable, in this light, to note that in all advanced societies, something like one-third of each age-group will participate in higher education. It is to be expected that the products of such education systems will emerge both better equipped and more willing to tackle social problems in the future. Third, and related, is the diminishing role of belief in fate (Giddens 1991). As people become aware of and informed by theoretical knowledge, so will resignation to destiny decline. This is, of course, a long-term trend, but it is something markedly evident nowadays in, for example, the refusal to accept that age necessarily removes one’s capacity to participate fully in society (one sees instances of this in middle-aged women giving birth, in questioning why retirement should be mandatory at age 65, and in insistence that sex relations may be continued into old age). It is a tendency most manifest in the emergence of genetic engineering, where “nature” is contested in anything from reproduction of the species to production of fruits. At one time, problems of poverty might have been explained fatalistically as the “will of God,” while wars might have been accounted for in terms of “man’s brutality to man” and pregnancy put down to “luck.” But such views are increasingly unacceptable in an age in which theoretical knowledge is dominant and in which technical solutions can be applied or, if not ready to hand, designed.


In sum, we may say that technology resolves social problems in at least three ways:

  1. By direct intervention in providing technical fix solutions
  2. Through raising living standards and thereby mitigating the problems associated with poverty that have bedeviled human history
  3. By its being more capable of conscious application through the primacy of theoretical knowledge in the modern world

Such argument will have no truck with those who counter our highly technological society with an idyllic past. Accompanying the undoubted weakening of community bonds (Nisbet 1972:47-106), a longterm effect of industrialisation, has been a refrain of idealisation of preindustrial life. Ever since the Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge (and even before), there has been a strain of thought that counterposes the industrial life (dirty, dishonest, unhealthy, and fraught) with that of rural ways (harmonious, rooted, stable, and healthy). It may be an especially virulent mode of thought in England that finds expression in a retrospective nostalgia for a disappearing “golden age” that is being destroyed by invasive technologies—the power station, the automobile, the factory, and the urban sprawl (Newby 1979)—but it has to be emphasised that it is a myth. While this myth of ruralism may bring comfort to today’s car-owning commuter (who will typically earn his living in the nearby town or city), who enjoys his whitewashed cottage (suitably installed with central heating, carpets, electricity, and similar hightech conveniences), it bears little relation to the lives of real country dwellers who lived prior to modernity. If people hung together more assiduously in villages and hamlets in agrarian times, and they surely were more communal than we are today, then it was because of what Raymond Williams (1973) termed a “mutuality of the oppressed,” because life for most was nasty, brutish, and short, and cooperation was a condition of survival.

We have referred earlier in this chapter to the low life expectations of most people for most of the time (until the nineteenth century, it was but 40 years for as far back in human history we can go, and it has about doubled over the last century for people in affluent societies). Before industrialisation, people were subject to the vagaries of plague, pestilence, and tempestuous weather in ways that are hard to imagine today (for instance, the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century swept across Europe as a pandemic, killing almost half the entire British population, and numerous other outbreaks of plague continued well into the eighteenth century; Cannon 2002:753). They were oppressed by the forces of nature against which they had to do continual battle, whether it was married women who endured multiple pregnancies because the technological means of birth control were unknown or at best rudimentary, whether it was against sudden crop failure or diseased animals, whether it was the search for potable water and the maladies of human waste, whether it was seeing many of their infants fail to survive, or whether it was simply a chronic lack of nourishment. It has been technological innovation and the industrialisation that is its accompaniment that have alleviated these circumstances.

Technology as a Social Problem

But can one accept the forgoing? It is surely unpersuasive given the apparently enormous number of cases in which technology appears to be a manifest cause of social problems. A litany of cases comes to mind. For instance, arguably the major issue facing the world today is environmental damage (Brundtland 1987), notably global warming and the associated climatic shifts and potentially catastrophic floods that will accompany this. Profligate use of gasoline, inappropriate use of solid fuels, and CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) are some of the causes of this predicament. As sobering is the issue of nuclear power, the disposal of the waste from which is extraordinarily complex, time dependent, and risky (Patterson 1976). Following the disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, no one will need much reminding of the social problems emanating from nuclear power production. Again, consider the issue of nvCJD (new variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, a neurological condition for which there is no cure), which has killed scores of humans in recent years and has been linked to their eating cattle contaminated by BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) during the 1980s and 1990s in Europe. The cause of BSE has been traced to the technology of feeding cattle with the remains of other animals, surely another instance where technology creates social problems.

