By Daniel Eisen
I should learn not to promise what I will talk about in subsequent posts. It always happens that as I research for each post I find something that derails the conversation in some way. In my last post, I promised that I would ‘geek-out’ and discuss some emerging technologies for supporting and strengthening federal agency operations and services.
As I began my research things quickly changed. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by a never-ending array of technological innovations we see and hear about each and every day; I know I did just trying to get a handle on all of these new technologies. I began to wonder why we need all of this technology and what it means to me as a citizen consumer of federal programs and services. And, then I remembered some articles I came across a few years ago on the topic of ‘Technological Determinism’.
Never heard of this term? Neither did I. So, I want to share some of them with you. Many of these articles discuss how technology has changed the way we live, technology as an important change agent, technology as a driving force of history and many other engaging conversations. Hang in with me for a few moments and then I will share a few thoughts on what this means for federal IT.
The discussion over technological determinism divides, mainly, into two schools of thought. First, that of the hard determinists who contend the power to effect social change is credited to technology or its products; technology is reified and depicted as taking on a life of its own (Smith and Marx 1994). Hard determinists might, “ascribe to machines a power they do not have (Heilbroner 1994), or believe in the dream of progress through technology, or believe that once a technology finds itself into society, it takes on a life (Williams 2000) of its own moving with an unstoppable force.
Our second school of thought, soft determinism, considers the history of technology as the history of human actions looking at technology by learning about those who were there, and their circumstances (Heilbroner 1967; Heilbroner 1994; Smith and Marx 1994). Soft determinists would say, since humans develop technology we do have choices in its development and application in society. Other discussions on technological determinism blend these soft and hard categories.
Many of these articles also contained interesting historical examples. For example, the impact of technologies such as how navigation
technology aided in the colonization of the new world (Smith and Marx 1994), how radio and television changed social behavior (Heilbroner 1967) and how the automobile created suburbia (Smith and Marx 1994). Also, discussed were technologies such as, Flexible Manufacturing Technology, where computers were now integrating” functional areas of marketing, design, manufacturing materials handling, inventory control and quality control into a continuous round-the clock, sometimes unattended operations (Nemetz and Fry 1988).
Today, the Internet, smart phones, tablets, cloud computing among others have raised this discussion to new heights. Yet, I find it comforting that no matter which direction the discussion on technological determinism finds itself moving in, it seems that the relationship between technology and society is not all one way. If you would like to read any of the above articles, send me a request in the comments section. I’ll shoot it right over.
Where does this leave us? What about all of these new technologies? I think the real meaning in how we think about federal IT is remembering that when a federal agency chooses to update, upgrade or bring in a completely new technology, ultimately, it is about strengthening operations and services that serve our citizens. So, what does federal IT mean to me? It means many things from improving my ability to e-file taxes to having technologies that provides the federal government with the capability and readiness to save lives during a natural disaster. Yes, it’s complicated but I am amazed and in awe at how far we have come in such a short period of time. How about you?