Science, Technology and Society Theory

Pulled from the first revision of the research proposal.

            Of the many lenses available to deploy in the spirit of sociological analysis Science and Technology Studies theory is the surpassingly pertinent.

Social Construction of Technology

            As with any STS analysis one must identity their foundational components.  This study is no exception to the accepted sociological norm, the fundamental analysis rests firmly upon the theory of the Social Construction of Technology or SCOT.  Specifically the views and exposition employed here a user-agent centered model of SCOT akin to that developed by Pinch and Wiebe (1984), which holds that relevant groups “who play a role in the development of a technological artifact are defined as those groups who share a meaning of the artifact” (Pinch and Kline 1996).  This approach is resoundingly Weberian and details that these groups are not static and might include social categories such as engineers, consumers, and so forth.  New groups enter and vanish over time situating a system of emergent collective understandings that may or may not share meanings between one another, conditioning a sort of inherently interpretive flexibility: Identities or social groups and technology are coproducing of one another, and may extend or modify power relationships between actors (Pinch and Kline 1996).  Problems answered by socio-technological solutions are constructed as well; we as society reach closure for temporary periods of time, until the problem is redefined.  John Law’s approach to SCOT analysis is particularly helpful as he advocates and exemplifies a deliberation that stresses “the heterogeneity of the elements involved in technological problem solving, the complexity and contingency of the ways in which these elements interrelate, and the way the solutions are forged in situations of conflict” (Law 1987).  In short, the socio-technical mesh is filled with a variety of elements that interact and relate to one another in numerous dependent and independent (and continually emergent!) ways that yield what we perceive as solutions.  He goes on to explain “that the stability and form of artifacts should be seen as a function of the interaction of heterogeneous elements as these are shaped and assimilated into a network” (Law 1987), or in other words our notions of artifacts are determined by their process of integration into the social context.  Law calls upon the Systems Metaphor recognizing innovators who create technology with certain variables and social contexts in mind.  This process of production suffers from reverse salients such as oversight (didn’t think we’d need that), short sightedness (we won’t need that), inability (we can’t do that), stubbornness (we won’t do that), prescription (do it like this), and other social categories like nationalism or cultural constructs. System builders are unable to shape everything – the natural, economical, and technical limitations play a role in the ultimate design.
            It is in this article that Law identifies a crucial component to understanding the formation and success of SNS.  Systems are built through struggle between elements of varying alignments and heterogeneous engineering becomes the method with which one successfully negations these relationships (Law 1987). More directly stated, technological systems such as SNS are compositions of countless heterogeneous structures that no one could easily dominate or control.  Instead SNS administrators employ adaptive engineering. A change is introduced into an otherwise stabilized system, which melds, fluctuates, and reacts in an assortment of ways and reconciles and reestablishes its stability.  Engineers are not in complete control over the environment, nor would they wish to be – instead the technological medium and the social actors adapt and configure each other.  This development of theory, carries with it several strong statements about the actors at play and leads to Actor-Network Theory (ANT).

