Technology Use Phenomena: Exploring the Technology-Society Relationship.

Published: 2019/11/27 Number of words: 3923

A common perception is that technological and societal forces are strongly intertwined. The question of which force supersedes the other in determining the use of technology has constantly stirred a huge debate in IS Literature. Despite the increasing call for the unification of the divergent views of technological and social determinism, historians and theorists, based on past and recent occurrences, have proposed deterministic perspectives on the use of technology in society. This paper critically analyses technology use patterns through the propositions of social and technological determinism literature, the underlying theories and criticisms surrounding each view. The paper also examines the theories, debates, criticisms and implications of sociotechnical perspectives which attempt to integrate the divergent views.

The use of the IT artefact after instantiation has a significant impact on the success of an Information Systems (IS) Project. Lyytinen and Hirschheim (1987) point to interaction failure as a significant cause of IS Failure; it occurs when an IS records limited usage or when problems are encountered using it. Consequently, an IS project that is completed on time, within budget and within the agreed scope may still be regarded as a failure if it is misused or not used at all. The impact of material features of technology on organisational processes and technology adoption are of great importance to organisational researchers (Orlikowski, 2000). There is therefore an urgent need to classify and prioritise the relevant factors that influence the use of IT artefacts within organisations.

The controversy of what determines the use of technology in organisations is a multifaceted one that often results in contradictory but complementary findings. The fact that technology is introduced by people, through a network of conflicting interests into society, underlies how technology is perceived and controlled at the initial stages of conception. However, as soon as the technology artefact is instantiated, it seems to develop a life of its own by imposing certain inscriptions and methods of action upon us (Ramiller, 2006). Some IS literature tends to lean towards deterministic perspectives, while theories like the ANT which adopt the sociotechnical approach are still subject to criticism.

This essay critically examines technology use patterns as viewed by two divergent schools of thought in IS Literature: Social and Technological Determinism. Sociotechnical perspectives that attempt to integrate these views will also be examined by highlighting associated debates and theories. The paper is presented through an evaluation of analytical literature and theories based on the engineering rationality perspective.

Literature Review

Social Determinism & Technology Use Patterns
The common objective of social shaping researchers is their stance against technological determinism (Howcroft, Mitev & Wilson, 2004). Social determinism, similar to social constructivism, asserts that technology has no impact on human action and that it is human action that shapes technology (Pinch & Bijker, 1984). It attributes technology use patterns to interactions between society and the IT artefact and emphasises that interests of individuals and groups shape the use of technology.

Social Deterministic perspectives are characterised by the proxy view, which focusses on technology as experienced by users; technology is regarded as a perception whose use is determined by society (Orlikowski and Lacono, 2001). This implies that the idea that society determines the use of technology employs the proxy view of technology conceptualised in some IS literature.

Lin & Silva (2005) maintain that the technological frames associated with an IT artefact determine its use. This assertion is further reinforced by the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) which posits that notions of the user-friendliness and utility of a system influence users’ approach towards the system, which in turn determines the usage of that system (Lederer, Maupin, Sena & Zhuang, 2000). Lederer et al (2000) refer to Ajzen & Fishbein’s theory of reasoned action as the foundation of TAM. It claims that beliefs determine attitudes which determine intentions that eventually lead to actions. Additional theories like the self-efficacy theory, theory of planned behaviour, cost-benefit analysis and the innovation theory also support the TAM Model in determining the use of technology (Lederer et al, 2000). These theories suggest that users make decisions on whether or not to use an IT artefact through an internal cost-benefit analysis that is done by comparing the costs of gaining access to an IT artefact and learning how to use it against the potential benefits they can get from it (Orlikowski & Lacono, 2001). The TAM Model appears to be in line with the social determinism perspective since it suggests that if people do not believe a particular IT artefact will enhance their work and productivity, it may not be used after instantiation.

Social determinism perspectives also argue that technology use is determined by the dictates of those who have the capacity to fund its implementation. Leila Green (2001) supports this claim by emphasising that every technology is born out of a social need, which could be military, social, political or economical. Similarly, the conceptualisation of IT artefacts as tools emphasizes that the IT artefact can be used for achieving labour substitution, efficiency and productivity (Orlikowski & Lacono, 2001). This would imply that technological artefacts are designed to fulfill pre-determined social objectives and as such, an artefact that is of no inherent benefit may not be used. This perspective projects the IT artefact as a neutral tool which can be modified to suit any social context and usage scenario; the IT artefact seems to exist to do the master’s bidding.

Social deterministic perspectives on the usage of a technology also suggest that technology use reflects societal culture (Digital Review, 2009). Digital Review (2009) cites the example of Indonesian Computer Users who boycotted Microsoft Software which they believed reflects the ideologies of global capitalism and international stakeholders. Instead, they opted for Linux Open Source Software which promotes community access and accountability.

Theoretical Foundations of Social Determinism & Criticisms
The Social Shaping of Technology presents Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) as one of its variations (Howcroft et al, 2004). SCOT posits that Technology does not determine how IT artefacts are used; society does. The principle of interpretative flexibility underlies the SCOT theory and proposes that the meaning and use of the same artefact may vary, depending on the societal context and environment (Pinch & Bijker, 1984).

