Hand, M., & Sandywell, B. (2002). E-Topia as Cosmopolis or Citadel: On the Democratizing and De-Democratizing Logics of the Internet, or, toward a Critique of the New Technological Fetishism. Theory, Culture & Society, 19(1-2), 197–225. doi:10.1177/026327640201900110
The main purpose of Hand and Sandywell’s (2002) article is to bring awareness to the social discourses that are used to paint a picture of technology as democratizing, progressive, and benign or, alternatively, as destructive, corporate-driven, and hegemonic tools. The authors suggest that these discourses are oversimplifications of much more complex phenomena. Whilst I agree with their position, I am left with some questions about their underlying epistemology. Particularly troublesome for me is their presentation of social constructionism and essentialism. First, I will examine their argument on technological determinism, then I will examine their epistemology.
Hand and Sandywell divide the positions into a utopian-dystopian dichotomy.
- Global citizenship
- Borderless world
- Global village
- Voluntary association
- Continuous town meeting
- Grassroots social movements
- Computer-mediated civil interaction
- Participative democracy
- Global capitalism
- Social inequality
- Enhancement of power and wealth structures
- Dumbing down society
- Poverty and cyber-exclusion
- Communication that was few to many is now many to many
- Hierarchical society gives way to flatter structures
- Unidirectional becomes multidirectional
- Globalization becomes homogenization
- Have-nots cannot participate
Global Citadel Theory
- End of the social; end of politics
- Consumerism & capitalism
Electronic Panopticon of Cybernetic Capitalism
- Technocratic control and surveillance
Hand and Sandywell, define technological essentialism as a view of technology that is intrinsically utopian-ist and dystopian-ist. Essentialist views are based on notions that technology has some underlying “essence” or characteristics that determine their effects upon society. The authors suggest that when these notions surface solutions include grafting “the ‘social’ or ‘historical’ dimension onto the technology” (p. 206). They refer to this as a kind of social constructionism that “often results in a kind of ‘balance sheet’ perspective in which ‘technical’ factors are counter-balanced by ‘social factors’” (p. 206). They then call for a more radical socio-cultural perspective that emphasizes a human-machine dialectic. They observe that some historicism abstracts machines from their contexts, and that the development of technology is contingent and situated rather than linear. In addition, they note that some historicist models suggest that technology was intentionally constructed for specific purposes with clear stages of development. And, finally, they add that historicist accounts are themselves socially constructed (see Abbate, 1999) and that essentialist accounts are aimed at prediction—that is, deterministic.
The new, radical perspective that the authors offer takes a view of technology as relational, contingent, non-synchronic, discontinuous, and power-mediated. They are critical of simply positing the social construction of technology. Social constructionism, according to Hand and Sandywell, mechanically divides the world into separate categories such as technology, society, and nature.
My understanding of social constructionism, from the European philosophical perspective, is that terminology such as technology, society, and nature are constructs. But, social constructionists do not necessarily support the view that such dualisms exist in a “real” underlying reality. Rather, the nature of existence cannot be known for certain. In a social constructionist view, knowledge is relational, and language is an imperfect medium for discussing ideas, constructs, and perceptions. Critical realists, on the other hand, are more likely to take a position of the world as constituted by “real” objects that are perceived by “real” subjects—though perhaps these subjects view the objects in unique ways. Social constructionism does not necessarily relegate meaning construction to autonomous subjects of “society”, but to a dynamic relational and reflexive interaction between subjects and society that cannot necessarily separated into dualist typologies with essential characteristics.
The authors’ proposed solution would appear to fit nicely within a social-constructionist philosophical perspective quite commensurably. Their acknowledgement of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) as promoting their radical, new perspective supports my argument as social constructionists often draw upon ANT as a methodology for research. Notions of agency and socio-cultural appropriation also fit within social constructionist philosophy.
Finally, the authors propose moving towards a “deconstruction of technological essentialism” as an escape from dualism. Yet, then they propose that theorists take up a “detailed phenomenology of specific technologies” (p. 215). My limited understanding of phenomenology based on Husserl and Merleau-Ponty is a philosophical perspective and methodology aimed at discovering the “essence” of a phenomenon(-a). Hence, the authors are proposing an escape from essentialism by employing a methodology and philosophy that relies upon essentialism.
As I write this, I realize that there may be some misunderstanding of terminology. Social constructionism is understood differently in North America than it is in Europe. I take the European view of social constructionism as defined by Berger and Luckmann (1966), Burr (2003), and Hacking (2000). According to Hacking, “social constructionists teach that items we had thought were inevitable are social products” (p. 47). He defines social constructionism as:
Various sociological, historical, and philosophical projects that aim at displaying or analyzing actual, historically situated, social interactions or causal routes that led to, or were involved in, the coming into being or establishing of some present entity or fact (p. 48).
According to Berger and Luckmann (1966), reification is a significant process in social construction:
Reification is the apprehension of human phenomena as if they were things, that is, in non-human or possibly supra-human terms. Another way of saying this is that reification is the apprehension of the products of human activity as if they were something else than human products—such as facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will. Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world, and further, that the dialectic between man, the producer, and his products is lost to consciousness. The reified world is, by definition, a dehumanized world. It is experienced by man as a strange facticity, an opus alienum over which he has no control rather than as the opus proprium of his own productive activity . . . The objectivity of the social world means that it confronts man as something outside of himself. The decisive question is whether he still retains the awareness that, however, objectivated, the social world was made by men—and, therefore, can be remade by them.
To conclude, I agree in principle with Hand and Sandyman, but their representation of social constructionism is not in line with the definitions that I draw upon.
Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge (p. 219). Garden City, NY: Anchor Books (Random House, Inc.).
Burr, V. (2003). Social constructionism (Vol. 2nd). New York, NY: Routledge.
Hacking, I. (2000). The Social Construction of What? (p. 272). Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/0674004124/ref=oss_product