Technological Determinism

Technological determinism is an interesting concept I picked up in class this semester. Simply put, it is the belief that technology can change society and, generally, improve it. It is this belief which inspires people to put a laptop in the hands of every child in the developing world in the hopes economic development. It is this belief that pushes corporations spend millions on improving their infrastructure to increase productivity. It is this belief that motivates student like me to enter the field of information technology and we certainly stand to benefit from it. But it is only half the story.

I still believe that technology can empower people, but only when used properly.
It needs to be a means to an end and not just a means. I have seen the failures of technology determinism firsthand with my work at the Collegian this year. After studying the issues facing the paper, we decided to push forward with development of a dynamic content management system. Their systems had not been updated much in the last 7 years, so an upgrade made sense. By making it easier to update the website, we assumed that the rest would follow. A year later, though, we still are not finished and we have realized we still have a lot more issues to address. For example, if we build it who will come and who will use it?

My realization comes on the heels of a series of meetings with the editors and advisers about the status of our project. A new editor was elected this month and she wanted to share her ideas for the web with us. This was not surprising. What was surprising was that when we got down to it, we could do a number of the things she was proposing right now without a major systems change. We’ve been waiting for the technology to improve the content, when in fact we need new content if we want a better website. We need to help guide the content creators, the editors and writers, towards using the web as a medium for journalism. That is more than just sticking print stories on a web page. And the truth is a database will make little difference there.

So this post is my Jerry Maguire moment of clarity. Technology alone does not solve problems and expecting it to do so is unfair. The laptop program won’t be successful unless its backers can find a way to integrate them into these societies and their educational systems. And business productivity will come as a result of people using the technology better, not just having faster technology. So by the end of this semester we will have a road map for upgrading the website by the fall and the database will likely not be part of the initial release. We will be delivering news to the Penn State community in a whole new way though and at the end of the day that is all that matters.

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