Canceling the Thought of “Technology VS. Society/Culture” Dualism

Canceling the Thought of “Technology VS. Society/Culture” Dualism

Yingxin Lyu

Artifacts have both technology or society/culture natures, but people should not treat these natures as two independent aspects; since modern technology artifacts can be seen as complex systems, people should also view them as sociotechnical ones. This writing will explain the point from two aspects: historical (or cultural) one and societal one.

First, modern “technological artifacts” are developed from ancient times and achieved cumulated advantages from the past, these cultural natures cannot be ignored. “Humans modified material objects”1, or artificial tool, were created in ancient times. These objects and tools were changed and evolved with the development of human society and culture. For example, houses evolved from caves, glasses bowls evolved from pottery ones, and smart watches evolved from bell houses. These artifacts evolved in such ways because people discovered finer materials and better techniques, invented more useful auxiliary machines, and created more specific and higher levels of needs. All these discoveries, inventions and needs are part of human history, culture and society. Thus the evolution and change of those objects and tools, or artifacts, to some extent, is the result of the development of human culture and society. Embracing the characteristic, a smart watch is not only a technology artifact, but an artifact which technological and cultural natures are intertwined with each other because the technology which lead people finally created it was developed with the progress of history and culture.

In addition, in modern society, these artifacts are called sociotechnical artifacts because they do not work independently with their users, but also the whole society. In Vermaas’s2 example, the world civil aviation system, with many components, is a sociotechnical system. The system not only embraces many modern technologies like airplane, X-ray, elevator and so on, but also many human involved parts like service staff as operators, customers as users, and rules and laws enacted by people, or society. Civil aviation is a big system which owns patent sociotechnical nature. If trying to apply this idea into a single “technological artifacts”, it will be surprising to find out that there is also a sociotechnial system in it. For example, the smart watch is not just a watch but has a lot of apps which are connected with a smartphone. For the user, he or she may only realize the interaction among the watch, smartphone and himself/herself. However, both the smart phone and watch are the tools for the user to socialize with others, thus they are endowed with social characteristics. Moreover, in the invisible processes of creating, producing, and legitimizing them, many people and societal things are involved. To be specific, there are companies which designed and created the product, factories which produced the product in large quantities, and rules and laws that are necessary for these products to enter the market legally and for those apps to operate legally. As a result, although it may only be a technological artifact for a user, actually, it is a sociotechnical one because it hides such a complex system.

References:

  1. Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
  2. Pieter Vermaas, Peter Kroes, Ibo van de Poel, Maarten Franssen, and Wybo Houkes. A Philosophy of Technology: From Technical Artefacts to Sociotechnical Systems. San Rafael, CA: Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2011.