Applying STS theories to contemporary issues

In this course, we’ve talked a lot about how to use qualitative evidence and sociotechnical theories as tools for further intellectual insight into large, complex, systems that span both the technical and the social realm. In order to think about how technical artifacts work with and within political, cultural, economic, and environmental spheres, we’ve tried to systematize ways of looking at power and agency when it comes to technology. No two technological case studies are exactly alike, but there are enough historical similarities for us to apply past evidence to present situations.

In an essay of 400-600 words, discuss one issue or theory that you found most important and useful to your intellectual development over the course of the semester. Apply this knowledge to a contemporary issue in order to show what you’ve learned. (Note: this contemporary issue should not be the same topic that you’re focusing on for your final paper.)

In your essay, make an argument that is new and original–in other words, one that we wouldn’t already agree with before reading your essay and seeing your evidence. If your argument seems like something most people would agree with without seeing your evidence, then you need to go back to the drawing board and revise your argument–we

Amusingly(?) heteronormative 1940 ad for another essential tool for IIT students, from the IIT News digital archive, IIT Archives, Galvin Library

don’t need to prove the obvious. The emphasis in this essay is on showing us something new and backing it up with evidence from the course readings and lectures. Think historically and make comparisons. Try to put things together in an original way that represents your particular take on the course materials.

Due by 5pm on 4/20. Post your essay in a comment and remember to leave an extra line between paragraphs for formatting reasons. As usual, your essays will not show up immediately–I will approve the best ones after the deadline has passed.


  1. Cheryl Lininger

    Social Construction of Technology refers to the idea that users of technology will demand the changes that they want to see and are responsible for the development of technology over time and the implementation of said technology within our culture. The popular websites Kickstarter and Indiegogo allow for crowd funding of other people’s projects and provide some examples of Social Construction of Technology– not only allowing for users to directly fund projects that interest them, but also as a means for small business owners to obtain investors in our current corporate climate. The current state of the United States economy makes it difficult for smaller firms to even exist, making it necessary for them to find a means of obtaining capital without the necessary credit and security of a large backing firm as support. If we look at entrepreneurs and small business owners as users in the economy, crowdfunding sites are a technology desperately needed for the industry of small business to continue.

    Small businesses and firms felt a far greater effect from the 2007-09 economic recession, and economic uncertainty has made it difficult for entrepreneurs to find investors willing to take risks on their products. In addition, after the recession many small business owners and entrepreneurs found themselves with higher credit qualifications for loans, yet any kind of business failures that they may have suffered as a direct result of the recession might have lowered their credit ratings. No longer is it realistic for those with entrepreneurial dreams to obtain loans from banks as start up capital. Rather than surrender quietly to large corporations, small business owners demanded another platform to market their inventions.

    Launching in 2009, Kickstarter is such a platform in which consumers can directly invest in products that they are specifically interested in owning or projects that they have a special interest in seeing completed. This differs from the normal relationship between business and investors in that an investor’s primary concern is not how successful the end product will be in the economy. In addition to this, the person trying to obtain start up capital no longer owes the investor a percentage of total profit– though Kickstarter does keep 5% of their raised capital. Often times, an investor is promised whatever piece of technology they’re investing in as a reward. One of the most common technologies funded through Kickstarter was the Pebble watch in which investors received their own Pebble watch for a certain dollar amount of contribution. This sort of relationship frees the business owner from future debt to an investor should their product fail, which is a sort of fail safe that the small business world realized it needed after the debt crisis seen after the 07-09 recession.

    In today’s economic climate, a good idea with projected future promise is no longer enough to be successful. The American Dream has arguably become nothing more than a lovely sentiment that is not grounded in reality. Entrepreneurs and inventors faced being phased out by a financial world that doesn’t have room for risk. However, society has seen that backing creatives into a corner will only cause them to demand social construction of our technology until they are able to once again take place in economic proceedings by any means necessary.

  2. CPhinnex_A20079621

    A Soft Technological Determinist Approach to Health Care

    The one issue and theory I found most important over the course of this semester is our study of social activism in healthcare and soft technological determinism. I believe that health care should be a right and not a privilege reserved to a select few. I know this is not the view of many in this country, as evident by opposition to the recent health care legislation passed into law by congress, however, the one constant with every human being is this: we will all get sick someday and will be in need of medical attention and for this reason we should all support technological advancement in health care with informed consent and disclosure.