A Progression to ANT

            The sciences so often thrive on reductionism, a methodology that finds itself in opposition to the social constructivist approach.  The perpetual emergence and alteration of factors through time and complex systems of interaction and positionality render reductionism problematic – how can one look at constrained variables if they’re ill suited to capture the full scope of their condition?  With so much emphasis on a Post-Modern “how can we know anything” epistemology one quickly feels futile as a social scientist.  The answer, as Law describes it, presents itself in what seems to be a mutated echo of Georg Simmel’s network connection analysis.  If one focuses primarily on the web of interactions instead of the fabricated master narratives or microscopic pictures at hand they can achieve an accomplished understanding.  As is a common observation to the sociology of knowledge, human comprehensions and arrangements of knowledge always take on material form.  We see knowledge in the form of talk, presentations, published materials, skills and talents embellished by scientists, professors, and experts.  The critical core to this statement is that knowledge is the product from social agents, institutions, machines, and organizations (Law 1992).  So knowledge, like the family, computing systems, economy, and everything else are “ordered networks of heterogeneous materials whose resistance has been overcome” and the social “is nothing other than patterned networks of heterogeneous materials” (Law 1992).  The rather outlandish constituent in this statement is that it creates a space for the agency of the non-human in social systems.  Our interactions with one another are “mediated through objects of one kind or another” (Law 1992) and these objects and networks or collections of artifacts participate in and shape the social.  Order to social systems is “an effect generated by heterogeneous means” (Law 1992) – temporary and conditional equilibrium.  This evolved articulation of SCOT is what has become the premise for Actor-Network Theory.  Law asserts that some components, forces, and networks are stronger or more durable than others and two tactics of analysis enable us to study heterogeneous systems (Law 1987).  First, we must assume an angle of generalized symmetry, looking at both the human and non-human sides to interaction.  Second, we must employ reciprocal definition of the actors – each side or part assists in orienting and defining the other, and we need to observe actors that exert detectable differences.

Considerations in regards to SCOT and ANT

            This is not to reduce humans to being inconsequential or unoriginal, nor does ANT require determination of an original agent of causation: neither drives the other with certainty.  Sociology is of course not synonymous with ethics – the two ought to inform one another – and human and non-human ought not to always be treated the same.  I personally find sentience as an identifier that sets humans apart that could transcend beyond the realm of effects generated by a shifting collage of means – the ability to produce, independence, intelligence, personal responsibility and identity and the whole like that can only be mimicked by the non-sentient.  ANT doesn’t really leave a space for the influence of a divine being.
The SCOT framework stands in logical contrast to technological determinism, a reductionist doctrine predicated on causal analysis that identifies technology as the determining agent behind cultural values, social structure and history.  Generally renounced by sociologists and social scientists alike, I have found no contemporary applications of technological determinism to CMC and thus dismiss it here.


            What happens, when the two worlds, previously thought to be inseparable, intercept? Drawing the line between people and machines should be subject to negotiation, and herein enters the concept of the cyborg.  The cyborg, which is short for cybernetic organism, was first disseminated into the world of sociology by Donna Haraway’s Manifesto for Cyborgs in 1985, though the concept had existed for some time prior.  The intimate conjunction of human and non-human is what Andy Pickering refers to in an evolved response as “the performative idiom, in terms of the interplay of human and nonhuman agency as temporally emergent in practice” (Pickering 1995).  He adds that cyborg history is “not just about human and nonhuman performances.  It has to be about knowledge and representation, too.” (Pickering 1995).  An authentically posthumanist view dictates an epistemology where appropriate representation is given to all objects (bodies) within a system – human, non-human, or as cyborgs exemplify, the reality that the two are often the same, interrelated, and fundamentally coproducing.  The potentially paradoxical combination of worlds is considered a technology of the self, a technology that effects its own means by influencing bodies, souls, thoughts, conduct and ways of being.  The notions behind the colonization of space become increasingly complicated when spaces are intangible technological representations.  Hold this postulation in mind, I will come back to it.

