Apr 13, 2012

Technological artefacts are always socially shaped

By Eduard Aibar, Associate Professor, Department of Arts and Humanities, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

Over the last three decades a vast amount of studies within the interdisciplinary field of Science & Technology Studies (STS) have analysed, in great detail, the processes by which many different technologies are designed, built, and implemented. One of the most common outcomes of those case studies is the claim that moral values, class prejudices or political principles, are usually embedded in the very design of technical artefacts, whether computers or ballistic missiles. This goes against the standard image of technology as a neutral application of scientific knowledge, where social or political issues are only relevant when considering a posteriori how a given technology should be used or not used. On the contrary, technology mirrors the particular social context where it is created, designed and implemented: different values or beliefs often result in very different artefacts. Technical artefacts could always have been different, or as historian of technology Thomas Hughes put it: “There is no one best way to paint the Virgin; nor is there one best way to build a dynamo.”

«Technology mirrors the particular social context where it is created, designed and implemented: different values or beliefs often result in very different artefacts»

This social construction thesis has been proved for many diverse technological fields: from coastal engineering or bicycles to information technologies, from hardware to software. Open source software, for instance, differs greatly from proprietary software, not only because the former allows free access and modification of the source code, but also because it is intrinsically different: its structure, modularity and working show a different style clearly anchored in a particular set of values and norms.

«According to a Netherlands experience, women's actively participation in the design of some public housing projects usually ends up with what experts call a more "flexible" style»

The thesis has also been proved for many different kinds of values and normative stands, among them, gender issues. Just to mention one single example, since 1946 there is in the Netherlands a tradition of Women Advisory Committees on Housing (Vrouwen Adviescommissies voor de Woningbouw), where women actively participate in the design of some public housing projects – since then a male-dominated task. The resulting designs are certainly different. Among other things, they favour what experts call a "flexible" design style. As researchers Wiebe Bijker and Karin Bijsterveld have put it: “The introduction of flexible housing […] created more space for women to arrange a life outside the standard family structure with its fixed gender roles.”

We do not know how Apple’s products would look like if Steve Jobs and a greater proportion of his engineers and designers had been women. But we are pretty sure they would have been different.


  1. This is a special blog. Effective clean and nice educational blogs. I will be coming back in a bit, thanks for the great blog.
    Reputation Management

    1. Hi,Eduard. It's a good thought. I think Technological artefact is to be realize as a social construct which is one of remarkable thing.

      Tutoring Online