SCOT is however criticided for not giving credence to broader social structures that influence outcomes at the Macro level. It has also been criticided for not paying significant attention to political factors that have a significant impact on choices made by relevant actors resulting in a flawed conceptualidation of power (Howcroft et al, 2004).

Russell (1986) also criticided SCOT theory stating that it ignores the aftermath of technology and provides no insight into what determines the relevant or excluded social groups and social interests.

Technological Determinism & Technology Use Patterns
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” – Winston Churchill.
“The whole trend in technology has been to devise machines which are less and less under direct control.” – Asimov.
These quotes can be argued to contain hints of technological determinism.
Technological determinism has always been an elusive and debatable concept (Bimber, 1990). IS Research Literature has been traditionally cautious of conveying technological deterministic perspectives (Avgerou, 2000). Technological deterministic perspectives in IS literature attribute technology use patterns to features of the technology as opposed to the actions of individuals. Proponents believe that like the weather, technology is autonomous and shapes the world. This section begins by introducing a conventional definition of Technology and then moves on to controversies surrounding Technological Determinism.

Fleck & Howells (2001) attempted to arrive at a common definition of technology through the use of a “technology complex” which comprises elements of disciplinary definitions of technology. Their work revealed that technology, by its definition, taken from numerous subjects such as organisational behaviour, operations management and industrial relations, constantly reflects a pattern of human activity. By analysing definitions of technology across different subject areas, they were able to prove that any sound definition of technology is embedded within a social context or human activity. For example, Collins Dictionary (2009) defines technology as a combination of knowledge and skills that are accessible by human society. Consequently, the idea that technology is autonomous and non-neutral has stirred significant debate in the IS field.

Critics of technological determinism argue that technology is neutral and that what matters is not technology but the way it is used. In contrast, technological determinists have insisted that technology is non-neutral, claiming that we cannot “use” technology without being “influenced” or “used” by it. According to Chandler (2008), Jacques Ellul, one of the most prominent proponents of technological determinism argued that we somehow become conditioned by our technological systems. From this perspective, IT artefacts are not neutral and their use may help to shape our purposes. Ramiller (2006) also emphasises that technology speaks on behalf of other actors, determines their roles, knowledge, actions and identities through the inscription of certain patterns of action. To illustrate technological determinism, Chandler (2008) points to Langdon Winner’s view that technological artefacts are not politically neutral since they are designed intentionally to open or close certain options to users.

Theoretical Foundations of Technological Determinism & Criticisms
Bimber (1990) claims that controversies surrounding technological determinism stem from misconceptions associated with its definition. Bimber (1990) identifies three different perspectives on technological determinism that shed some light on the use patterns of technology: 1) Norm-Based Accounts 2) Logical Sequence Accounts and 3) Unintended Consequences Accounts.

Norm-Based Accounts of technological determinism come into play when actors operate by goals of efficiency and productivity as substitutes for value-based debate over options, means and ends. When actors do not exhibit willful control over technical work practices, and replace norms with goals of efficiency and productivity, it becomes synonymous with technological determinism (Bimber, 1990). For example, Leavitt and Whistler (1958) spoke of the transformative capacity of IT that would challenge existing routines, methods of work and the nature of managerial jobs. This can be argued to form the basis of technological imperative thinking because technology was projected as a force that would drive radical change.

The Logical Sequence Accounts claim that the use of technology is governed by natural logic that is independent of social factors. This implies that once technology is introduced, its use and impact on the organisation would be uncontrollable by evolving in ways people would have to adapt to (Bimber, 1990). Benkler’s (2006) Networks of Collaboration is also seen as containing hints of technological determinism since it speaks of a world where technologies such as cheap computing, broadband, and powerful search engines guide our actions.

The Unintended Consequences Account of technological determinism asserts that the use of technology is accompanied by unintended consequences. This view suggests that technology is autonomous and will evolve in ways we cannot predict; Facebook is a contemporary illustration of this.

Howcroft et al (2004) stands against technological deterministic perspectives of technology use patterns since it paradoxically separates technology from the social world in which it resides. Increases in networks, advances of e-commerce and the ubiquity of the digital era seem to suggest the entrance of a new economy; this assumption however gives no credence to implementation difficulties and the fact that the promises of technology may not come to fruition (Howcroft et al, 2004). The crash of the era serves as an example in this context.

Sociotechnical Perspectives & Technology Use Patterns
Current literature emphasises the importance of Sociotechnical perspectives while relegating solely deterministic views to the background. According to Orlikowski & Barley (2001), there is an increasing call for the integration of deterministic perspectives in order to eradicate a strictly constructionist or materialistic perspective of information systems. Orlikowski (2000) emphasised that users determine how technology is used as it is embedded into everyday life.

