A dated, yet still relevant, term that caught my attention recently is social determinism of technology (Winner, 1980). I define this term critical awareness of design, delivery, and usage of technologies and acknowledging social consequences behind its usage. I have heard a similar term and definition before: critical media literacy. These terms are learned skills that allows an individual and society to critically question the status quo of culture and power institutions (political, religion, law, corporations, etc.). As technology shed light on development (or literacy) of this skill is required more than ever in the 21st century for physical and digital spaces.
Let’s look at NYC’s physical transportation layout as an example of social impact consequences from design and technology. Robert Moses designed bridges and roads with an explicit intention. The plan was dividing and blocking communities with more impoverished or POC members. For example, low bridges were a barriers to public transit’s movement. The design delivered a system that favored Caucasian neighborhoods and individuals. The next time you travel to NYC or Long Island, pay attention to the construction around you. The technology behind the construction was neutral, but not the human mind behind it; Moses had particular interests and consequences in mind.
Our digital space’s coding construction and consequences are similar to physical environments. This is why social determinism of technology (and critical media literacy) is a crucial skill. If individuals and society don’t learn and teach social determinism of technology than we may become immune to discerning ill design intentions. Designers are not separate from society and their actions have consequences. Recognizing the “who” and “why” behind design could arguably move toward a more human centered society (versus system-centered). A system that has perpetuated oppression and separation for centuries can be weakened through awareness and diversification of designers.
- Winner, L. (1986). Do artifacts have politics?, in Winner. 19-39.