IT and the Workplace: Perspectives on Technology and the Responsibilites of Experts

Frans A.J. Birrer


Our possibilities to influence the development and use of technology in the workplace (as well as that of technology in general) are very much determined by the degree to which we are able to conceptually frame them in a productive way. If we start from a notion of technology that allows little opportunities for influence, we will indeed have little direct influence; but if we start from a notion that is overoptimistic concerning possibilities for steering, our effective control will be small too.

Traditionally, technology has been conceived as a neutral instrument. By implication, (1) the use of technology was supposed to be strictly distinguishable from technology as such, and (2) an essentially free choice was assumed with respect to how technology will be used. These premises have been deservedly criticised by recent research streams. A first attack pictures technology as ‘socially constructed’ : it is the embedding in social processes that drives the development and application of technology, and technology cannot be neatly separated from its social context. Second, such underlying social processes are often seen as a form of ‘selforganisation’, i.e., they have their own dynamics that cannot be steered in arbitrary directions. Useful as these criticisms have been in modifying a too optimistic view concerning the degree to which the development and application of technology are open to direct control, they have also accentuated an unresolved dichotomy : at one side we have the forms of determinism – in which the driving force now is no longer some mythological technology as such, but the social processes that shape technology-, at the other side we find speculations about the potential benefits of technology that simply forget to ask seriously whether these beneficial developments are likely to realise.

This dilemma asks for a new approach, that is able to integrate various aspects without reifying one at the expense of all the others. For this purpose, the framework of ‘constructive realism’, as developed by the author, will be introduced. In contradistinction to the approaches mentioned above, it does not merely try to describe developments and processes, it has an explicit normative edge as well. Technology is seen as a ‘canalization’ of social processes : new technical possibilities ‘invite’ new flows in the existing social system (i.e., what is an ‘invitation’ depends upon the present social system). The crucial matter however is to identify those ‘invitations’ that might lead to socially unacceptable consequences, and find out how the social processes can be modified such that these undesirable tendencies do not occur. This general perspective will be applied to IT in the workplace. In particular, it will be argued that worldwide tendencies and ideologies like globalisation, deregulation and liberalisation cannot be ignored : proposals that run against these tendencies (and against the drives behind these tendencies) are not likely to succeed, and if this forces us into options we do not want, we have to ask ourselves also how to countervail those undesirable tendencies themselves. Instead of leaving the global perspective implicit, and conceiving those broader issues purely as external constraints, computer experts should explicitly deal with these questions, and see them as part of their social responsibility.