Opinion: Technology doesn’t change society, we do

Social anthropologist Dawn Walter explains why understanding the distinction between ‘technology changes society’ and ‘people change society’ might mean the difference between a successful and a not-so-successful tech product.
28th January 2019

The history of the human race is littered with examples of people creating tools to make our collective lives easier or to do the things we can’t without a great deal of effort. Matches to light a fire, say. Or the chopping tool discovered in Tanzania by Richard Leakey, a heavy stone that someone, about 1.8 to 2 million years ago, laboriously chipped about eight times to leave the stone with a straight-lined sharp edge, perfect for stripping bark off trees or meat from carcasses. A tool that changed our trajectory as a species.

You might say that technology changes society. Except that it doesn’t, not by itself.

Whenever we talk about ‘technology changing society’, we assign power to an anonymous force, ‘technology’, and in doing so, we forget us humans. Technology doesn’t arrive fully-formed in our laps from the sky. The act of creating technology is done by people, from that ancient stone chopping tool to the smartphone in your hand. It is in the making of things that makes us human.

The distinction is important. Why? Because by assigning the power to change society to this mysterious, faceless ‘technology’, we divorce ourselves from the making of technology, the act of which makes us human, and from responsibility that that act confers.

Which means we see headlines like this: Military drones kill insurgents! Self-driving cars kill people!

This distancing from ourselves and the technology that we’re creating can lead to problems such as the lack of empathy consistently displayed by the Silicon Valley “titans of tech”, which social anthropologist Gillian Tett wrote about in the Financial Times. Where are the people, really, in their world? It’s all about the tech and less about the people, a lack of acknowledgement of the humans in the equation.

A technology-first, people-second-if-at-all mindset also leads very quickly to the belief that technology is always the solution, which former software developer, Meredith Broussard, terms “technochauvinism”. If we build it, they will come.

Furthermore, the technology we create is not passively accepted by our fellow humans. We are all active agents in our adoption and use of technology – the ways in which we use it, and whether we use it at all. People incorporate technology into their lives on their own terms. Society changes when we actively and collectively change our practices and behaviours in relation to something. Think about how we primarily communicate now compared to 20 years ago: emails, messages, ‘snaps’, and texts. Rarely do we phone someone or write letters. We gradually incorporated these new ways of communicating into our lives, and in doing so we profoundly transformed many things, not least social relationships.

Not only do people actively chose to use new technologies but they also use them in ways in which were never anticipated by the designers. A daily reminder for me of this is the patch of brown earth, which turns to slippery mud when it rains, on my walking route into work. Known as a ‘desire line’, the grass has been flattened by thousands of feet as a visible rejection of the path the urban planners want us to take. (Pay attention to these ‘acts of resistance’. They can tell you a great deal if you’re willing to listen.)

So, when you see the phrase, ‘technology can change society for the better’, remember the people in the equation: the people making the technology, and the people incorporating it into their lives (or not). Because understanding the distinction between ‘technology changes society’ and ‘people change society’ might mean the difference between a successful and a not-so-successful tech product.