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Technology is a contest of ideas - we should all get involved in the contest

By Sherman Young - posted Monday, 12 May 2003

Technology is a soft target. It's easy to defer to it as a panacea or to blame it when things go wrong. As such, it's tempting to treat technology as something separate and external to society. Instead, we should think about technology as an integral part of everything we do.

Technology is about the expression of ideas. Real, individual, social, cultural and very human ideas about how we should live our lives. Things like computer chips, internal combustion engines or mobile telephones don't emerge fully formed from a vacuum. They are produced and evolve within complex relationships between people, institutions and technical possibilities.

Technologies are systems. They are combinations of ideas and artefacts, ideologies and techniques with which we can engage. For example, we can understand the technology of television as such a system. Television is not just a plastic box with a cathode ray tube and a UHF tuning device. It's a combination of physical engineering, industrial infrastructure (program making and distribution), business model (audience commodification) and end user. Together, these components are "assembled" into what we know as television - a coherent system expressing the dominant idea of free-to-air broadcasting.


Importantly, such ideas are not fixed. They are contested, and what we see as fixed technologies are really only moments of stability in a constantly evolving battle of ideas and possibilities - a battle in which institutions with different motivations and desires seek control over the activities that particular techniques enable.

Radio is the classic example of that contest - a technological system in which the idea of one-way mass communication replaced an earlier idea of two-way communication. Arguably, the ability to broadcast was constrained socially, not technically. Radio exemplified the fact that technologies do not exist entirely in some kind of scientific or engineering realm, but are shaped in a wider social reality.

That is not to say that technologies are neutral entities whose usage determines their value. An airplane is obviously designed to fly and not to float. Rather, we should understand that while technological systems have physical limitations, particular implementations are informed and shaped by human ideas and desires.

What we understand as information technologies are no different. For example, the open Internet and a closed proprietary network share technical approaches to network engineering but allow different uses. Likewise, different computer operating systems are motivated by different ideas of what end users should be allowed to do.

Thus, it would be wrong to attribute an inevitable or intrinsic nature to any technology. Instead, if we are concerned about the impact of a technology, we should identify where ideas are contested, and engage in those contests.

There are four main realms where technologies are shaped: initial design, the marketplace, policy debates and end usage.


The actions of a technology's initial designer are merely the first act in a process of negotiations towards a stable system. Designers have particular worldviews and express their political, ethical and economic prejudices through technological implementation.

Of course, technologies are rarely created by individuals, so the worldview expressed is the result of a contest between everyone involved in the design process. Often, it is a compromise between concerns of engineering, marketing and accounting. All too rarely, "human" concerns beyond sales potential form any part of the initial design equation. Such concerns may only be addressed if our education systems produced engineers and scientists who were also exposed to liberal arts traditions.

The marketplace is where broader technological concerns are commonly addressed. Champions of market solutions argue that consumer choices can determine corporate priorities for technological systems. Such a simplistic approach ignores market power and the biases of the design process. But it does suggest that users can - and should - select those technologies which reflect their chosen human values.

Of course, policy can reshape a technological system. Radio's current form was dictated not by designers but by a combination of market-driven corporate desires and government regulation. The social and economic idea of broadcasting was introduced and enforced by policy decisions. Rather than rely on "consumer sovereignty", citizens should engage with the broad range of policy debates that impose particular ideas or models on technological usage.

Finally, end users shape technologies at "street" level. As William Gibson suggested, "the street finds its own uses for things" and people adapt technologies to suit their own desires. Information technology provides perfect examples of this. The world wide web, peer-to-peer file sharing, blogs, chat, open source software and shareware are all examples where different views of the world have been inscribed onto particular systems, and where institutional ideas of technology have been adapted by end users.

Technologies are not pure and unchangeable. Rather, they are contested systems that allow competing possibilities to be realised. Technologies are not inevitable, all-powerful forces that leave no room for alternative values or concerns. These are contests that we can be a part of, where we can shape technologies, but only if we confront those ideas and values with which we do not agree.

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About the Author

Sherman Young is Multimedia Lecturer in the Department of Media at Macquarie University. He is currently completing his PhD through the University of Queensland investigating on-line services regulation. Prior to academia, Sherman worked in industrial design, publishing and ran an award-winning multimedia production and design company.

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