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Examples of Structural Social Effects Produced by Technologies

copyright 1998 Richard E. Sclove, The Loka Institute


The following few pages are excerpted from Richard E. Sclove, "Notes on Encouraging Deliberation about Social & Political Repercussions Within Participatory Technology Assessment," Loka Institute Working Paper, Amherst, MA, October 1998, 42 pages:


Participatory technology assessment (TA), as manifested dramatically in the success of the Danish "consensus conference" process, has shown itself competent in dealing with technologies' economic, technical, legal, environmental, health & safety, and interpersonal ethical dimensions.[1] That is a profoundly important and impressive achievement.

But other aspects of how technologies affect societies continue to receive short shrift both in conventional technocratic TA and in participatory TA. Among these relatively neglected considerations are: (a) ways in which technologies affect social and political relations, culture, and human psychological development -- including not only cognitive but also emotional, moral, and even spiritual development; (b) social impacts that emerge from the interaction among seemingly unrelated technologies, and thus which remain invisible when studying one type of technology at a time (as is the norm in most technology assessment); (c) sociotechnological dynamics, whereby, for example, a technology that many people adopt gradually elicits second-order institutional or technological reactions that ultimately prove more societally significant than any impacts associated directly with the original technology itself.

To be more concrete, an example of a specifically social impact would be the way in which home electronic entertainment devices -- apart from the energy they consume or the content of their programming -- draw people indoors and alone, and thus away from social and civic engagement. U.S. political sociologist Robert Putnam has, for instance, argued that television watching is the single most important factor in explaining the historic decline in civic and political participation in the United States.[2]

An example of a cultural impact of technology would be Albert Borgmann's compelling argument that modern technological devices provide comfort, convenience and productivity in ways that are culturally impoverishing, by causing people to disengage experientially from both social relations and the natural world.[3]

An example of a psychodevelopmental impact would be Sherry Turkle's study of the manner in which interaction with computer toys alters children's cognitive development away from the classical trajectory charted by Jean Piaget.[4]

An example from the U.S. of a way that seemingly unrelated technologies interact to produce a common social result would be the role of automobiles in driving pedestrians away from streets (a result now reflected and reinforced by the elimination of front porches from homes and the creation of sprawled suburbs that don't even have sidewalks), and the complementary role of air conditioning, central heating, and home entertainment devices in drawing people indoors. All of these technologies thus interact to weaken face-to-face social interaction at the local level. A conventional study of a single technology -- say, air conditioning -- is unlikely to detect such phenomena.[5]

Note that most of the examples I give do not merely represent "social impacts" of technologies, but -- more strongly -- illustrate ways that technologies can influence the basic social and political structure of a society. In that sense these social, political and cultural impacts--all of which are ordinarily slighted in both participatory and technocratic TA-- actually represent first-order social concerns. I argue in Democracy and Technology that attention to technologies' structural bearing on democracy ought in principle to be treated as a highest-order question, because a well-functioning democracy is the precondition for being able to decide fairly and effectively what other considerations, democracy aside, are important and how to weigh and address them.[6]

Because these neglected consequences are structurally consequential, they of course tend to affect many or all members of a society that adopts a technology -- non-users of the technology as much as users. For instance, in the preceding example a person who chooses not to own a car, TV or air conditioner will nonetheless be affected just as strongly as the technological user group by the way the users' purchase of these devices contributes to weakening local social interaction.

An example of a sociotechnological dynamic would be the eventual establishment of new national authorities for the purpose of promoting or regulating a new technology--to wit, in the U.S. the establishment of the Federal Communication Commission to regulate telecommunications and of the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to govern various aspects of nuclear energy production.[7]

Another type of dynamic example would be when a spillover effect of one individual adopting a technology induces others to adopt the same technology. For instance, when a few people in a suburban neighborhood each buy a noisy power lawn mower, other neighbors may soon decide to do the same. Each new adopter reasons that the noise from the original few power mowers has already irrevocably disrupted the neighborhood's former peace and quiet. So since they have to live with the noise anyway, they might as well at least benefit from the convenience of owning their own power lawn mower.[8]




This work has been made possible with the financial support of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF Award No. SBR-981003), the Danish Board of Technology, the Dept. of Technology & Social Science at the Danish Technical University, the European Awareness Scenario Workshop program, and thanks to general support to the Loka Institute from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Albert A. List Foundation, the Menemsha Fund, and the generosity of individual Loka Institute donors.



1. See the Loka Institute's "Deliberative Citizens' Panel" Web page; Simon Joss and John Durant, eds., Public Participation in Science: The Role of Consensus Conferences in Europe (London: Science Museum, 1995); and Igor Stefan Mayer, Debating Technologies: A Methodological Contribution to the Design and Evaluation of Participatory Policy Analysis (Tilburg, The Netherlands: Tilburg University Press, 1997). [Return to text.]


2. E.g., Robert D. Putnam, "The Strange Disappearance of Civic America," The American Prospect, no. 24 (Winter 1996), pp. 34-50. [Return to text.]


3. Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), especially chaps. 9-12. [Return to text.]

4. Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984). For other examples of psychodevelopmental impacts of technologies, see Richard E. Sclove, Democracy and Technology (New York and London: Guilford Press, 1995), pp. 15-16, 80, 83-108, 142, 144-146, 181-182. [Return to text.]

5. Sclove, Democracy and Technology, (note [4], above), pp. 23, 65. [Return to text.]

6. Sclove, Democracy and Technology, (note [4], above), pp. 26-37, 157-179. [Return to text.]

7. See also Ulrich Beck, Ecological Enlightenment: Essays on the Politics of the Risk Society, Mark A. Ritter, trans. (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995). [Return to text.]

8. Sclove, Democracy and Technology, (note [4], above), pp. 14, 16, 165-167. [Return to text.]


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