Part 1: Theories and Concepts of STS
Authors: Belle Salsone, Peter Sebastian Stein, Caleb Davis, Thomas Kent, Johnson, David Thomas Nitz, Krystal Nielsen
We all know technology as an important part of our daily lives. Humans use tools everyday in order to make our lives easier. We use language to communicate with others, and we drive cars in order to get us from place to place, and as such a prevalent aspect of human life, it makes us question, “what exactly is technology? Where did it come from? and does technology drive history?” The theory of technological determinism states that societal growth does in fact follow an inevitable course that is propelled by technological innovation.
A simple example of this concept is the development of the wheel. It “revolutionized human mobility, allowing humans to travel greater distances and carry greater loads with them” (Drew 2021). From this one can conclude that this technological advancement heavily impacted the course of human history, thus substantiating the concept of technological determinism. In this chapter, more examples and concepts surrounding this idea that technology drives history will be discussed. www.communicationtheory.org
There are those who feel as though technology hasn’t influenced change to occur in society or believe that technology isn’t the main factor that causes society to progress. Many times people disagree with technological determinism because they focus on other factors that prompted the societal change being discussed instead of just focusing on the technology driven change. Some may even disagree with the theory because they interpret it as saying technology controls their lives, not them.
One of the more outspoken critics of technological determinism is Daniel Chandler. He believes that while technology does contribute to societal change, it isn’t the only factor causing the change. He states that many technological determinists have a reductionist interpretation, meaning they only see technology being the main factor of change, being the only cause. Chandler explains his theory in which societal change is multicausal rather than monocausal, meaning society’s progression is driven by multiple causes like economics, politics and education (Chandler, 2000). He goes on to say that technological determinism puts technology above society, which makes people feel hopeless to change society by themselves, thus causing a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ (Harrison, 2013).
Another position people have taken against technological determinism is that technology isn’t the causation factor, but rather a tool that could be used to assist in the evolution of society. As the American historian Lynn White writes “a new device merely opens a door; it does not compel one to enter” (White, 1971), meaning technology produces advancement if one allows it to. Another American academic, Ithiel de Sola Pool, states “Technology shapes the structure of the battle but not every outcome” (Finnegan et al., 1987), which implies that technology is a factor of change, but there are other factors as well that can prompt progression.
Relationship to STS
Which is more influential – technology over society or society over technology?
Many people believe that technology has a negative impact on society. Others believe that technology has no impact on society, and it is humans who take the technology and create negative impacts. For that reason, Technological Determinism is often called a “critics term.” To elaborate, “technological determinism” is predominantly employed as a critic’s term, used to dismiss certain classes of theoretical and empirical claims.”
The central issue here is agency. To what extent of control do we have? Is technology thrust upon us with some internal implications controlling our path dependency?
One critique is that “technology never forces itself on members of the society. Man creates technology and choses to use them…There is no imposition on the part of the technology to be used rather technology requires people to participate or involve themselves at some point or another to use a car or a microwave. The choice of using technology and experiencing its effects therefore lies in the hands of a human being (Communication Theory, 2018).”
Many technology scholars believed that technology developments would become out of control and shape society in drastic ways. They based this belief on the fact that their studies of technology showed that over time, technology would impact society in ways that creators did not intend (Drinkwater, 2018).
In short, there are two viewpoints when it comes to the debate of whether technology influences society or if society influences technology. While it is clear that both influence each other, scholars debate over which has more influence. The first group called the technological determinists chose the side that technology has the most impact on society, and that society has little to no say as to how technologies evolve. The opposing side of social determinists believe that society drives technological development. This group may claim that “We shape our technology, then technology shapes us (Drinkwater, 2018).”
