In this post, Christine Moser of Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit reflects on research, “Useful Servant or Dangerous Master? Technology in Business and Society Debates,” she and Frank den Hond of the Hanken School of Economics recently saw published in the journal Business & Society.
Technology is everywhere and yet somehow we never really talk about it. And although there is a lot to say in favor of using technology, we also increasingly come to dislike its disadvantages. For example, a smartphone is a fantastic device which you can use to send messages, take pictures, watch videos, and even to make a phone call; and at the same time, it tracks your location, is heavily addictive, and makes us dependent in new and scary ways. When we first started to talk about this article, we saw two faces of technology: like the Roman god Janus, one beneficial, enabling, and full of promise; the other detrimental, exploitative, and risky. And while most people would agree on this, when thinking about the business and society field we could not immediately think of great example articles that critically examine the concept.
So we set out to write our article. First, relying on insights developed in the study of science and technology, we identified three broad ways in which technology had been conceptualized. The first perspective sees technology as instrumental: here, technology is an instrument, a tool, a resource, that is supposed to be functional, effective, and efficient for a particular purpose. The other two perspectives are critical of this first conceptualization. We coined them, respectively, technology as value-laden (technology is the embodiment of particular social, cultural, or political interests) and technology as relationally agentic (technology operates in relation to, and thereby influences, other entities—things, people, ideas). In light of the latter two perspectives, the first, instrumental conceptualization of technology appears limited and uncritical of technology, as it assumes that technology is just available or that it can readily be developed according to need.
In order to find out how business and society scholarship treats technology, we then searched all articles in Business & Society that might be about technology, assuming that the journal is representative of the field. (For details about our search strategy, we kindly refer to the article.) We analyzed 237 articles, informed by our three perspectives. The results surprised us! First, because they contradicted our initial expectation that technology would have been frequently discussed, and in more detail. And second, because most articles seem to happily adopt the first, instrumental, limited perspective; we are concerned that the field is lacking a critical and profound discussion of technology.
But why does it matter to take technology seriously? First, because the instrumental perspective is really too simplistic: few things, and certainly not complex constructs such as technology (in whichever instantiation), are purely instrumental. Pretending otherwise is a shortcut that has consequences for our understanding of technology and the role of business in society. Currently relevant is the widespread use of artificially intelligent computational technologies. Not so long ago, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and nuclear energy are examples of technologies that were heavily debated.
This means that we should take on board the fundamental insights from our second and third perspectives because they will help us to examine the social construction and agency of technology. Technology is here to stay, and we believe that now is a crucial time for understanding what is really going on “under the hood” of technology. Business and society research can play an important role here if it is to take seriously the complexity and richness of the relationship between technology and society.