CT551--Week 5--Lecture notes


The Roots of Innovation


Pool cites a number of examples in support of his title, "How Society Shapes Technology." Sometimes society's role is accidental, as in the effect of hoof and mouth disease on the Stanley Steamer (to control the spread of the disease, drain public horse troughs, but the Steamers used the troughs to refill their boilers). Sometimes it is a bit quirky, as in the case of the paper pencil (which couldn't be whittled). Technological momentum can play a role in making particular lines of development difficult to reverse (young technologies, which have not yet developed this momentum [made up of investment, infrastructure, training programs, and people--employees, managers, investors, educators, regulators--with vested interests] are easier for society to influence). Awareness of potential problems can stimulate efforts to control the development process.

Pool spends some time on the distinction between the positivist and the social constructivist approaches to knowledge, acknowledging that the former fits the natural sciences even as the latter is appropriate for the social sciences. But he errs in some of his points. Does Santa Claus wear a red suit and ride in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer? He says everyone "knows" this, but "the positivist approach has no place for such folderol." Yet if one rephrases the question to something like "Do people think Santa Claus wears...?" a positivist would be quite happy with it, though she might wish to qualify "people" as "members of societies whose mythology includes Santa Claus." Here, of course, is the social constructivist point, that knowledge (of some kinds, at least) depends on society.

Technology by itself--the engineering side of it--is thoroughly positivist. It either works or it doesn't, and whether you are in Maine or Saudi Arabia or China makes no difference. But it does not exist by itself. It exists in society, in a context of needs, fears, quirks, desires, beliefs, and so on. To understand it in context requires bringing a constructivist eye to the task. Only then can we understand why technologies are accepted or rejected, regulated, abandoned, clung to, and modified. Consider in this light our society's unwillingness to accept medical solutions based on embryonic stem cells as long as the cells are derived from actual embryos.


Technology's context of needs, etc., can be important even in small technologies such as shoelaces. Tenner notes that shoes are the first adult machines we must master, and their difficulty becomes apparent when we try to explain how to tie them--especially if we try to explain all the variations in the technique. If you are curious about some of the variations, here is a site that offers an exhaustive list.

Shoe laces also connote class (Jefferson adopted them over buckles because they seemed more democratic) and group identity. They provide conversational pauses. And while society has certainly shaped them, they in turn have shaped various social behaviors.

What other technologies or technological devices also show the interplay of technology and society? Tenner mentions one when he talks about getting a jammed disk out of a drive--the paper clip. Paper clips would not exist if we did not use large amounts of paper, if we didn't have paper mills and printing presses, in fact if we were not a literate society. Because they do exist, disk drives were given a hole of just the right size. Others? How about rubber bands? ball-point pens? What do we call pocket knives? Pen knives? Why? Like the paperclip, it's a literacy thing--once upon a time, pens were quill (bird feather) pens, and they needed to be sharpened periodically. And they are going out of fashion not because of the shift to ballpoint and felt-tip pens but because of airport security fears.


Law professor Lawrence Lessig discusses at some length the way Internet technology was founded on the "end to end" principle, meaning that it had no built-in barriers to innovation. It would carry anything that could be expressed as a string of bits, and if innovators could devise ways to express new things as bits, or to build services around the carrying of bits (email, chat, etc., etc.), they were free to do so. But today, in the name of copyright, there are many efforts to control what kind of traffic the Internet carries and what sorts of things people can do with it. Some of this is surely justified, for there is such a thing as piracy of intellectual property (movies, music, text, software). But Lessig is adamant that the Internet must be left open to continued innovation. As he notes at the end, "The Internet promised the world--particularly the weakest in the world--the fastest and most dramatic change to existing barriers to growth. That promise depends on the network remaining open to innovation. That openness depends upon policy that better understands the Internet's past."

This is admittedly a constructivist point, for it depends on a particular view of who should benefit. Those who favor control of the Internet tend to be the vested interests who make large amounts of money from their position as suppliers of content, and they want to keep things that way. Lessig is arguing for the rest of us who, if we are free to innovate, may one day be able to join those vested interests or, if not, will benefit in other ways.


A similar conflict of benefits is visible in the issue of "net neutrality," which has arisen because large Internet service providers (such as Comcast and Verizon) are looking at large increases in traffic as people download video and other large files. They wish to be able to steer their customers to their own download services and therefore wish to be able to charge other content providers for access to customers. They may also wish to charge customers more, and Comcast at least has drawn attention for cutting off customers who exceed unspecified limits on downloads.

The Internet has thrived without imposing barriers to content providers (or customers). Here Lessig argues that in order to protect the growth and economic vitality of the Internet, Congress should enact "network neutrality" legislation to prevent broadband providers from interfering with free competition among application and content providers. By stimulating innovation, such legislation would ultimately benefit consumers. Kyle McSlarrow, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, argues that "net neutrality" mandates would interfere with the ability of broadband providers to improve Internet access and thus would ultimately undermine consumer choice and welfare.

Is net neutrality just a matter of promoting innovation, growth, and economic vitality? Joe Dysart, "The Quest for Net Neutrality," American School Board Journal (May 2008), says that broadband providers such as AT&T and Comcast are pushing for a two-tiered Internet, with one tier free but slow and a second tier that provides more speed at a premium price. Dysart notes that this would adversely impact institutions such as public schools, whose limited budgets would confine them to the inferior tier. Religious groups have similar concerns. Testifying at the same "The Future of the Internet" hearing that provided the selections for this issue, Michele Combs, Vice President of Communications for the Christian Coalition of America, argued that net neutrality has been abused by many ISPs: "Verizon Wireless censored text messages sent by the pro-choice advocacy group, NARAL, to its own members who had voluntarily signed up to receive them. ... AT&T [has] cut off political speech during live concerts ... [and] Comcast was blocking consumers' ability to download the King James Bible." Combs says that, "Increasingly, faith-based groups are turning to the Internet to promote their political rights, to engage in what Ronald Reagan called 'the hard work of freedom.' We should not let the phone and cable companies interfere with that work."

According to Alan Joch, "Debating Net Neutrality," Communications of the ACM (October 2009), some people consider the battle over net neutrality nothing less than a battle over the shape of American culture. However, "existing regulatory and market forces may already be working to keep abuses in check." Indeed, the FCC in 2010 set rules to enforce net neutrality, although many people think the rules excessively weak.


Questions for Discussion

1. Pool tells us what "social constructivism" is and how it affects the development of technologies. What developments in society can you adduce to explain the current trend toward regulation of the Internet?

2. What social factors seem likely to influence how robots are accepted, regulated, and modified? Will gender issues affect the outcome? Age issues? Consider the development in Japan of robot suits to help people walk.

3. What social forces are at work in the net neutrality debate?