Moreover, technologies can appear advantageous to some but may cause social problems for others. For example, if a new technology is introduced into the workplace and this requires fewer employees than before, then social problems—unemployment, anxiety, and dislocation—are clearly imposed on some even if the majority are beneficiaries. Indeed, one could go further to suggest that many workplace technologies have resulted in a decline in the autonomy of those who must work with them—machine pacing and intrusive monitoring of performance are some of the maladies frequently complained about by those who work in factories and indeed many offices (Noble 1984). Such practices lead to stress, industrial injuries, alienation, and anomie, and the deleterious effects of increased technology in workplaces may outweigh the positive increases in efficiency and production, particularly if a long-term view is taken (Bradley et al. 2000).

It helps understanding the role of technologies in creating social problems by distinguishing between anticipated and unanticipated consequences of their development. An anticipated social problem might involve the introduction of a technology that leads to there being less work available. For example, the spread of computerisation in the newspaper industry led to the demise of the established printer. The technology here contributed to a social problem that might have been addressed in various ways (retraining, early retirements, freeze on new recruitment, etc.), but it is evident that the problem was foreseen by many commentators (Martin 1981). An unanticipated consequence is one where the introduction of the technology produces an effect far away from the intended sphere of influence (Tenner 1996). For example, the development of modern birth control technologies had an intended consequence in allowing women to control reproduction and was effective in allowing people to choose when and how many children to have. However, few would have expected that a problem would later emerge in Western Europe of a decline in the younger elements of the population, which exacerbates a serious problem of long-term care of the older generation and, in the longer term, to problems of maintaining population levels. Relatedly, medical technologies help lengthen the life span, and this is usually regarded as a very positive development. But an unanticipated consequence of greater longevity is major pressure on pension funds that were designed on a different actuarial basis. In addition, with more and more people living into and beyond their 80s and supported by improved medical technologies that keep them going, there comes the problem of providing the care they tend to require as they grow frail. With fewer people available in the younger generations and increased geographical spread, we face serious, but unexpected, difficulties posed by the prolongation of life.

There are many other examples of unanticipated consequences of technological development. For example, the spread of the private car has been, for many, a very great benefit, allowing options to travel securely and pleasurably. Today, the vast majority of homes in the United Kingdom own a motor car. However, an unanticipated consequence of this has been the problem of social exclusion of significant minorities. The elderly who may not be able to drive on health grounds, the poor who cannot afford cars, and car-less women are frequently excluded from many activities because of this, particularly as public transport has declined precisely because of preferences given to private transport. Transport, indeed, is littered with examples of technologies introduced with clear goals in mind, but one finds unexpected social problems arising as a result, amongst which noise, road accidents, and physical pollution loom large. For instance, the remarkable rise in airplane travel has meant cheap and fast transit for many people, but the location of airports and the emissions from planes, especially those on short haul, create serious social problems (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 2002). All advanced societies have undergone major road-building programmes in recent decades, the main reasons for which are to alleviate the stress on the existing network. But frequently, the new roads attract additional traffic and, in turn, create further problems of congestion and pollution. The London arterial motorway, the M25, is a byword for this in England, as is the Paris ring road in France. Again, the positioning of closed circuit television cameras on street corners has been intended to ensure that deviants are apprehended and the law abiding can go their way unmolested, yet an unanticipated consequence has been a distinct expansion of “big brother” in towns and cities, and concerns about privacy have been voiced because of heightened surveillance (Norris and Armstrong 1999). And how can one fail to observe that the increased availability of cheap food, courtesy of hightech farming, convenience food availability, and more sedentary lifestyles have contributed untowardly to the massive social problem—what has been called a “global epidemic”—of obesity, where some 60 percent of adults in the United States are overweight or obese and suffer in consequence high rates of coronary disease and other maladies?

On the ground, of course, divisions between what can be anticipated and what cannot may be blurred because of difficulties of seeing far into the future and predicting effects in complex situations. A characteristic response is to carry out “risk assessments” that attempt to identify the pros and cons of technological innovations (perhaps cheaper production but fewer employees; more jobs but an unsightly production centre; greater yields but more susceptibility to disease). These can be highly complex matters involving public inquiries and considerable research provision (e.g., agreeing on the sites of power stations or airports), but they are also a part of everyday life, where people endeavour to weigh the range of social effects of technological innovations in order to control them more effectively (Beck 1992). Not infrequently such a “risk assessment” can conclude that a technology will lead to social problems, but these may be addressed by additional technological fixes. For instance, the availability of motorcars may lead to unacceptable congestion in urban areas, which, in turn, can be answered by the introduction of bicycle and bus lanes and disincentives introduced to reduce the appeal of automobile traffic, such as the tolls being introduced in London in 2003 (the collection of which relies on sophisticated computer and satellite technologies that will scan car registration numbers and bill accordingly).

