Theories of Technology and Society

This page is part of my STSS Portfolio.
Comm. 539, Prof. Gina Neff, Winter 2016

This class served as my introduction to STS. According to its course description, this class “focuses on the social, cultural and political implications of new communication and information technology.” Prof. Neff introduced the class as having a distinct position between STS and media and communication studies. The book Media Technologies, co-edited by UW professor Kirsten Foot (Gillespie et al., 2014), had recently been published with the express goal of bringing these fields into dialogue, and it provided several important readings for the class and for my own work. I remember taking this class more than a year into my doctoral studies and feeling both relief and excitement upon discovering the scholarly perspectives of STS. These were at once more critical than the engagement with technology from within urban planning and more rigorous and nuanced than much of the popular technology criticism that had shaped my thinking up to that point. While literature in media and communication studies was following the particular contours of the emerging technologies that I was interested in—social media, geolocation, and smartphones, among others—I was particularly encouraged by the broader historical approach of STS. Its “we’ve seen this kind of story before” perspective resonated with the long-view studies of urban history I was familiar with. My work is not historical, but I find such accounts helpful in countering overstated views that some new gadget is going to transform everything.

The class covered a broad territory. A few ideas were especially influential:

  • Technological determinism and social constructivism. The technological determinist begins with a technology as a given, then asks how society is reconfigured in response to it. Although it is not necessarily stated explicitly, this assumption of technological drivers and a passive society underlies many utopian and dystopian accounts of new technologies. Proponents of the social construction of technology, on the other hand, point out that technologies do not simply appear ex nihilo, but are themselves products of contingent social and historical events and conditions that could have been otherwise. Although they are sometimes presented in opposition, there is productive work emerging with a hybrid approach drawing on each of these. STS is often associated with a SCOT approach that sets out to reveal how technology is really just people. Meanwhile, a recent turn to materiality in media studies and STS has shown how artifacts and their affordances can shape how people engage with information. (Christian Sandvig’s (2013) discussion of the internet as infrastructure helpfully examines the intersection of these perspectives). Within STS, Langdon Winner famously argued that artifacts continue to do political work even after the conditions of their social construction have passed.
  • Actor-Network Theory and materiality. These kinds of questions about the relationship between things, individuals, and ideas was at the foundation of the development of actor-network theory. ANT, associated with Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and John Law, rejects ideas of abstract “social” forces and instead looks to particular relationships between concrete actors. Actors can be people or things, and ANT gives us the difficult proposition that things have agency. Working in a different vein, new materialists like Jane Bennett (2009) examine how material objects do things in the world in ways that we easily overlook.
  • Design-in-use. This idea challenges the notion that there is one group of people who produce technologies and a separate group who use them. Several classic STS studies show how users of technologies co-produce those technologies in historically contingent ways (e.g., Kline & Pinch, 1996). Within design professions, people like Donald Norman (Norman, 1999) have pointed out that changes in people’s uses of technology do not necessarily reflect the changes in designers’ production and intentions. The work of Lucy Suchman and others beginning from feminist standpoint theory has sought to locate the forms and meanings of technologies in the particular and the situated conditions of use, rather than in a producer’s abstracted view from nowhere (Suchman, 1993). This works speaks to a primary objective of my dissertation, understanding the agency of technology users in shaping their own thinking and behavior together with technological tools.


I produced several reading reflections for the class, several of which sought connections between the assigned readings and my own understanding of urbanism. I also led a class discussion on Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network (Starosielski, 2015), which is a good example of an ANT-influenced study of overlooked infrastructure, specifically the thousands of miles of cables carrying internet signals across the ocean floor. Especially important in her work is her attention to the role of discourse in perpetuating views of the internet as immaterial and internet infrastructure as friction-free.

In my final paper for the class, “Urban Space and the Logic of Software,” I set out to connect the ideas of the class with the study of cities. Within the class material, I focused especially on work dealing with software, media, and digital technologies. Beyond that, I surveyed empirical work within urban studies examining “smart cities” and the proliferation of mobile computing. I was particularly interested to draw connections between the notions of social construction of technology and Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) idea of the social production of space. Lefebvre’s work, highly influential within geography and urban studies, conceptualizes space not as a neutral container in which things happen, but as a product of social relations, meaning, and everyday life, ideas that resonate with STS’s framing of technology as well. The paper I wrote for this class was a major influence on my Phase I paper, a requirement of my PhD program.

Key Readings

  • Bennett, Jane. 2009. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press. Selections.
  • Bijker, Wieber E. 2010. “How is Technology Made?–That is the Question,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 34(1): 63-76. doi: 10.1093/cje/bep068
  • Brown, James J., Jr. 2015. Ethical programs: Hospitality and the rhetorics of software. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. Introduction, Chapter 2, Chapter 5 & Conclusion.
  • Feenberg, Andrew. 1999. “The Problem of Agency”, Ch. 5 in Questioning Technology, Routledge, pp. 101-130.
  • Galloway, Alexander R. 2004. Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 3, and Conclusion.
  • Gillespie, Tarleton. “The Relevance of Algorithms” Chapter 9 in Media Technologies.
  • Hughes, Thomas P.1986. “The Seamless Web: Technology, Science, Etcetera, Etcetera”. Social Studies of Science 16 (2). Sage Publications, Ltd.: 281–92.
  • John, Nicholas A. 2013. “Sharing and Web 2.0: The emergence of a keyword.” New Media & Society 15 no. 2 167-182 doi: 10.1177/1461444812450684
  • Kline, Ronald and Trevor Pinch. 1996. “Users as Agents of Technological Change: The Social Construction of the Automobile in the Rural United States,” Technology and Culture, 37(4): 763-795.
  • Latour, Bruno. 2007. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford University Press.
  • Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. Blackwell.
  • Nagy, Peter, and Gina Neff. “Imagined Affordance: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory.” Social Media+ Society 1, no. 2 (2015): 2056305115603385.
  • Norman, Donald A. 1999. “Affordance, conventions, and design,”  Interactions 6(3), p.38-43
  • Pasquale, Frank. 2015. The Black Box Society. Harvard University Press. Selections.
  • Star, Susan Leigh and James R. Griesemer. 1989. “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39,” Social Studies of Science 19(3): 387-420
  • Starosielski, N. (2015). The undersea network. Duke University Press.
  • Sterne, Jonathan. “6 “What Do We Want?”“Materiality!”“When Do We Want It?”“Now!”.” Media Technologies, 119-128.
  • Suchman, Lucy. 1994. “Working Relations of Technology Production and Use,” Computer Supported Collaborative Work 2: 21-39.
  • Suchman, Lucy, 2014.  Mediations and Their Others. Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, p.129-137.
  • Wajcman, Judy. 2010 “Feminist Theories of Technology,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 34, 143–152.
  • Winner, Langdon. 1980. “Do artifacts have Politics? Daedalus, 109: 121-36.