Nicholas’s public question if there is a book on what the old theorists thought about technology offers a tempting opportunity for some “shameless self-promotion” that I was nearly too modest to seize. But in the pre-ASA mode that nearly every sociology blog I read is in at the moment…well, I´ll jump at the chance: I wrote a book similar to the one that Nick requested – only (sorry) in german and not outlined as a list of old scholars thoughts, but as a sociologized concetual history of explaining the relationship between technology and society.
The usual story is that there was first technological determinism, then social constructivism – a story of a big STS success. But a closer look reveals that the two underlying modes of explanation – technicism and cuturalism – are with us for at least 150 years. This conceptual dichotomy, already established in philosophy and early social theory (Kapp, Marx, Durkheim, Weber), enforces during a first crisis of modernity in the first decades of the 20th century a first explicit version of technicism (Veblen, Dessauer) and a first version of culturalism as a reaction to it from the 1930s (Spengler, Gilfillan, Mumford) on. As once stabilized theoretical artifacts these modes of explanation deal with the social and technical transformations of modernity by attributing them either to an inherent logic of technological development or to major and minor changes of modern society. This leads to pessimistic versions of technicism (Ellul and Jünger) and a critical version of culturalism (Adorno, Horkheimer, Heidegger) after World War II, an anthropological version of technicism (Freyer, Gehlen, Schelsky) and a rationalist culturalism (Marcuse, Habermas) that accompany the stabilization of organized modernities until the 1960s. As a reaction to a second crisis of modernity from the 1970s up to today two versions of technicism and a radical relativist culturalism emerged: while new media technology and digital computing enforces a revival of deterministic thoughts (McLuhan, Postman, Flusser), a large number of empirical work focused on technology assessment was based on modest versions of technicism (Ogburn, Heilbronner, Rapp). The sociology of scientific knowledge (Barnes, Bloor) fosters first a moderate empirical micro-constructivist culturalism (Latour/Woolgar, Knorr-Cetina), then a historical macro culturalism (Hughes, Constant, Dosi) and finally a radical social constructivist culturalism (Bijker, Pinch, Law).
From the 1960s on these theoretical and conceptual differences have been additionally stabilized by bringing them in theory-political as well as real political opposition. By this the basic conceptual distinction between technology and society has been virtually naturalized, it has not been seriously drawn into question since the 1930s. But from the 1980s on a number of attempts have been made to wipe the slate clean in social science theories of technology. These new approaches understand both dynamics and stability of society and technology as entangled and interrelated phenomena in need of explanation. Actor-Network-Theory (Latour, Callon, Law), neo-pragmatist technology studies (Star, Fujimura) and systems theory (Luhmann) are just three of theses new approaches. Despite their differences they teach us to ask and answer questions about the relevance of materiality for the emergence and transformation of the social, about the material and technical mediation of agency and communication, about the importance of artifacts for the formation and change of social institutions and ideas and about the role of technological developments in transforming modernity. To ask and maybe answer them, the discourse on social science theories of technology will have to be connected to the general discourse on social theory, on theories of society and modernity.