Instrumental conception of technology

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The instrumental conception of technology is Mary Tiles' and Hans Oberdiek's description of the theory that technological artefacts are value-neutral.[1] They attribute this belief to optimists, for whom technical instruments belong to "the factual realm" and only acquire a positive or negative value through their development and use by humans "for good or evil".[2]

This belief was encapsulated in David Sarnoff's statement made in an acceptance speech for his honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame:

"We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value".[3]

According to Lelia Green, the notion technology is neutral assumes technological advances occur "in a vacuum", the result of individual bursts of inspiration, or 'Eureka' moments, as the popular mythology of technology suggests.[4]

It also assumes technological development is inevitable, she adds,[5] and for a technology to be neutral, it must be on a fixed "trajectory" following an "internal logic".[6]

Example: personal computing[edit]

Manuel Castells' account of the development of the personal computer adheres to the instrumental conception of technology. He claims technology develops independent of other social forces, since "economic, industrial and technological paths, while related, are slow-moving and imperfectly fitting in their interaction".[7] He argues Ted Hoff's microprocessor invented in 1971 came out of "knowledge and ingenuity" developed at Intel and in Silicon Valley since the 1950s. This made possible the microcomputer, which was able to function in networks as a result of advances in telecommunications. Thus, he states, computer technology "did not come out of any pre-established necessity: it was technologically induced rather than socially determined".[8]


The instrumental conception of technology has been criticised from both technological and social determinist perspectives.

Technological Determinist critique[edit]

Marshall McLuhan contends Sarnoff's statement "ignores the nature of the medium".[3] For McLuhan, "the medium is the message". Media technologies are not simply "passive tools",[2] but rather play an active role in shaping the nature of human association.[9]

David Croteau and William Hoynes agree the technical properties of media have a significant impact on communication both through "providing parameters within which human agents must operate"[10] and through enabling certain types of action.[11]

Example: the Internet[edit]

Croteau and Hoynes describe the Internet as an example of the potential social implications of technology, claiming it is "fundamentally changing the way we live".[12] They observe that it has facilitated "new forms of social interaction" and new ways of relating to, or even manipulating, the limitations of time and space". For example, the formation of online forums based on common interests reinvents traditional communities limited by locality and time zones and based on direct interaction. They also cite Shapiro's claim that there has been a "potentially radical shift in who is in control – of information, experience and resources"[13] This is demonstrated by the proliferation of user-produced media through blogs and websites such as YouTube.

Social Determinist critique[edit]

The theory of the social determination of technology holds that technologies are shaped more by "the social or economic system in which it is embedded" than by its inherent properties.[14] A social determinist would argue technologies are never neutral since they are inevitably influenced by social factors through their development and adoption by humans.

As Green states, "to argue that any technology is neutral is to ignore the social and cultural circumstances in which that technology was developed, and the policy and regulatory regimes under which that technology is deployed".[15]

Social determinist arguments against the instrumental conception of technology include:

  • The dominant public understanding of a medium's applications become "fixed" by social circumstances as much as by its "intrinsic properties".[16]
  • Social circumstances are vital in determining which technologies are successfully adopted, and which ones fail.[17] Such circumstances include economic reasoning,[18] communicative purposes or needs, and "forms of social organization that provide the skills and frameworks for deploying the technologies within the wider social context".[19]
  • Technologies can "embody specific forms of power and authority".[14] They can be designed in a manner that enforces a particular power relationship, for instance, Robert Moses' construction of low overpasses in New York which restricted the presence of buses and hence the lower social classes.[20] Technologies can also be inherently political, compatible with certain political relationships, whether "centralised or decentralised, egalitarian or inegalitarian, repressive or liberating".[21]
  • Technology is not value neutral because its adoption prioritises one set of values over others.[1] For instance, the Internet could be said to promote speed and efficiency in communication over direct interaction.
  • Different individuals and societies can hold opposite beliefs about the value of technologies.[15] As the 'Social Construction of Technology' theory suggests, artefacts have "interpretative flexibility".[22]

Example: personal computing[edit]

Paul Ceruzzi provides an alternative explanation to Castells' for the development of the personal computer. He argues the invention of computer technology for the general public was not inevitable. In fact, he suggests that the companies that produced early calculators were unprepared for their success,[23] and Intel did not foresee the use of the 8080 microprocessor for personal computing.[24]

Ceruzzi credits the hacker culture at MIT and Stanford, particularly MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club, with the existence of democratising personal computer technology today. Such people "saw a variant of a time-shared PDP-10 as a way to transform computing and make it accessible to ordinary people, for Utopian uses".[24] Since the development of the time-sharing capabilities required late-night work when time-shared systems were lightly loaded, he explains, it was enthusiasts rather than employees who began the process of making computers usable for the public.[25]

Ceruzzi also explains the adoption of the technology as contingent on social factors. Among these are market forces, such as the demand for the programmable calculator in the 1970s, which first offered a consumer market for logic chips and amortized the costs of establishing production lines for complex integrated circuits.[25] He also discusses forms of social organization, including users' groups, clubs, newsletters, and publications such as Popular Electronics that provided skills and frameworks for the broader use of the new technologies. He claims this "supporting infrastructure was crucial to the success of personal computing".[23]

In this view, the seemingly inherent properties of personal computers and their networks, for instance, that they "pull towards diversity and participation",[26] are socially determined properties.



  • Castells, Manuel (2000). The Rise of the Network Society. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. 1 (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-6312-2140-1. 
  • Ceruzzi, Paul (1999). "Inventing personal computing". In Donald MacKenzie & Judy Wajcman. The Social Shaping of Technology (2nd ed.). Buckingham, UK: Open University Press. pp. 64–86. ISBN 0-335-19913-5. 
  • Croteau, David; Hoynes, William (2003). Media Society: Industries, Images and Audiences (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press. 
  • Green, Lelia (2001). Technoculture: From Alphabet to Cybersex. Crows Nest, Western Australia: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978-1-86508-048-2. 
  • Kline, Ronald; Pinch, Trevor (1999). "The social construction of technology". In Donald MacKenzie & Judy Wajcman. The Social Shaping of Technology (2nd ed.). Buckingham, UK: Open University Press. pp. 113–115. ISBN 0-335-19913-5. 
  • MacKenzie, Donald; Wajcman, Judy (1999). "Introductory essay: the social shaping of technology". In Donald MacKenzie & Judy Wajcman. The Social Shaping of Technology (2nd ed.). Buckingham, UK: Open University Press. pp. 3–27. ISBN 0-335-19913-5. 
  • McLuhan, Marshall; Fiore, Quentin (1967). The Medium is the Massage. San Francisco, CA: Hardwired. 
  • McQuail, Denis (2000). McQuail's Mass Communication Theory (4th ed.). London: Sage. ISBN 978-0-7619-6547-3. 
  • Tiles, Mary; Oberdiek, Hans (1995). Living in a Technological Culture: Human Tools and Human Values. New York: Routledge. 
  • Winner, Langdon (1999). "Do artifacts have politics?". In Donald MacKenzie & Judy Wajcman. The Social Shaping of Technology (2nd ed.). Buckingham, UK: Open University Press. pp. 28–40. ISBN 0-335-19913-5.