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The “social shaping” of technologies

Human interactions with technology can lead to unexpected developments and outcomes over time.

Before we get too carried away with the extent of change we are facing, let’s pause for a moment and consider the following:

  1. It’s usually a more gradual process than we might think

    David (1990) compared the growth of information technology in the late 20th Century to the early days of electricity, an innovation which was also allocated a ‘revolutionary’ label. It actually took several decades for people to learn how to make the most of the new technology and overcome their preference for ‘traditional’ and familiar alternatives. Looking back, it is clear that electricity did fundamentally change how we live and work, but this was not necessarily obvious in the early days.

    Douglas Adams, in his classic novel “The Salmon of Doubt” summed up the reaction of many people to new technologies as follows:

    “Anything that is in the world when you are born is normal and ordinary.

    Anything that is invented when you are between 15 and 35 is exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

    Anything invented after you are 35 is against the natural order of things”

    An “ageist” stereotype yes, but with more than a grain of truth perhaps…?

  2. As humans we can shape how technologies are developed and used…for better or worse.

Our capacity to plan for the future can be enhanced by understanding how earlier innovations appeared at the time, so that we do not apply the standards of the present to the past through the ‘rosy glow’ of hindsight.

In their study of the social influences upon technology, MacKenzie and Wajcman (1985) claimed that a new technology is created within the context of existing systems. It only appears to be radically different because hindsight filters out less successful alternatives. In reality, human intervention with all its associated social influences means that the process of change can be messy and protracted. The new system may turn out quite differently from what was initially predicted. Competing projects can overlap, but often only the story of the ‘winner’ survives the passage of time. Looking back, this gives the illusion of a step change.

Between 1965 and 2003 a BBC TV show called Tomorrow’s World explored forthcoming technology and made predictions about how it would change the future. This article from the BBC explores which predictions came true. You can gaze in wonder at the clunky prototype mobile phone!

The quote from Douglas Adams suggests a tendency to resist new ways of doing things and a desire to maintain the old ways. Why do you think this is the case? Is it really to do with age?

© University of Exeter
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