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The social nature of technological artefacts

In the last part of this blog-post series I talked about the fussiness of some technical artefacts. With fussiness I meant that clearly formulated goals and use plans do not exist for these technical artefacts. Rather, these goals and use plans seem to surface after the artefact has already been in use for a while.

Let me add another layer to this ambivalence: the social layer. As we will see below, the social aspect of an artefact can actually revoke its function, which then makes us question the original definition of technical artefacts (see part II), i.e. that they have functions that realise goals and are described in use plans.

Technical systems with a pronounced social aspect are referred to as hybrid systems. An example of this is a transport-analysis system that uses voluntarily solicited smartphone acceleration data for the determination of road “bumpiness”. This system consists not only of the obvious technical artefacts (communication links, web servers, cell phones, etc.), but also of social facets such as solicitation mechanisms (public relations, reward systems, etc.). As you can see, this kind of technical system is not merely technical; it also has a strong social part and is thus a hybrid system.

This “hybridity” is actually the norm and not the exception. When studying technical artefacts, one quickly understands that there is a social dimension to them. Not only is the goal, for which they are built, part of the socio-sphere, but the functions of some technical artefacts is actually entirely predicated on social conventions. For instance, a coin is clearly a technical artefact, but whether it fulfils its function as currency is dependent on the social context. For instance, the euro has replaced many national currencies. While coins belonging to defunct currencies still have value (for instance, to collectors), they no longer function as currency. So although the coins themselves have not changed an iota, they have lost the function for which they were defined. Note that this loss of function is due to a change in the social backdrop (here, a change in legislation) and not due to a change in the composition or goal of said coins. In such a case —namely where the social context not only patterns the function of a technical artefact but completely controls it— we are talking about sociotechnical artefacts. Note that sociotechnical artefacts constitute a subset of technical artefacts.

Taking the above into consideration, we must thus ask whether a technical artefact does in fact need to realise a concrete goal, or whether it is enough for it to have realised a past goal, or maybe even just to have the potential to realise a goal in the future. Let us have a closer look at sociotechnical artefacts in order to better understand this source of fuzziness!

The above example of coins shows that the function of a technical artefact is contingent on collective acceptance. “Even in the case of a single-user system, the social context is important as that individual functions in a social context and the artefact is subject to all sorts of social constraints (economic, juridical, etcetera).” [Vries 2012, p. 19]. However, although technical artefacts always have a social dimension, they are not social objects. “Technical artefacts fulfil their function by virtue of their physical properties whilst social objects depend for their function upon their social/collective acceptation.” [Vermaas 2011, p. 12]. Let me illustrate this distinction with an example: whether a knife can cut bread or not is not a social but an empirical question.

Note that the importance of the social context of technical artefacts varies from artefact to artefact. Furthermore, it is not always clear whether practical problems should “be tackled from either purely technological or purely social angles … a mixture of the two approaches is also conceivable.” [Vermaas 2011, p. 13]. An example of a choice between such approaches can be found in civil aviation. Whether security checks are carried out with machines (e.g., X-rays) or whether the safety personnel at an airport resort to pat-downs is more than just a question of efficacy. For instance, in many cultures pat-downs are only acceptable from personnel of the same gender. A fully automated security system would end the need of doubling personnel for security screening. However, pat-downs can also provide the opportunity for wider-spectrum checks, for instance whether a passenger is unduly nervous or gives evasive answers. Efficacy and social acceptance are just two of the arbiters of whether certain problems are solved via technical or social avenues.

The civil aviation system is a good example of a confluence of social and technical solutions. While some aspects of civil aviation (e.g., the type of fuel needed by jet engines) are of a technical nature, others (e.g., what language is used for communicating between pilot and air control) are of a social nature. It is important for a hybrid system that the social system it relies on is working properly. While this might seem to be a simple problem that can be solved by rules or instructions, it often turns out that human behaviour is not entirely predictable. “Every individual is, as it were, a computer on which a great many programs are running all the time, programs about which the designers of the sociotechnical system in question have only a very general and limited idea.” [Vermaas 2011, p. 74].

Back to the charting board

In this part we have learned that at least the goals of technical artefacts are contingent on social circumstances. The ontology presented in the previous part does not take this aspect into consideration. Here is a proposal for a better ontology.

ontology technical artefact - social

As can be seen, composition, function, use plan, and goal are now dependent on the social system. Goals can be introduced by a social system (for instance, a municipality wants to measure road bumpiness). Goals can of course also be constrained by a social system, as can the production of technical artefacts (composition and function). Think, for instance, of explosive devices used for terroristic purposes. Here, society decides what goals are legal. In another example, society can restrict the access to or use of certain materials that are harmful to the environment, e.g. polyvinyl chloride, thus constraining what artefacts can be made of.

Meddling sociotechnical systems

As we saw above, sociotechnical systems are social not only in terms of how functions are embodied, but also in what goals they serve. This aspect has been articulated through the idea of the script: “A script may be described as the behavioural norms which —intentionally or not— are built into a certain technical artefact.” [Akrich 1992]. The seat belt is an example of a technical artefact with a script [Latour 1992]: the seat belt not only protects passengers when properly used, but it often also nudges passengers to use it. Seat-belt systems in modern cars are part of an augmented system that triggers an alarm if a seat belt is not fastened while the car is in motion. Although in principle it is still possible to drive without a fastened seat belt, the alarm is so annoying that this is rather unlikely. Scripts often come into play when technical artefacts address human-centric properties such as safety, health, sustainability, and privacy. What is also interesting about scripts is that they constitute a technology fix to a social problem. For instance, age restrictions for tobacco use can be enforced through cultural norms and laws, but also through a script, i.e. technical means that make selling tobacco to minors procedurally difficult.

Summary and outlook

As we have seen in this blog post, technical artefacts have social aspects. Not only the goal, but even the function and composition of a technical artefact can —partially— be determined by social factors.  For this reason it is questionable whether an artefact’s goal and how the artefact fulfils said goal are sufficient to decide whether an entity qualifies as technical artefact, as the ontology discussed in the previous part insinuated.

The wider ontology that was introduced in this part seems to have solved this blindness toward the social backdrop of technical artefacts by making the social dependencies of goals, etc. explicit. But is this solution satisfactory? An answer to this question is provided in the next part, in which we return to a type of technical artefact that we already talked about in part II: the platform.

Acknowledgements

The title of this blog post is a variation on Kallinikos et al.’s paper title “The ambivalent ontology of digital artifacts” [Kallinikos 2013].

I thank my companion for copy-editing this blog post.

References

[Akrich 1992] Akrich, Madeleine. “The description of technical objects.” Shaping technology/building society (1992): 205-224.

[Kallinokos 2013] Kallinikos, Jannis, Aleksi Aaltonen, and Attila Marton. “The Ambivalent Ontology of Digital Artifacts.” Mis Quarterly 37.2 (2013): 357-370.

[Latour 1992] Latour, Bruno. “Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts” Shaping technology/building society (1992):225-258.

[Vermaas 2011] Vermaas, Pieter, et al. “A philosophy of technology: From technical artefacts to sociotechnical systems.” Synthesis Lectures on Engineers, Technology, and Society (2011).

[Vries 2012] De Vries, Marc J. “Philosophy of technology.” Technology education for teachers (2012): 15-33.

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