Making sense of our tangled sociotechnical world.

In this blog post, Neil Ballantyne describes the paper he presented at #husita14. The paper was selected for inclusion in the special husITa14 issue of the Journal of Technology in Human Services.

I’d like you to join me in a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that you wake up one morning to discover that something very peculiar has occurred. All human technologies have disappeared. Everything!  Not only has your digital alarm clock vanished, but the kindle device you were using to read yourself to sleep last night has popped out of existence. You reach for your smartphone to check the news only to discover that it too is gone, along with your tablet, laptop, and desktop computer. But wait, there is more. This calamity has happened to all human technologies, not just the digital. So you can forget your car, house, furniture and clothing. Yes, you have awoken naked and lying on the bare ground upon which your former accommodation once stood. (I appreciate that this thought may be especially alarming to those of you living in high density, high rise accommodation but let’s put that image to one side for now). Highways, street lighting, the electrical grid, sewage systems and all of the other paraphernalia of modern city life are no more. There are no police cars wailing, no helicopters in the air, and no government communications to reassure you that everything is under control. Without their technological assemblages the police force, armed forces, social welfare agencies and government would simply cease to exist. If this catastrophe was worldwide then society as we know it today would be at an end, and rebuilding the social order  – without access to the simple technologies we use to build our more complex technologies – would take generations.

What is the point of this thought experiment? It highlights dramatically something that we humans often forget. That what we call the social order is not exclusively human, it is completely dependant on layer upon layer of nonhumans, on taken-for-granted technological artefacts that influence, shape and support what we call the social.  Our lives are so entangled with technologies of all kinds that it impossible to talk about the social without implying all sorts of technological infrastructures, processes and mechanisms.  And yet we tend, in our day-to-day practice and in our research activities, to separate the two domains: on this side is the technological (hardware and software, mobile phones and latops, social media and information systems); and on the other is the social (by which we usually mean humans and their motivations, attitudes, goals, cognitive biases and so on).  It is much harder to hold these two together, to recognise the intrinsic connections between the social and the technological, to grasp how one makes the other possible, how they are assembled together, how they are – and alway have been – utterly entangled and involved in relations of power.  Technology has always underpinned and made possible social change, transforming industrial, military, and cultural processes.  And humans have always mediated technology, sometimes bending it in directions unanticipated by designers.  Those of us involved in researching human service technology are perhaps more guilty than others of paying too much attention to the human dimension, and failing to appreciate the heterogeneous nature of collective life.

To capture sociotechnical processes, especially sociotechnical innovations, we need new ways of conceptualising the social and the technological, the cultural and the material.  In recent sociological thought, and especially in science and technology studies, there has been a turn towards the material world.  A move beyond postmodernist preoccupations with the textual, and a concern to theorise both material and emerging digital realities.  One important strand in this new way of thinking is actor-network theory (ANT), especially the work of Bruno Latour, John Law and Michel Callon.  Although I referred to ANT as one strand in a turn to the material world, it is not exactly new. This body of work has been part of science and technology studies since the 1980s, but its influence on other social science disciplines – economics, geography, law, journalism, education, social work and many more – continues to grow and expand.  In my #husITa14 paper I argue that it is time for researchers in the field of human service technology to consider the theory of the actor-network (the first fifty downloads are free).

If you like this paper and want to know more I recommend John Law’s paper on Actor-Network Theory and Material Semiotics, and Annmarie Mol on Actor-Network Theory: Sensitive Terms and Enduring Tensions. If you really get the bug, or are already working with ANT and looking for support, there is an excellent ANT Facebook Group.  Still want more? Why not sign up for Bruno Latour’s MOOC on Scientific Humanities and be taught ANT related thinking from one of its main protagonists.

Neil Ballantyne is a Senior Lecturer in social work at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, and a member of husITa’s strategic board.

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Image credit | Flickr | Pasu Au Yeung