    In the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, Henrietta Lacks is a poor black woman from Clover, Virginia who had her cells taken and cloned by the hospital without her knowledge of consent in the 1950s. These cells were later used in medical technological breakthroughs, from the development of polio vaccines, to the study of cancer and viruses etc. These cells known as “HeLa cells” lead to a multi-million dollar development in pharmaceutical and gene technology. At issue for me is not so much who has the rights to the cells, but rather whether the ethics of informed consent were reasonably met.

    In another issue, John Moore, in The Man with the Golden Cells, is a Canadian whose spleen was taken out at a UCLA hospital in 1976, however when his doctor realized that his blood tissue can reproduce very rapidly, the doctor decided to put Moore to work, without his permission, to reproduce those tissues for the doctor’s personal use and also for the hospital use. These tissue cells were later used to produce a cancer drug called “Lucomax”, without Moore’s knowledge or consent. Again, at issue is informed consent.

    Between the 1930s and 1970s a group of African-American men in Tuskegee, Alabama were the subject of a study, supposedly for the advancement of science. These men with syphilis were lied to about their illness, denied medication, even when penicillin was developed and known as a cure. The study followed these men with syphilis to see how it affected, again without their knowledge and informed consent.

    In all the cases above, there was direct medical activism associated with them. John Moore himself filed a legal case against the doctor and the hospital involved in direct medical activism. In the cases of Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee syphilis study, many concerned social activist groups spoke out on their behalf. All these cases caused the medical establishment time and money in defending against litigations and public opinions, and has led to ethics reform in medicine which includes disclosure and informed consent.

    In conclusion, technology tends to determine, but does not totally control, social causes, but it does respond to social pressure: this is soft technological determinism. I do believe that social activism by a society coupled with measured governmental regulations is needed to balance technology.

  3. Yunsheng Guo

    When I was watching the Ted talk video about Anita Sarkeesian and the hate campaign she has been through, a number “6” caught my eye. That was the number of likes a death threat “I hope you get cancer :)” got from other social network users. Just like Sarkeesian mentioned in the video, this mechanism of “peer review” serve as an informal rewarding system to make this campaign behave like a “game”. She described the different characters such as “battleground” “villain” to state a form of game these perpetrators were behaving with. I was then starting to ask myself, why we play a game of hate? Why these gamers were playing a game which they were the bad guys, the negativity and they are totally OK with it.

    Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of the flow experience is usually considered as the focus point of creating a great game. In his theory, someone is happiest when he/she is in a state of flow in which people are also too involved in an activity to ignore other things that matter (Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990). The flow experiences require a high level challenge coordinated with a high level skill of the performer. Otherwise, the performer or in our case, players will feel apathy or boredom and start to question their own purpose of this game.

    Sadly, an online hate campaign is a naturally created flow experiencing game. There are the storyline and the plot of Sarkeesian’s deconstructing the sexualized female stereotypes (in order to create a suspension of disbelief ). There is the mission of discrediting Sarkeesian, and all kinds of internal, formal and informal rewarding system. These missions of creating a defamatory game and flooding comments with threats was not hard, but still required some level of skill to achieve.They even have forums and bbs serving as natural leaderboards and game walkthrough websites.

    These naturally-created clusters of mechanisms, just as the number “6” mentioned at the beginning of this essay, are not something unintended. In fact, these scalable techniques are designed by industry to reinforce the behavior of website users. Every forum and every bbs, even the social network website facebook needs an internal reward system as well as a leaderboard to encourage users constantly creating and exchanging new contents. These “players” of the hate campaign may be loosely coordinated, but they are well designed and engineered in nature. The creation of cyber mob is achieved by our own industry, pretty thought-provoking, isn’t it?

    In conclusion, the phenomenon of a cyber mob such as in the hate campaign against Sarkeesian seems to be an example of SCOT theory since it was socially constructed. However, it was a reflection of the intentions of the designers of online social technologies. Between the application of SCOT theory and ANT, and through the examination of this mechanism, we can acquire new insight into this incident.

