A solid argument on why a sociologist has a place in a tech company
For a long time, and still, in a lot of places, technology has been considered a matter of engineers and programmers. To think that a graduate student of humanities and social sciences had something to say in this world was not very common, or at least something that wasn’t much appreciated in a job interview. But for us, the philosophy lovers, the Bob Dylan enthusiasts, the students of Marx and Wallerstein, we have always been here, we have always been involved in technology, and we have been actively working in redefining our role as co-creators of this digital world.
For me, the key moment, and the story that I want to tell you starts in the 80’s. It’s not that previously there weren’t social scientists involved in technology. There were, and a lot of them. It’s just that in this decade the truth was so evident that there was no going back. The turning point, at least for me and for the sake of my argument, is 1987: the year when Wiebe Bijker, Thomas Hughes, and Trevor Pinch published the collective oeuvre The Social Construction of Technological Systems. This book seeks to establish one thing: technology is the result of social interactions. That means that technology is a social event, that what happens there has more to it than circuits and algorithms, and that no technology can be seen as closed-in-itself phenomena, but always as part of the social interactions that happen within and around it.
These guys went all in to make us understand that talking about technology and using it, changes it. Studying technology became a performative activity. In other words, the way we study things becomes the way we build them. After the publication of this book, this group of social scientists founded the SCOT (Social Construction of Technology) Program, and of course, they started making noise. With feisty arguments and seductive reasoning, they began to break the bubble. Their main goal was to establish a community around the design and construction of digital artifacts (the engineers). This was important, let’s remember that it was the 80’s when the Internet went ballistic.
The question they were asking in the tech world was not if something was working or not, but why it should work, what importance or impact it could have. I really think that this way of thinking changes the future of technology, and our industry. The SCOT dudes opened a battlefront with the technological determinism that reigned sovereignly during the last decades. As Brian Winston says, this perspective, mostly used for ideological and political purposes, stated two main things. The first, that all technological development is not constrained by political, economic, or social forces. And second, that all technology is the cause of social change, never the consequence.
There are some great books on this, and I’m going to recommend a few during this article just because the blog editors were so kind to let me publish this piece and I want to maximize what could be my last blog entry. So, the first book you may want to read about this is Empire and Communications (1950), by Harold Innis. McLuhan’s godfather, at least in my opinion, wrote this amazing book of how power and politics were always built around technology and its tools. It’s really interesting because at some point he establishes that what technology allows us to do is modify time and space. In fact, this is a fundamental reading on what later Castells would define as Information Societies (the ones we live in now). Mind-blowing!
Here I have to make a disclaimer. Mainly because the SCOT guys were really smart, and I don’t want them to be misunderstood. Battling against technological determinism doesn’t mean going all-in for social omnipotence. To accept one of these two would be like thinking that it is the movement of the leaves in a three that causes the wind. To rely on a classic sociological saying: technology is both a subject and an object. This means that it makes things to us, and we do things to it. Sounds fair right?
Thinking about technology from a social perspective means merging the technical nature of technology with human conduct; the political with the scientific. Us, the sociologists, by the powers bestowed on us by Latour, Callon, Bijker, and the rest of the other dudes, are responsible for the analysis, description, and, sometimes, critique of any kind of technology, from a pen to the most complex website that exists on earth. We are doomed to think of technology as part of the social network we live in, and that implies thinking about its origin, processes, and usages. All technological tools or products are a center of discussion, of dispute, of social and individual knowledge. We just need to open that black box and dive in with imagination, sensibility, and an open mindset for all types of possibilities. We, the sociologists, are obligated to bring contextual richness to the tech industry. Of course, we fail a lot of times, but well, it’s our obligation.
So yeah, I’m a sociologist, I review processes, create documents, and I work at Butchershop. It’s fucking awesome.
Here is a reading list for those who want to get deeper into this discussion. It’s more interesting than you are imagining:
- Read Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social: An introduction to Actor-Network Theory for the most amazing example of how technology influences human conduct. Spoiler alert: this story involves a keychain, Paris’ hotels, and a lot of as$#&%s.
- Read The Internet is not the Answer, by Andrew Keene. With strong anecdotes, Keene really makes us think about what kind of monster we are creating.
- Maybe you have read Manuel Castells before. The man is so famous, one of the most-cited authors in contemporary academic literature. A classic. Well, Scott Lash’s Critique of Information takes him for a ride, and he doesn’t end up well.