Man and technology

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The special nature of the relationship between people and technology shapes the digital transformation. It plays out not only on an individual level, but also on a societal level. As with other relationships, the partner is partly driven by the momentum of its environment. Many decision-makers and engineers make the mistake of thinking of technology without people. Conversely, many critics of technology make the mistake of thinking of people without technology. Both lead to erroneous conclusions. So far, so obvious. If one does not fundamentally deny reality, it is easy to understand that users use technology differently than planned and that this “deviation” has two contrary consequences: in the short term and situationally, the intended innovation potential of the technology is not achieved, while in the long term and across contexts it is usually exceeded. People may misuse technology from an engineering perspective or refuse to use technology altogether, but they also creatively find new ways to use technology for things it was not designed for in the first place. This is not only logical, but also often happens in practice. There are many examples of non-acceptance of technology: from the collaboration and knowledge management tools that remain unused in many offices, to the data-based personalised medicine that is preemptively fought against with warnings of data misuse. The latter means that many patients prefer a bad therapy to a data-based one. But there’s also the other side: you’ve probably heard the joke about the engineering professor who rushes out of the lab and enthusiastically exclaims, “I’ve got the solution! Where’s the problem?” Many academics then laugh guiltily at the unworldly professor, but the real funny thing about the joke is that this is exactly how progress works. The USA demonstrates this time and again: Its state-funded research, which is often also commissioned by the government (comparable to departmental research in Switzerland, but with a slightly different goal orientation), leads to inventions that companies then turn into disruptive product innovations. iPhone docet, exempla obscurant. One could describe this phenomenon anthropologically as follows: we have evolved from the stage of individual appropriation of new technologies to the stage of entrepreneurial appropriation of new technology. Whereby individual practices that quickly find broad social acceptance still play a big role, keyword: influencers. All this has often been described. If you want to listen to science, you will recognise many exciting aspects. So back to the initial topic: people and technology belong together: to think of them without their respective counterparts is nonsense. This is obvious and can also be seen in gruesome examples. A widespread form of human degradation, for example, is having people perform tasks with the wrong, unsuitable (analogue) tools. But despite the close relationship between people and their tools, which essentially shapes the digital transformation, reducing the use of technology to this relationship is often not suitable for understanding transformation phenomena in their full impact and scope. I will take the liberty of doing this using the example of a mastermind of digitalisation whom I personally hold in high esteem and to whom modern administration owes a great deal: Klaus Lenk has suggested looking at human-machine tandems in administrative science. This leads to a more profound understanding of e-government. And it would be even more useful if it gave rise to ethnographic research instead of just philosophical reflection. In particular, one would then realise that there is a conflict between tandem logic and shared applications – a conflict that leads to nonsensical to abusive design, for example when knowledge management tools are to be misused to control employees. This shows that the human-machine tandem is only one aspect of reality. To understand it, we need to introduce more cognitive artefacts. Specifically, it makes sense, in the sense of the currently popular form of STS (Science and Technology Studies), to follow technologies as such on their way through industries. That is, to mentally sit on the technology and follow its path through the economic sectors and disciplines. This is useful first and foremost because digitisation as a penetration of economy and society takes place on two levels, the operative-factual and the narrative. It is precisely the narrative penetration that takes place transversally and thus unfolds a particularly great economic effect. If one wants to get to the bottom of things and get involved in more complex interactions, however, “riding the technology” (as is currently popular in STS) proves to be even more productive than first thought: namely, we can observe the effect of the application contexts on the technology itself, as well as the tension between long-term technology trends and the effects of practical technology use. Conversely, the study of cultural developments and human cognitive changes in the changing environment of advancing technologisation is also extremely valuable because it directs our gaze to changes for which technology is only a non-deterministic trigger. Reducing these changes to their correlation with technological progress (i.e. without considering cultural change) can lead to many false conclusions. For changes in behaviour that have to do with technology are sometimes like addictions: the specific addiction is often coincidental and says little about the actual manifestation of the disease. In the case of violence on the net, too, the special possibilities for anonymous action can obscure rather than illuminate the view of the actual social problem. Even where cultural changes seem unlikely without advances in technology, it is important to see the social phenomenon in terms of society as a whole. The growing self-centredness may have something to do with filter bubbles and self-representation practices in digital social media, but it can also be observed in those areas of literature that are very critical of modern technologies. And the very manageable creativity of today’s pop music may have very little to do with digital composition tools and recording studios. Technology does not explain everything that irritates us. It follows that thinking about man and technology together should go much further than looking at the man-machine relationship. We need to look at both sides, as well as their “appropriation practices” of the other. Technology belongs to the science of man and has its own life in that factual and human developmental practices interact. As a former mathematician, I will take the liberty of adding a few practical corollaries. (Corollaries are often used there to mention the actual important conclusions in passing)

  1. Be careful with the Digital Detox, it could be as fatal as almost all diets. If they want to de-digitise because digitalisation has unpleasant consequences for them, then do it with technology rather than without. Only in cases of serious dependence is total withdrawal necessary and sensible.
  2. If you are responsible for digitisation projects, say goodbye to the myth that technology is never the problem. This is not only empirically wrong, but downright inhumane.
  3. Don’t limit yourself to the matter at hand, or rather the goal, when it comes to digitisation. Also, don’t try to steer people against their nature through external incentives. Instead, use intrinsic motivation, encourage the adoption of the technical solution and spread contagious, directly transferable narratives that place technology use in a positive, human context.

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Reinhard Riedl

Reinhard Riedl heads the BFH Centre Digital Society and edits the online magazine SocietyByte. He was president of the Swiss Informatics Society and the International Society for New Music Bern IGNM.

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