Japan displays good examples of a social deterministic view of technology. The first example being that their toilets are very elaborate compared to Western-style toilets. Japanese toilets have a control panel with many settings including heated toilet seats, bidet-style functions, and sound masking features. These settings are incorporated into their toilets because of their high societal regard for cleanliness, which is reflected in the Japanese word, “kirei”, which means pretty, beautiful, orderly, pure or clean. Japan also displays how society determines technology because of the prevalence of vending machines it has throughout the city. For every 23 people in Japan, there is a vending machine. With the highest density of vending machines in the world, they hold items such as umbrellas, fruit, soup, beer, hot dishes, and eggs. There are multiple societal factors that contribute to the high volume of vending machines including: “The cost and scarcity of labor in an aging society with a declining birthrate, high real estate prices and small dwellings, leaving little space for storing food, a low crime rate and incidence of break-in or theft, a predominantly cash-based society, longstanding trust in automation and robots (Fuller, 2017).”
The technological determinist side of the debate argues that technology has shaped our lives dramatically in small and large ways. Perhaps smartphones can be an example of how technology has drastically influenced our daily habits. While smartphones have connected people from all different corners of the world, it has also been a relentless distraction for most smartphone owners. It’s undeniable that smartphones have benefited our lives greatly. We can conduct bank transactions, rescue workers can pinpoint exactly where help is needed, we can track how well we are sleeping at night, all from the ease of our fingertips. We rely on apps with mapping capabilities to direct us to places over memory. It has now become habitual for many people to use map apps to drive or walk somewhere we know how to get to heart. The question is: at what cost do these benefits come at? A person’s social and mental health can be at risk from the constant use of smartphones. Some people have even gone as far to say that smartphones can be as addictive and seen as somewhat of a drug. The irony is that although smartphones allow us to be constantly connected to each other, they are also constantly distracting us from the real world, and we are getting lost in virtual reality. People are consumed by phones, as you can see from the dozens of bowed heads staring at their phone, anywhere you go (Bhattacharjee, 2019).
At the University of Texas at Austin, psychologist Adrian Ward conducted a study where he challenged 800 participants with mental tasks. The challenge was to solve a math problem while memorizing a random sequence of letters, then selecting an image out of a group of options to make a visual pattern. One group of participants were asked to leave their smartphones in another room. The other group kept their phones in their pockets or in front of them, however, the participants were not allowed to use their phones during the tasks. The group that did not have their phone with them did better on the tasks than the group that had access to their phones. The psychologist concluded that smartphones did cause people to feel distracted, even though they were not using them, and diminished their cognitive abilities (Bhattacharjee, 2019).
Another study was conducted at the University of Columbia, to attest to the fact that smartphones adversely affect social interaction. The researchers gathered 300 participants to have dinner at a restaurant with friends or family. One group was asked to leave their phones on the table and the other group was asked to put them away. The group with their phones felt more distracted, and bored, enjoying their meal less than the group without their phone. Ethan Kross, a psychologist at the University of Michigan explained why something that is supposedly entertaining as a smartphone, would make us enjoy our meal less, “It’s well known that if you want to keep a person dialed into something, give them a reward at variable times. Turns out, that’s exactly what email or social media does– you don’t know when you’ll get another like or receive your next email, and so we keep checking (Bhattacharjee, 2019). The compulsive urge to constantly check your phone can be attributed to the fact that technology companies can carefully orchestrate apps and websites to keep you hooked and coming back for more. These companies create features to conduct positive reinforcement, encouraging smartphone owners to constantly check their favorite apps (Bhattacharjee, 2019).
As a response to these criticisms, there are now apps to track screen time, although there is no proof that this monitoring has users change their habits. A study was conducted of high school students as participants. Of these participants who checked their screen time monitoring apps on an occasional basis and saw they were spending more time than they originally thought, only about half did nothing to change their behavior (Bhattacharjee, 2019).
The question that still remains is the question of agency: what extent of control do we have? There is no doubt that technology influences our lives significantly, however; we do have complete freedom to use or to not use technology. We, as humans, need to actively work to not lose our sense of agency and control over technology. Right now, we are guided by technology. However, this is because we allow it. Literature’s popular trope that a creation can take on a life of its own, and the creator loses control of it, is a narrative that has warned future generations of the power of technology. Frankenstein and his monster is just one literature example of how innovation and endless possibility can lead to loss of control and destruction. We, as humans, need to analyze the complex relationship of humans and technology. From there, we can direct technological innovation as opposed to letting it direct us (Jain, 2021).