Permanently Beta

            Actor-Network Theory is of course a natural codification of sociological thought mapped to SNS technological analysis, but further gains are to be had once the idea is advanced to the permanently-beta nature of the web.  Beta is a technical insider term for software or hardware that’s experimental and available before formalized release.  Beta products are similar to the final products but are in practice a way to get users to test the hardware or software before its official debut in the world.  The modifier beta, however, is only half of the pairing.  New routines and methodologies have been encoded into contemporary usage of the internet and numerous values embedded in web technologies and mediums continually become evident in the development of technologies.  Principles such as openness and control, marketplace and community, and more dance around each other continuously.  The permanency of beta is an ideology and value characterized by Gina Neff and David Stark in their article Permanently Beta (2004).  They identify it specifically as “a fluid organizational form resulting from the process of negotiation among users, employees, and organizations over the design of goods and services” (Neff and Stark 2004).  As predisposed by the foundational ANT, software, the web, and computers in general are not stable – they’re characterized by variability, flexibility, and adaptability.  Understanding this is just the first step, immersing oneself in this lifestyle and capitalizing upon it is the second.  Permanently Beta technology structures rest on distributed accountability and decentralized decision making and include three key aspects: the beta test quality, encoded responsiveness, and community development (Neff and Stark 2004).  Beta testing refers to a product that is close to final and so it mostly operational, but still under construction.  These products are updatable and customizable and assume a dimension of realism not afforded to their static counterparts – design by the audiences they’re intended for.  This facet flows into encoded responsiveness, as programs are designed by their usage feedback features and reactions to social interpretations are immediately and purposely built in.  Community development is the final section in the ensemble; various contributors independently and collaboratively help to transform and create the product with a varying and typically minimal level of transparency by the controlling manufacturer.  Marx would likely find this to be a colossal precedent – the insinuation is that the producer and consumer are one in permanently beta systems.

