Mary Margaret Herring
Over the past few weeks, we have discussed the importance of viewing technology and society as two parts of the same coin. If explaining the importance of unifying the notions of technology and society to someone, I would cite Cole’s cultural psychology to point out that forms of technology are cultural artifacts and could not exist in the way that they do without serving a cultural function. Further, I would argue that technology and society are co-mediated and therefore should not be viewed as distinct entities.
If we view technology as cultural artifacts, it becomes clear that technology and culture cannot be separated. Cole (1996) writes that an artifact is an “aspect of the material world that has been modified over the history of its incorporation into goal-directed human action” (p. 117). From this definition, it becomes clear that Cole believes that humans create artifacts to make it easier to accomplish certain tasks. For instance, the pulley was created to enable humans to lift heavy objects with little effort. The creation of a device like a pulley is embedded in layers of societal and cultural need. Pulleys may have originally been used to lift loads of water from wells and are now used for a variety of tasks like transporting construction materials to the tops of skyscrapers. Yet, it’s hard to imagine a form of technology as simple as a pulley lasting for thousands of years without serving a purpose. The pulley was created to enable humans to perform a task that couldn’t ordinarily be done. This brings us to the cultural part of Cole’s theory. Cole (1996) writes that culture can be understood as all of the artifacts used by a social group. I interpret this to mean that the artifacts accumulated by a group of people largely reflect that group’s motivations. In the same way that the pulley arose out of the human need to automate or simplify tasks, technology – as an artifact – arises out of human need. For this reason, culture is deeply embedded in technology and technology is deeply embedded in our culture.
Additionally, technology acts as a mediating force through which societal institutions can be transmitted. Debray (1999) illustrates this well when he uses the example of a nation. He argues that we can see the mediating factors of a nation when we examine the networks underlying this idea like roads and postal codes. It is important to realize that these concepts are not distinct because they are co-mediated and operate as a system. The nation is somewhat dependent on the networks of roads and postal codes and the roads and postal codes would be pointless without the unifying idea of a nation. When we extend this example to technology, we see that the idea of technology could not function without many complex networks, like internet connectivity, underlying it. Like the nation and road system, technology cannot be distinct from culture because our culture relies on technological systems and our cultural values are deeply embedded in technology.
For these reasons, it seems plausible to dismiss the idea that technology is distinct from society. As Irvine (n.d.) writes, it seems absurd to talk about the effects that technology can have on society as if they are distinct, causally related entities. Rather, it makes more sense to view technology and society as members of a system that are connected.
Cole, M. (1996). Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Debray, R. (August 1999). What is mediology? (Martin Irvine, Trans.). Le Monde Diplomatique.
Irvine, M. (n.d.). Understanding media, mediation, and sociotechnical artefacts: Methods for de-blackboxing. Unpublished Manuscript.