A common response to the accusation that technology can create social problems is to argue that it is a neutral phenomenon that can be used either positively or negatively. This use/abuse approach is remarkably widespread in discussions of technology and society relationships. There is clearly something in this, in that one may readily think of instances where the principle is operative. For instance, one may use an automobile to help rob a bank or speed one to one’s grandchildren, a computer to access pornography or to organise for good causes. The corollary of such an argument is that technology per se cannot cause social problems because technology itself is itself apart from the social realm: it is only when social interventions are made that the issue of benefits as opposed to disbenefits comes into play. An enormous amount of discussion of technology and the future adopts the use/abuse approach, one evidenced in arguments that suggest alternatives of utopia or dystopia depending on social choices in the development of ICTs (information and communication technologies), genetic engineering, and other advanced technologies. Scenarios of either “big brother” or “information for all,” a “leisure society” or mass unemployment, and the establishment of “electronic communities” or a life of social isolation are frequently portrayed in such discussions.

The use/abuse approach sits comfortably with the view, reviewed above, that technology is fundamentally beneficent. In these terms, so long as it is used wisely, technology signifies progress. To this degree, technology may be regarded, even by critics of the status quo, as a positive development, as something that might be regarded as a legacy waiting for more appropriate social policies to be put in place. This sort of thinking is evident in much Marxian thinking, which perceives technology as a “base,” as the foundation upon which socialism may be built, though it has been developed by capitalist forces (Webster and Robins 1986). Technology here is a necessary but neutral inheritance that will be put to good use when social policies change. Insofar as radicals embrace technology in this way, they share the same use/abuse approach of more conservative commentators on technological innovation.

A major difficulty with this view is that while technology is said to be neutral, it is also insisted that it is essential to the modern social world. To the degree that it sees technology as foundational to society, it is technologically determinist, something that subordinates the social to a secondary role and must also think in terms of technology “impacting” on society as though it were an external force (MacKenzie 1998). The use/abuse vision of technology sharply separates technology and the social, suggesting that the latter plays a role in shaping the technology’s applications, but this only after an essentially asocial technology has been developed. The problem here is that it is evident that technologies are influenced by social relationships before and during their development. For instance, research and development decisions prioritise some and relegate other proposals. The huge spending of powerful nations on defence has been a major reason why some of the most virtuoso computer communications technologies were found in the military and space domains. The relative paucity of investment in research on alternative energies is surely the reason why they are so underdeveloped. Or take the homes in which people live, an everyday technology if ever there was one, yet vital to us all. Can anyone who has ever ridden a train or coach through a city, from the centre to the suburbs, be unaware of the values that are integrated into the architecture of homes? Size of plot, style of building, number of rooms, type of brickwork (or other), proximity to other houses and to roadways, and even the location of garages speak volumes about social values, aesthetic, class, and culture. Bluntly put, the use/abuse approach to technology is oversimplistic, suggesting too straightforward a role for social choices while acceding to the view that technology is the fundamental determinant of how we live. Seen from this point of view, technology may not create social problems simply due to unfortunate abuses, but because social values and priorities have already found a place inside a technological development (MacKenzie and Wajcman 1999).

This leads on to more radical theories of technological innovation. Here, we encounter a characteristic emphasis on power, interests, and control as decisive features of technology’s development (Dickson 1974). Radical thinkers typically draw attention to the import of markets in developing technologies (e.g., consumer electronic goods meet high-level demand for home music systems, and most recent innovations there build upon the enormous success of the television), to corporate power (e.g., in dominating technological development through patents or through their capacity to provide the necessary capital to see technologies through to successful implementation), and to political stakeholders (notably the defence industry). Such approaches regard technology as profoundly influenced by the current organisation of society, which may, for a variety of reasons, introduce technologies that create or exacerbate particular social problems precisely because they have incorporated social values from the outset (Noble 1983). For instance, it has been observed that technologies aimed at the shop floor have been guided, for the most part, by distrust of the workforce. It is hard to think of technologies that have been designed with the goal of empowerment and ennoblement of the worker (though a case may be made for the Apple Mac). Rather, the aim has been to maximise output and reduce costs, to which ends the goal has been to diminish the role of the worker. Again, it is hard to see the motorcar as merely a neutral technology that may be used and abused when one reflects on the ways in which it tends to consolidate the intensely private mode of life of the Western world. That is, the typical car is designed to be privately owned, to accommodate the modern nuclear family (four seats, though with plenty of cars developed to reflect other social values—the sports car, the executive car, the “about-town” car). Above all, perhaps, the car is antipathetic to shared forms of transport, as witnessed in the decline in train and bus services over the years. Finally, consider the intimate role a great deal of technological development has had with the military. It cannot be surprising that, for instance, the leading-edge ICTs are found in the arms industry, in a battery of weapons from spy satellites to digitalised infantry, where the development of “information warfare” has been enormously stimulated by a “revolution in military affairs” (Cohen 1996; Robins and Webster 1999).

