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ARIN2600 2009 L4 Social Construction


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Where does technological innovation happen? We tend to think of smart engineers solving technical problems and delivering us amazing new products.
The SCOT (Social Construction of Technology) tradition contests this story. Instead, it argues for interpretive flexibility: the meanings of these products is not secured until specific groups of users take them up.
This lecture uses the case study of computers to illustrate the shifting meanings (and opening and closing down of features) as the dominant user groups of computers changed.

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ARIN2600 2009 L4 Social Construction

  1. 1. Social construction of technology Lecture 4, ARIN2600 Technocultures Chris Chesher Digital Cultures University of Sydney
  2. 2. Previously in Technocultures • Technology as experience, freedom and control (McCarthy & Wright; Chun) • Marshall McLuhan • Medium is the message / probes / tetrad • Donna Haraway • Cyborg myth & changing dominations
  3. 3. Social construction of technology (SCOT) • Engineering & development is always social • subject to many influences (fashion, funding, feedback) • Technologies don’t exist until social groups make them work for their purposes • Changes in technology emerge from social contestations
  4. 4. Geared facile bicycle ‘lady racer’ THE PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF CANADA
  5. 5. SCOT • critique of technological determinism • symmetric & impartial treatment of successful & unsuccessful technologies • interpretive flexibility: different meanings can coexist around the same things • heterogeneous engineering
  6. 6. SCOT assumptions • social groups define which (part) artefacts are problems to be addressed • technical problems are closed by social consensus, not technical solutions • social groups make meanings of artefacts • for different social groups, the same object is a different artefact
  7. 7. Comparing approaches to technology Traditional view Social construction Linear development Multidirectional Research & improvement Variation & selection Meaning is socially Meaning is in the artefact constructed Problem solving Social processes Technical solutions Closure with consensus
  8. 8. How to do SCOT • Identify different groups positioned in relation to an innovation • What does it mean for each group? (What are the attractions & problems) • Identify moments of variation & selection • Identify processes of stabilisation & closure
  9. 9. Case study Development of the personal computer
  10. 10. Observations on computer history • Dramatic changes in communities of users • Changing meanings of computers, even with technical continuities • Different communities of users continue • Closure in one domain has often seen other domains open (e.g. networking)
  11. 11. SCOT & SAGE • Military threat of enemy missiles • strategic framing • real time operation is essential • Political imperatives & opportunities • Heterogeneous engineering: • propaganda & technology
  12. 12. SCOT & Business users • Priority on costs & worker efficiency • Accountability for purchasing & implementation decisions • Profitability & speed • Communication • Record-keeping & risk management
  13. 13. SCOT & Hackers • Community of technology users who gain social capital from technical mastery • Fluid movement between producers and consumers of technology • Limitations on experimentation are a problem • Even difficult innovations are welcomed
  14. 14. SCOT & home users • Value of educating self & children • Limited finances • computer can’t cost too much • financial software is attractive • Limited space in the home • Computer is confusing & intimidating
  15. 15. SCOT, mobile & ‘cloud’ • Meaning of computers changes as they become ‘ubiquitous’ • lightness, smallness, portability • special purpose devices (phones) have narrower meanings but wider userbase • location & timeliness • meaning of ‘cloud’ computing is not stable
  16. 16. DEBATE! • Tutorials this week will feature debates between SCOT supporters and critics. • Read the readings carefully so you can make a convincing case
  17. 17. Due next week! • Assignment 2. Analysis of the influences on, and influence of, a technocultures reading • Choose one of the readings in the course reader. Write an analysis of (i) the influences that informed this text, and (ii) the influence that this text has had on other writers.
  18. 18. Next weeks’ topic • Week 6/7: Technology and class (lecture) • Mid-semester break • Week 7: Technology and class (reading)