Visualizing Facebook

            And thus an evolution of STS theory results in a dyad of independent but related theories that effectively illustrate Facebook.  Both permanently beta and the concept of cyborgs inform an advanced understanding of Facebook as a socio-technological system.
Past definitions and understandings of cyborgs typify them mostly as physical unions between technological artifacts and the human body – many readers will recall the Borg from Startrek, while others will think more in the realm of reality and know that a pace-maker is a sort of cyborg element.  Regardless cyborgs are immersed in negation and interdependence on technological artifacts that mediate their actions and participation in the world.  Computers have become synonymous with the internet, as have cell phones, videogame consoles, and soon TV’s and other devices.  The internet represents a near limitless expansion of knowledge and opportunity and education.  Indeed, the reaction for most students when they’re unsure about a topic or wish to learn more is to go “ask Google” and see “what the internet says” in regards to their inquiry.  The internet is a space as well as a network of objects and subjects.  Students are increasingly exposed computers during more and more parts of their life and this effect is amplified on affluent campuses with many laptops (or in some cases, where they distribute laptops to every student).  The barriers to entry in the form of technical competence, perceived ease of use and perceived usefulness are an almost non-existent problem for the student population.  In short, the student population incurs what I postulate is a “Cyborging of the Mind” or near-natural a technological extension of their knowledge base that is reaching higher and higher levels of integration.  Facebook is the latest articulation of this phenomena as it facilitates for an extension of one’s knowledge base in regards to the face to face social world – an advent made powerful because of the sheer participation and usage rates of the system.  Not only are students depending on Facebook, but it extends representations of their identity to the online world that can exist independently of their lives.  An extreme illustration of this is the continuance of student profiles after their death (Batista 2006, Stelter 2006, Stackhouse 2006, Bernhard 2005, Negrin 2005, Lorg 2005), though Facebook’s official policy now is to remove profiles a week after the occurrence of a death.  Beyond this rather morbid occasion is something less sad – students have learned to deposit pieces or representations of their identity online that extend their personalities and influence so that they might be accessed in an asynchronous and efficient manner.  The aggregation of all of these partial representations combined with student interactivity creates a sort of network with a life and agency of its own, which leads to the next realization of STS theory, the permanently beta nature of Facebook.
            As established in the introduction, online SNS is tied to the face to face world – the two are co-producing and require one another for survival.  Facebook, as a technological system, is comprised of a tremendous series of interconnected elements.  The Facebook administration team enacts as heterogeneous engineers by introducing changes into the system and watching how the react and in kind responding.  The system itself has a kind of agency and personality and accepts, rejects, and otherwise adapts to changes induced by the addition of new features, additional networks, and more. 
Almost every feature has a drawback that stimulates resistance but more often than not a given features becomes interlaced into the system as the positive reception takes over.  Walls are great public places to express things but can get you in trouble because others can control what’s said on your wall.  Pictures are a wonderful added level of visual interface and foster greater interconnectivity between profiles and friends because people can be tagged in them – but this same tagging has found itself culprit for students being caught doing things others think they shouldn’t.  Events and groups are an excellent way to mobilize and express membership in something but can be used for harassment or worse yet in an offensive manner.  Probably the most controversial1, the Facebook newsfeed, gives information about which of your friends has made new friends, which events they intend to go to, which groups they’ve joined, and if they’re broken up with their significant other.  Upon its initial release this feature was wholly rejected by the Facebook population and hundreds of anti-news feed groups were created in resistance.  The feedback built into the system, the encoded responsiveness facet of permanently beta, allowed users to send an overwhelming amount of flak in the direction of the system administrators.  Within a few days they responded with an apology from Mark Zuckerberg the creator himself (2006) and by altering the privacy rules and regulations to allow users to limit what new information is available about them.  Groups were created referring to this event as the Facebook revolution and the system continued onwards.  Collective movements on Facebook such as this are rare, the system gains its own sort of influence independent of participants during the times we’re not all looking.  An example might be an echo of Foucault’s Panopticon – users are afraid that if something is placed on their profile publicly overseers will notice.  These fears are somewhat well founded, the news media has done its absolute best job in exaggerating the privacy violation2 and fear effects of Facebook and seem to cherish frightening students and more so non-users by claiming that “some authority not only could be, but WILL BE watching you!” Most of the research and news coverage to date has focused upon the misalignment of intended and actual audience in regards to Facebook (Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2006).  Still, despite the terror tactics employed by most of the news media on privacy and Facebook, participation and trust rates are high.  One must wonder who is in control of those writing the news articles and orienting perceptions of the danger of the system – a relatively small amount are native users.3 
            MySpace has managed to snatch up more attention in relation to the violation of privacy, as it’s a website intended for teens.  Age verification techniques, often credit cards or permission slips, are plagued with many issues related to validity and reliability.  Instead of constraints and rules perhaps the regulators should learn to familiarize themselves with the technologies at hand, and then take what they’ve learned to create education programs to socialize the youth into safer internet usage.  Blocking websites isn’t a solution.
            Facebook does indeed exemplify every aspect of the permanently beta fold.  The user community understands and values the continual emergence of meaning and values in the system and furiously explores, expands, and exploits new features.  The Facebook team has paralleled this in creating the Facebook developer group4, making parts of their php available (Shire 2007), and releasing all sorts of information on how to create programs that utilize the functions of Facebook.  The system is always in a usable experimental state and remains continually updatable and customizable, but with enough consistency to not overwhelm users.  The encoded responsiveness manifests itself in the form of developer and user feedback as well as community movements and unintended manipulations of artifacts within the system – users using ASCII art5 to create pictures on each other’s walls, abusing the message system to create chain letters (like chain-mail), and various hacks to display extra information or add levels of interactivity6.  Ultimately the user community on Facebook produces the success and flow of the system as much as the system administrators do.
            The conclusion, is that not only is Facebook a socially constructed technology and best analyzed by actor-network theory, but it also represents a paradigm shift in thinking – the intersection of social and technological in the form of cyborging of the mind: Facebook operates as instrumental aspect of social knowledge and an extension of participant personality.  Users are comfortable with, desire, and downright require the dynamic and emergent (permanently beta) nature of the Facebook socio-technical collage.

[1] Observed from my own personal participation in the system – the residual effects can be still be traced on Facebook if you search for the appropriate groups.

[2] Far too many examples to count.  Just Google Facebook and privacy and go from there.

[3] Again, personal observation of accumulated news articles on Facebook – I’d have to quantify this to advance a truly reliable and valid claim.

[4] Check it out if you program.

[5] yields a good explanation if you’re unfamiliar.

[6] gives a few documented examples.