More radical still are approaches to technology that are informed by ecological insights (Pepper 1996). At the outset, an ecological point of view would comment on the anthropocentric orientation of most technological change (Leopold 1949). This presupposes that the human species is the centrepiece of the world and that it has a right to do what it will to the earth and other species, so long as humanity benefits. Such hubris has resulted in extinction of many other species and in crises as diverse as overfishing and desertification. From such a perspective, technology, guided by anthropocentric values, results in major problems for the sustainability of other life forms alongside humans and even for the survival of life itself. Here, we may also draw a distinction between ecocentric as opposed to technocentric positions. The latter evokes the technologist’s conviction that what matters above all is control of the environment in pursuit of advantage to humans. However, an ecocentric approach proclaims that humans are part of nature and that they should act accordingly. As such, technologies are to be developed that are in harmony with and respectful of nature. These are likely to be small scale and uncomplicated in design, far removed from the large-scale and centralising technologies characteristic of the advanced societies.

Such critical approaches to technology, though they encompass a range of opinion, share a refusal to see technology as an autonomous, asocial phenomenon (Winner 1977). Necessarily, then, they refuse any straightforward depiction of technology as the answer to social problems. Indeed, they frequently regard technology, insofar as it expresses sectional interests or power, as contributing to and even creating social problems. It is noticeable that such critical approaches have come from campaigners, in recent years, most clearly the environmental movements. From such quarters have been highprofile critiques, for example, of the oil industry and its technologies, which can pollute the environment and arguably squander nonrenewable energy resources.

What these critiques share is an insistence that it is untenable to distinguish sharply between technology and the social realm. Inside academe, this has been taken up and extended to be presented as various versions of social constructionism. Less engaged than the environmental or political critics of technology, constructionism shares the view that the social is a constitutive part of technology. When it comes to considering questions of technology and social problems, it follows that the constructivist position refuses to accept the implied binary division. Perhaps the most widely cited version is Bruno Latour’s (1996) actor network theory, which, attempting to break with such oppositions, approaches human and nonhuman elements as actants in networks of relationships. While conceptually persuasive and capable of producing richly impressive case studies of technological development, such an approach has difficulties in addressing large-scale and structural questions (Winner 1993).

What is Technology?

These debates about the neutrality or otherwise of technology and its relationship to the social realm lead us back to a crucial issue: just what is technology, and how do we relate to it? The pervasiveness of technology in advanced industrial societies may lead to, paradoxically, a hiding of technology in that we become so used to being surrounded by it and so inured to its everyday influences that it can become difficult to identify what technology actually is. Some commentators endeavour to explain this difficulty in “seeing” technology by reference to largescale changes in societies themselves. The concepts of “technoscience” and “technoscientific society” are pertinent here.

We start this section by noting that it is generally difficult in contemporary society to distinguish science from technology: when we look at technological objects in our lives, we often think of science. Likewise, when we think of science, we often think of the technology that science engenders. This conflation and fusion of science and technology has been called “technoscience” by some commentators (Aronowitz and DiFazio 1994; Haraway 1997; Latour 1987), and it is connected to the growth of theoretical knowledge, of which science is a considerable element, to which we referred above. The identification of the conflation of science and technology is the starting point for a range of different perspectives on technoscience.

Latour (1987) and Aronowitz and DiFazio (1994), whilst approaching this topic from very different perspectives (broadly, social constructionism and critical theory), agree that the distinguishing feature of technoscience is the conflation of science and technology, where we simply cannot separate science from technology, and vice versa. Aronowitz and DiFazio take a broad structural look at technoscience, focusing on workplaces, noting that it is the state of affairs that results when science becomes inextricably linked with the technology it has created, where “work cannot be separated from its mechanical aspects, which, in the light of the drift of the field, seem to dominate all so-called intellectual problems” (p. 51). This is an echo of the work of Jürgen Habermas (1971), who describes the emergence of a technocratic consciousness in advanced industrial societies: it is this consciousness that promotes the application of technical solutions to social problems regardless of the appropriateness of such strategies.