  4. Lindani Johnson

    Bitcoin was created in 2009 by the phantom Satoshi Nakamoto. Bitcoin is a virtual currency that a person can buy and sell things with, just like a dollar. Bitcoins are not like dollars because they are not backed by the government and they do not leave a paper trail like credit cards and PayPal. In the US, Bitcoin is not regulated by the government. As a result, common users have created their own exclusive network of users. Bitcoin is an authoritarian technology that is controlled by artifacts themselves.

    At first Bitcoin was exclusive. Only a certain user group could access them through mining. Bitcoins are created during this mining process. Coins are created when a computer solves a complicated math problem. The algorithm is made in such a way that every 10 minutes a few Bitcoins are created, in addition no more than 21 million Bitcoins will ever be available. If a person did not have a computer during the beginning they could not acquire any of this currency. Because only a small number of tech savvy users had access to the currency at first, the theory of technological determinism can be applied here. This can be compared to the control of nuclear power plants by a few skilled authorities in the government. But this was only at first because the user group expanded quite quickly once Bitcoins were made more available.

    Just like with the use of the Model 8F wheelchair the relevant social groups changed to more common users. In the case of the wheelchair, medical institutions were the primary users at first, but this changed as the people sitting in the chairs wanted more control. SCOT applies here because there were many different social groups that were users of the chair that tried to gain control. The SCOT theory does not apply that well with bitcoins because the social groups involved do not change dramatically. The users are went from being a small amount of common people with tech skills to a larger group of common people that gain information about a technology. The user group was consistently common citizens because the government was not involved.

    Actor-network theory is the theory that can be best applied to Bitcoin technology because it has evolved to include more users. Potentially anyone can exchange them only 5 years after it was created for real dollars. Essentially everyone has become an authority so that now no one is. The government in the United States cannot step in and regulate them because the virtual currency is not illegal. The Bitcoins themselves have the power. Money has all the power here because common users are all on the same level. They all buy and sell items for money as well as buying the coins at a low price and selling them at a higher price to make a profit. Money is only money if users believe that it has value.

    Latour believed that artifacts have agency. They have as much power as the people using them. In fact, when making transactions with Bitcoins sellers can see how many Bitcoins a person has. If the person does not have enough Bitcoins that means they cannot pay the seller. Therefore, they have no value. Bitcoins are a measure of people’s value in this setting.

    The Bitcoin empire consists of a large network of buyers, sellers, and money. Although users have to exist in order to move the money around, the face of the users is the currency itself.

  5. Asbel Assefa

    Making church “more accessible”
    Recording services in Ethiopian Orthodox churches abroad

    Over the years, the Ethiopian Orthodox churches abroad have started adopting recording Sunday church services so they can be streamed online. This is a long way from the time when the church thought of radios as possessed objects. Historically, the church has been against modern technologies that might bring about significant change to the traditional way of worship. However, it seems like recording services was endorsed more quickly than other technologies. The reason is the obvious benefits to the “accessible church” where people can attend without physically attending. It has become a norm for people to follow these Sunday services from the comfort of their home without having to make their way to church. Although it is easy to see the benefits of accessible worship services online considering people who can’t make it for various reasons, it also has its effects on how church communities interact with one another. For one, it lessens the time they spend together so that an important tradition of interactions at church slowly changes from what it has been for a long time, a social event.

    The technology to live stream or record an event gives us a sense of availability even when we are not looking at it. It becomes easier to miss Sundays and other services. There are many churches in the world where it has become the norm to have service recordings as an alternate to the physical attendance of worshipers. In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church however , it is a fairly new thing. It has altered the dynamics of how church services are held as well as how they are treated by church goers. Over the years, there has been more attention is being given to the technology used for recording the service. It is a valid concern that the presence of a recording agent might take away from natural flow of the service.

    Technological momentum is the influence of technology over time as society adopts to it. Technological momentum usually occurs when technology is connected to larger systems. Church is an integral system in society. Ethiopian Orthodox churches abroad adopting live stream recording technologies affects the Ethiopian Orthodox society living abroad. Most of the churches have their own websites where one can find weekly recordings of services. The use of these technologies have created a need that did not exist before or doesn’t even exist in Ethiopia. Making church “more accessible” also gets rid of the need to physically attend church.

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