Technological and Social Determinism (part 1)   no comments

Posted at 6:05 pm in Politics,Sociology

Currently reading: Internet Politics – Andrew Chadwick

Brief overview of what has been read:

As mentioned in my last blog, this week a selection of more focused subjects regarding politics on the web will be studied. Andrew Chadwick’s Internet Politics (Although really Web Politics) discusses the impact of new communication technologies on political parties, pressure groups, social movements etc.
There has been two major aspects with has been studied, conceptual tools and theories for Internet Politics, and also Community, Deliberation and Participation, formally known as E-Democracy. Although a very narrow selection of topics which are discussed within the book, it seemed a good starting point to help direct the reading towards the issue trying to be addressed.

The chapters being discussed are:
• Chapter 2: Conceptual Tools
• Chapter 5: Community, Deliberation, and Participation: E-Democracy

Knowledge gained and relevance to issue:

As a good introduction to the area of Internet Politics two major concepts were introduced, Technological determinism (TD) and social determinism (SD). Technological determinism, as Chadwick suggested has a long history, with it being argued that Marxism is TD. It is based on the notion that the material basis of society is the primary motor of social, economic and ultimately political change; however Marxism is limited in its ability to understand how humans mold technological change. Furthermore, Webster argued that the new communication technologies have ushered in a new age, an information society which differs fundamentally from the social orders of the past. This suggests that whatever the content of the technology, they have their own inherent properties that human intervention cannot change; these properties can be therefore used to predict future social, economic and political change.

Oh the other hand, Social Determinism, which is also known as “social shaping of technology”, supported by many post-war writers such as Lewis Mumford, argues the case that specific technologies do not in themselves matter. What social scientists believe is that they merely need to reconstruct the social context of technological change to explain all that is considered to be important. In the case of the Web: Nothing is particularly new or distinctive, and that we make sense of its effects by referring to pre-existing models of social and political change. As technology is presumed to be nothing special, SD suggests that only social forces need to be examined, such as power struggles, groups, classes and institutions. Technology therefore becomes another policy area.

However what is suggested is that on the Web, neither Technological nor Social determinism can be seen, it is rather a mix of the two. Where technologies have political properties while simultaneously placing their use in political contexts. Landon Winner argues that there are two senses in which technologies can have political properties. Winner defines the first as:

“the invention, design or arrangement of a specific technical device or system becomes a way of settling an issue in the affairs of a particular community”

This is arguing that technological structures sometimes inhibit types of social and political action. Winner’s second view is:

“Some technologies are by their very nature political in a specific way”

This is suggesting that some technologies are inherently political, and are strongly compatible with particular kinds of political relationships; this therefore suggests that the technologies are inflexible, as only performing specific duties.

Furthermore, there are cases where understanding the political nature of technologies may not help, for instance, sometimes the technology may not be political at all, but instead examine the situation in a SD fashion, seeing the power struggle take place external to the technology. Alternatively, there may be the case where a failure to see how the technology is shaping society can occur.

Another key topic that was read was looking at the theoretical approaches to political impact. Philip Agre outlines 8 key conceptual themes:
• Decentralisation
o The use of networks to reduce the claim to expert knowledge
• Participation
o Everyone has their place on the Web, people coming together and forming discussion
• Community
o The political debates occurring on the Web could not occur without communities
• Globalisation
o David Held – “a process (or set of processes) which embodies a transformation in the spatial organisations of social relations and transactions, generating transcontinental or interregional flows and networks of activity, interaction and power”
o Basic terms, it is seen as a set of processes rather than any final state.
• Post industrialisation
o Western societies witness a decline in the authority of traditional institutions, individuals retreat further into their own private spheres, becoming less obviously politically engaged in the sense of participating in the large-scale structures of liberal democracy
• Rationalalisation
o The way the web is generating new, more efficient forms of social control
o Refers to a set of ideas which inspired the emergence of rules-based organisations that generally require individual adherence to formal rules rather than the expression of emotion or creativity
o A dominant force in contemporary life
• Governance
o Power struggles can no longer understood by a narrow focus on the core execution and the traditional institutions of central government
The state has changed
o Governance covers the whole range of institutions and relationships involved in the process of governing
o Main question is “how the centre of government interacts with society to reach mutually acceptable decisions, or whether society actually does more self-steering rather than depending upon guidance from government” (Peters)
• Libertarianisation
o Advocates the maximisation of the individuals liberty in thought and action and the minimisation or even abolition of the state
o Many see this as the default ideology of the Web
These eight key themes draw upon sociology political science, business, management, and all have one aspect in common, which is to arrive at a richer conceptual understanding of the impact of the Web.

Part 2 will conclude with looking at Community, Deliberation and participation, including disucssion on Social Capital and Public Sphere.

Written by rt506 on March 12th, 2010

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