In contrast, Latour (1987) identifies technoscience in society as a whole, rather than just in the world of work. For Latour, when we see particular pieces of technology, or particular effects of technology—say, the PC (personal computer) sitting on your desk—we will see science as the driving force behind them, even when there is no clear link between the technology and scientific knowledge. He acknowledges that this conception of technoscience might expand to include all interest groups and ideologies. But Latour refuses such expansion, insisting instead that understanding of technoscience should be based on identifying the networks of knowledges, interests, and actors involved in a particular production. Thus, each instance of technoscience is to be judged on its own terms: Latour’s technoscience is a concept to allow us to analyse the microworld surrounding a technology: how does this object come into being in this way and at this time? Where Aronowitz and DiFazio see technoscience as an all-pervading “ideology” that has similar effects in different places, Latour’s technoscience is subject and place specific.

As well as describing the inseparableness of the objects of technology from the practice and knowledge of science, technoscience can also designate a state of affairs (a time and place, in this case Western industrial societies in the early twenty-first century) where intellectual problems of the day become increasingly dominated by technical considerations and, often, solutions. This is what Haraway (1997) does:

This discourse takes shape from the material, social, and literary technologies that bind us together as entities within the region of historical hyperspace called technoscience. Hyper means “over” or “beyond,” in the sense of “overshooting” or “extravagance.” Thus, technoscience indicates a time-space modality that is extravagant, that overshoots passages through naked or unmarked history. Technoscience extravagantly exceeds the distinction between science and technology as well as those between nature and society, subjects and objects, and the natural and artificial that structured the imaginary time called modernity. (P. 3)

Technoscience is thus both an object of inquiry and a context in which our inquiry can be located, and technoscience “exceeds” science and technology: it is bigger than the sum of its parts. Furthermore, technoscience is also a language and a grammar that we are using to describe the world around us and our selves within the world. If we follow Haraway’s understanding of technoscience, we will find it resists being broken down into constituent components: we will not find it possible to look at an object in contemporary industrial society and see what is “scientific” about it and what is “technological.” Indeed, Haraway would want to go further and say that we cannot identify “objects” in contradistinction to “subjects” and that such distinctions have been rendered meaningless by our changing relationships to artifacts and nonhuman actors. This is not simply due to the fusing together of science and technology; it is also due to the changing shape of our language and grammar of meaning. Our lives are now described by technoscientific language, and our meanings are constructed around technoscientific viewpoints on the world. We cannot extricate ourselves from this form of life, this technoculture. Thus, for many contemporary observers, social problems, technology, and (scientific) knowledge become inextricably linked.


So, how might we conclude this discussion of technology and social problems? It can be agreed that the preeminence of theoretical knowledge has led to enhanced control over technological development, and therefore the capability and purposefulness of technology have been enormously increased, though this is by no means to say that technology’s consequences can all be foreseen. It is also surely clear that the positing of linear relationships between technology and society are unpersuasive. Though it is commonplace to think so (Winner 1997), the notion that technology solves social problems is a half-truth that is countered by the charge, also half true, that technology creates social problems. The difficulty with such thinking is that both types assume that technology and society are independent of one another, though—at least with the argument that technology is the privileged answer to social problems—technology is also presumed to be foundational, and thereby determining, of social relations.

It is therefore important that we consider how we might best conceive technology and society relationships. There are various proposals here, ranging from those that evoke technology as but a tool of the powerful to deep ecology adherents who would emphasise a profoundly anti-ecological outlook driving modern technology’s search for control over the earth. There appears now to be a consensus that some form of social constructionism must be endorsed (though there are multiple versions of this), if for no other reason than that technology cannot be removed from social circumstances that give it meaning, shape its applications, and guide its development. The concept of technoscience is a response to this situation, one that starts from the inseparability of technology, science, and society. From such perspectives, to ask plainly what is technology’s connection with social problems is misdirected. Much more complicated and nuanced analyses are required that reject cause-effect relations and move away from thinking about technology, science, and society as autonomous entities. However, whichever of these approaches is adopted, each carries with it the risk that technologies come to be regarded as “just another social relationship.” While social constructionism frees up the imagination and effectively counters technological determinism, it is hard to agree that technologies can be regarded in quite the same way as, say, friendship relations in a local pub. Technologies have a materiality and durability that is absent in most social relationships. Any adequate attempt to understand the technology and social problems nexus must come to terms with this.