To further determine if technology shapes us or if we shape technology, we can examine human sentiment about technological innovation. A survey was conducted in 2017 that asked participants if they felt enthusiastic or worried about, “the increased role of automation in different facts of life, such as self-driving vehicles, robot caretakers, for older adults and, more generally, a future of machines performing jobs previously filled by humans (Jain, 2021).” In every category, there were more people that expressed worriedness than enthusiasm. Another 2019 study showed that, “nearly twice as many Americans believe automation has done more harm than good.” What this tells us is that people do feel as if technology shapes us, not vice versa. Humans feel a sense that they have lost agency, and that technology may have an adverse effect on society in the future (Jain, 2021).
So what can we do to respond to this dilemma? We must examine how new technologies are shaping and accepted into society. A field of study, called the foundation of control systems, has a feedback control system that attempts to limit the effects of newly deployed technology. The system collects measurements and compares them to a desired outcome, then implements an action to achieve that outcome. This template can be applied to analyze how we relate to and accept technology. We can see how individuals, and society are responding to new technologies. Leaders in the world such as engineers, policymakers, and business influencers have to play a role in this and actively participate to leverage their resources to help us mitigate any potential dangers (Jain, 2021).
Social Media Algorithms
Peter – examples of how social media’s algorithms feed off of society for marketing purposes?
Social Media Platforms & Echo Chambers
Examining how social media platforms like instagram have created echo chambers and comparison traps that are degrading valuable human interaction between younger generations.
How much time do you think the average teenager spends on social media every day? Most people would probably guess a few hours at the most, but still within reason. If that is what you think, then you would probably be surprised to hear that the average teenager actually spends around 9 hours a day looking at some form of social media (Fox). The real question now is what is this actual effect on these individuals who are spending an increasing amount of time online? The rise of social media has disconnected younger generations from each other by creating echo chambers and comparison traps which pushes society farther away from reality, and more towards a false utopia that no one will ever reach.
The first question that needs to be answered is how did social media get so ingrained into our society, and what platforms have become the most prominent? The main reason that people have become more engaged with social media is because “there are more layers of publicness available to those using networked media than ever before; as a result, people’s relationship to public life is shifting in ways we have barely begun to understand” (Matthews, 2016, p. 4). This shift has opened the door for many social media platforms to rapidly expand and root themselves into the culture. There are hundreds of platforms available, but the main one that has affected younger generations is Instagram.
 Source: Max J. Coppes
The first problem with social media, and Instagram in particular, is the prominence of echo chambers. There are two parts to echo chambers. The first is selective exposure which is defined as “the tendency to seek out opinion-reinforcing information,” and the second is selective avoidance which is similarly defined as “avoiding opinion-challenging views” (Pamelee, 2020). When these two parts are implemented as algorithms into social media platforms like Instagram, they will funnel very specific information toward an individual. This will then create a fake reality bubble around them where they perceive the world in a very narrow light, which can hurt their ability to communicate with people outside of their bubble.
The second problem with Instagram is the effects of comparison traps. “People are most likely to share peak experiences and flattering news about themselves… The narrow, distorted slice of reality that is displayed on social media is almost perfectly constructed to make viewers feel deficient and discouraged” (Webber, 2017). When individuals – especially younger generations who are easily impressionable – see someone post the best experiences of their lives, they will inevitably compare it to the entirety of their life, with all its ups and downs, and feel as though they are worthless. This cycle is very harmful for people and will affect how they interact with others, because they will feel as though their lives are not exciting enough. In many cases, people will also turn it into a never ending competition of posting the best parts of their lives to try and outdo others on social media. The fake realities that are created from comparison traps on social media have become harmful to society, and reshaped the culture in unexpected ways.
 Source: Lara Antal
When analyzing the effects of echo chambers and comparison traps on individuals, there is a clear correlation between time spent on social media and a degraded mental health and diminished ability to communicate. Research has shown that an increased amount of time on Instagram and other social media platforms has led to increased feelings of depression and low self esteem (Hunt, 47). While analyzing the effects of technological determinism in this chapter, social media has shown to be changing the environment in which people communicate in ways that are not beneficial to our mental and relational health.