“In the intellectual engagement of these two fields lies the potential for an important fusion of perspectives, a fusion that can explain the nature and consequences of the techno-social phenomena that increasingly pervade our lives” (Orlikowski and Barley, 2001, p.145).
In essence, the sociotechnical perspective is a response to emphasising the dependence between society and the IT artefact and an attempt to modify the technical and social aspects of work to avoid contradictions between the two forces (Ropohl, 1999).

Robey & Sahay (1996) emphasised that shared meanings held by users of a particular system influence whether such systems will be accepted or not. They argue, however, that material properties of the IT artefact are less powerful than the social interpretation associated with it. This suggests that though both social and technological forces are significant, social forces are stronger. In a similar vein, Lin & Cornford (2000) argue that while design is central to sociotechnical tradition, IT artefacts are not sociotechnical during inception. Lin & Cornford (2000) also point to the need to include Emergence phenomena, which occurs when features of technologies are modified through use, in sociotechnical ideas; they relate this to Chen’s 1976 principle of incompletion, which implies that systems continue to be shaped during use.

Theoretical Foundations of Sociotechnical Perspectives & Criticisms
Even though IS literature is receptive to sociotechnical ideas, underlying theories have been criticised. These theories will be analysed in this section.

Actor-Network Theory (ANT)
ANT posits that society and IT artefacts can be viewed as a single entity and assigned equal levels of importance and agency (Walsham, 1997). It has, however, received various criticisms, which include: 1) The attribution of human agency to inanimate artefacts and 2) the assumption of an equal distribution of power amongst all parties, which may result in the pointless description of real world events (Walsham, 1997).

Structurational Theory
Structurational theory posits that technology is dependent on human agency and is developed through social processes which embed “structures” (rules and resources) within them (Orlikowski, 2000). Users make use of these structures after instantiation. Orlikowski (2000) also emphasises that the study of the ongoing interactions between society and the IT artefact may help to understand their use.

Critics of this theory argue that while technologies are dynamic and constantly evolving, the theory presents them as though they were static. Orlikowski and Lacono (2001) in contrast, theorised the IT artefact as being dynamic and changeable. Another criticism is its representation of the IT artefact as stable. Critics argue that technologies do not become stabilised but are in fact modified and redefined by society after instantiation. People have been known to define how technology is used. The prevalence of end-user computing and dynamic IT artefacts is evidence of this (Orlikowski, 2000). Further criticism of the structurational theory implies that it situates structures within the IT artefact as though they had material features. Structures refer to rules and resources that come into existence via human action. Orlikowski (2000) argues that when a person uses a technology, they make use of the features; this repeated action leads to a specific technology use pattern. In addition, Orlikowski (2000) also asserts that when users decide to use an artefact, they decide how to interact with it and may even decide not to use it at all.

A Categorisation of IS Literature, adapted from Orlikowski & Lacono’s (2001) theorisation of the IT artefact is presented below.

IS LiteratureSocial DeterminismTechnological DeterminismSociotechnical Perspective
Dominant factor(s)SocialTechnicalSocial & Technical
Conceptualization of IT artefactTool view of technologyComputational View of Technology Technology as “dictator”Ensemble View of Technology
Proxy view of technology Nominal View of Technology
Underlying TheoriesSocial Shaping of TechnologyTechnological determinismSCOT
Technology Acceptance ModelANT
Structuration Theory

This paper has examined social and technological determinism, sociotechnical perspectives and the criticisms associated with each. Future IS research may focus on developing a prescriptive model for identifying and prioritising factors that have significant effects on determining the use of information systems. This model would guide the implementation of Information Systems. A limitation of this report is that it is not backed by any case studies.

For social determinists who believe that technology is neutral, its use/misuse/non-use is determined by society. In this case, the IT artefact has no part to play. This may raise questions like: “What if through institutionalisation and organising visions associated with the IT artefact, we give it the power to determine its own use?” The answer to this might suggest a complex web of interactions between the social and the technical subsystems that may eventually lead to a situation of equilibrium where one force is just as powerful as the other in determining the success/failure of IS Projects.

The technological determinism view implies that the use of technology is determined by the technological artefact and its inscriptions. In essence, IS Managers’ efforts of managing technology may become futile as each IT artefact unleashes its uncontrollable potential of unintended consequences. One may then ask “Is the management of technology a futile attempt at regaining control?”

Sociotechnical ideas were proposed as a unification of these divergent views. Do they however, have the answer to these debates? Although their underlying ideas have been generally accepted by most theorists and practitioners, there have been criticisms of the connotations and underlying assumptions of associated theories.

Further critical analysis of the multiple perspectives presented in this paper suggests that:

  • The use of technology is determined by both social and technological factors
  • Technology is a tool that actors have control of (up to a point) and which has the uncontrollable potential of determining its own use.
  • Technology is neutral up until its instantiation. As soon as it becomes an artefact in the society, it develops a life of its own.
  • Technology and society are equal, complementary and dependent forces. There is no master.

In conclusion, if the research contribution of social and technological determinism literature can be further elaborated by combining the “positive” aspects of both views to form a scale of importance, we may start to prioritise the factors that determine the use of technology in organisations and further enhance the utility of the sociotechnical approach in increasing user acceptance of IS Projects.

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