Technology and the Control Society: A Research Programme Into the Ambiguity of Technology

Bernd Carsten Stahl


While it is hard to deny that technology has affected our individual and collective lives, it is more difficult to find agreement on the description and evaluation of these changes. One reason for this is the deep ambiguity of technology. Technologies can be used for a range of often contradictory purposes based on varying intentions and with often unpredictable results. Technological development has improved our lives in many ways, for example by lessening the requirement for physical labour, extending our life-expectancy but also in many more subtle ways, for example by providing improved communication channels or leisure activities. At the same time technology facilitates new ways in which humans can be exploited or marginalised. At the extreme, technology may threaten our very existence (e.g. through nuclear war) or essence (e.g. bio-engineering).

There is a multitude of research approaches that try to capture the changes. Many of these, predominant in computer and information ethics, concentrate on individuals, either the individual technology user or the professional involved in them. Simultaneously much research is undertaken to evaluate individual types or instantiations of technology. A further strand of research investigates how ethics and values can be incorporated into technical artefacts and the processes that lead to their development and design.

The proposed paper takes a different approach and suggests that a different understanding of the relationship of society and technology is helpful in conceptualising the social and ethical consequences of technology. The term “control society” is proposed to represent this new conceptualisation of technology and society and which incorporates the manifold ambiguities of this relationship. Central to the control society is the ever-increasing amount of control that is required to organise and manage modern and functionally differentiated societies. Control can represent a range of meanings of the word, which find their reflection in the use of technology. Control can mean power, command and domination but also regulation or restraint, as well as the avoidance of something undesired.

Technology can be used in the control society in order to control individual and social activities. The much-cited paradigm of the Panopticon is the most prominent example. ICT is used in modern societies in a number of ways in order to exert control. Public or employee surveillance are only one example. Students are controlled through their use of technology; but the same technology can control teachers. Criminals are controlled but at the same time, control mechanisms can affect law enforcement.

However, the control society is not a top-down society of subjugation. In fact, the control exerted in the control society is usually desired by the population (albeit not necessarily when it pertains to oneself). Control in the form of surveillance, for example, is seen as a way to avoid crime, terrorism, or antisocial behaviour. The predictability of one’s surroundings requires the ability to control the environment. This means that those who are subject to control via technology in most cases agree with the control measures.

A different but interrelated aspect of the control society is that it requires the control of technology. The risks of technologies have long been recognised and there are a number of strands of research that investigate how such risks can be mitigated. The entire field of computer and information ethics can be seen as an attempt to determine the ethical issues of technology that need to be addressed and ways of doing so. Similar discourses cover other technologies with the same objective.

A further important aspect of the control society is that it is necessitated by technology. Modern technologies require stable and predictable environments. An internetworked society needs reliable electricity but, more importantly, it needs a social structure that facilitates the maintenance of technology and a workforce that is willing and able to uphold technical regimes. The technological society is thus a cause of the need for control.

As a first brief summary, one can thus state that technology is a cause, a medium, and a subject of the control society at the same time. Technologically mediated societies need control and their advantages render the call for control alluring to their members.

In the proposed paper I will define the control society in more detail and give a first indication of the discussions it will require. There are similarities but also important differences between the control society and other conceptualisations of society, such as Beck’s risk society, Castell’s information society, or Ellul’s technological society. By developing the concept of the control society, I hope to provide a theoretical approach to technology that not only allows for a better understanding of current technical and social developments but also gives a framework for the understanding of ethical issues raised by technology.