Internet as a Utility – Thomas Johnson
Over the past couple of years, schools have shifted towards online educational methods which have allowed us to adapt in this continuously changing world. But, what about those students who don’t have access to the internet? For those students who are not fortunate enough to have fast and reliable internet access, getting an education has only become much more difficult. In today’s world the internet has become almost a necessity to survive in our technologically driven society and many believe that the internet should now be a school-managed public utility. This would allow internet access to students located all over the United States, but would also pose a lot of problems towards getting internet access to everybody such as infrastructure, service and support, and affordability. Ultimately, internet access has become a crucial part of society today and is something that needs to be managed as a public utility so that education can be accessible to all.
In today’s world internet access has become a necessity and Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of the advocacy group Public Citizen claims, “It’s critical to the functioning of society.” She continues to say that “treating the internet like electricity or water is the way we need to think about it” (Lazarus). The Internet has become the infrastructure of our lives and now more than ever internet access has become crucial to get an education as well as work from home.
Unfortunately, for those less fortunate students, getting an education has only become harder due to the shift towards online classes. Jonathan Browning of Duke University states, “In the past five years, studies have shown that 35% of lower-income households (annual income of under $35,000 a year) with children in school lack broadband access, compared with just 6% of households making upwards of $75,000 a year” (Browning). This shows that a majority of those families who don’t have access to the internet at home have to travel to local public areas that have internet just for their children to get an education. From this many people believe that it is necessary to treat the internet as a utility and that infrastructure must be built in order to reach everyone. Browning also reported that 70% of teachers assign homework that requires broadband access and 65% of students use the Internet to complete assignments” (Browning). But, obviously without internet access at home, none of this would be possible.
While it is apparent that internet access and infrastructure needs to be increased across the nation, making the internet accessible to a wide range of the population is not such an easy task. There are a lot of challenges that come along with this such as affordability, infrastructure, and service and support. Affordability is one of the biggest issues as many families have numerous different expenses to the point that they can’t afford to spend the extra money on fast and reliable internet access every month. Another big issue is putting together infrastructure that is strong enough to accommodate for everyone to achieve fast and reliable internet access. Achieving this would require a large amount of funding and work as extending fiber networks towards every community would be a difficult task. The last big problem is service and support as when something goes wrong with the internet, someone has to find a solution to the problem. Every community deserves fast and reliable internet, but what happens when internet access gets interrupted or stops functioning? It shows how much work needs to be done in order to get internet access to everyone in our society,
Overall we can see how dependent our society has become on the internet and how many students need access to the internet in order to successfully obtain an education. The internet has played a big role in our everyday lives and ultimately our society needs to make the internet a school-managed public utility. In today’s world we have seen how many classes have shifted towards online educational methods and for those students who don’t have fast and reliable internet access getting an education can be a difficult task. Altogether as the internet has taken control of our everyday lives it is apparent that internet access needs to be developed into a school-managed public utility so that a good education can be accessible to all.
Boyd and Ellison define social media as an internet platform that allows people to interact and develop social relationships through private or public online profiles (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). Despite the usefulness of Social Media, researchers claim it to be widely manipulative. The 2020 Netflix hit “The Social Dilemma” introduces the public to this manipulation and exposes the dark business models. Platforms take advantage of users’ behavioral vulnerabilities and social rewards for revenue, even with the cost of social media addiction and the escalation of mental health issues (Roy, 2020). Notably, the companies use unethical algorithms to profit off the missing voices of college students.
 Source: Oladimeji Ajegbile
Social media companies commonly profit off users through the Attention Economic business model. Within a Cambridge article, Bhargava & Velasquez summarize that the model is an ad-based practice. The user’s attention is the product, and businesses sell this attention to the advertisers or other buyers. The longer a user spends on their platform, the more that companies profit. Platforms retain attention through rewarding mechanisms like infinite scrolling, “likes,” and intermittent variable rewards.
Infinite scrolling entices users to continue scrolling because it inhibits stopping cues. Platforms also integrate social validation through likes, encouraging individuals to spend more time online. Additionally, companies like Twitter and Pinterest use intermittent variable signals, which keep users’ attention by reducing content predictability. For example, Twitter uses the blue loading screen
 Source: Ron Lach
to hide tweets, and Pinterest only shows portions of images at the bottom of the screen. These platform elements increase the amount of time that users spend online, increasing the amount of collectible data. This data is thereby used through algorithms to keep users on social media. Furthermore, this fact is concerning, given that most news is on social media (Bhargava & Velasquez, 2020).
In a 2020 study about the impacts of social media on the social comparison of women in college, Engeln and others determined that women spend significantly more time looking at people on Instagram than on Facebook. Women online are often portrayed with unrealistic body types, contributing to comparison. Given the study results, companies should rethink business practices (Engeln et al., 2020).
Algorithmic content retains attention through trending posts, friends’ posts or comments, and clickbait, using personalized ads for profit. In an article about recommender systems, Bojić and others define this content in more detail. Specifically, algorithms use artificial intelligence to provide systems with harvested user data (Bojić et al., 2021).
It is problematic that businesses utilize this model, because social media platforms are addictive. In the Cambridge article, they define internet addiction as “a behavioral addiction.” Specifically, it encompasses several terms, including social media addiction (Bhargava & Velasquez, 2020). Further, the impact of addiction on individuals is concerning, especially considering the prevalence of internet addiction among college students. Setty and others reported the majority of internet addiction among college students in Jodhpur, India. The researchers discovered that “51%” of the 2,035 students suffered from addictive symptoms (Setty & Rajasekhar et al., 2021).
Despite internet addiction’s broad definition, there is controversy over how to describe it. In the Cambridge article, they counter the discussion with supportive evidence for internet addiction. They cite the supportive material of internet overuse and connections between people with internet and substance addiction.
Additionally, the article explains how companies exploit the users’ vulnerabilities, to keep them addicted to the platforms. Two of the discussed vulnerabilities include an individual’s need or desire for the rewards and the importance of the internet to daily life. (Bhargava & Velasquez, 2020). Boer and others attempt to explain the relationship between social-media-use intensity and adolescent wellbeing in another article. They conclude that “the higher adolescents’ average intensity of certain” social media usage “activities, the lower their average level of life satisfaction” (Boer & Stevens et al., 2022). This information is concerning, given that Undergraduate Freshmen and Sophomores are at the end of the adolescent age range from 18-19 years old.
To measure the consequences and risk factors of social media misuse, researchers Zhang and Rau analyze 12 questionnaires in a 2020 article. They conclude that social-media-misuse (SMM) of Facebook leads to a deterioration in self-control ability. Additionally, they analyze a positive relationship between the combination of perceived envy through social comparison tendencies and depression, which poor self-esteem may exacerbate (Zhang & Rau, 2020). These behavioral tendencies may also harm interpersonal relationships. Further, those with emotional instability have shown an elevated risk of developing SMM (McCrae & Gealish, 2019).
There are several proposed solutions to the business models with platforms that contribute to poor mental health and social media misuse. Sarah Brown proposes two solutions in an MIT Management Sloan School article. The first is a subscription-based model, which would, “allow businesses to own the relationship with customers.” The company Neeva uses this model by directing individuals to the most helpful content instead of prioritizing profit from searches. The alternative to the subscription model is Identity Verification, which requires accounts to access feeds. LinkedIn uses this system, limiting the number of uncredible users (Brown, 2021). Overall, these solutions may produce profitable platforms that are healthy for users.
Here you will provide an infographic that sums up your theory or concept that includes a brief definition, its relationship to STS, and brief examples.
Type your questions here.
Bhargava, V., & Velasquez, M. (2021). Ethics of the Attention Economy: The Problem of Social Media Addiction. Business Ethics Quarterly, 31(3), 321-359. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/business-ethics-quarterly/article/ethics-of-the-attention-economy-the-problem-of-social-media-addiction/1CC67609A12E9A912BB8A291FDFFE799
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