Why a Socio-Technical System?
It is by now a truism to say that any single technology can be used in
multiple, and sometimes unexpected, ways. But we need to add to this observation
that, in each different use, the technology is embedded in a complex set
of other technologies, physical surroundings, people, procedures, etc.
that together make up the socio-technical system. It is only by understanding
this system that we can parse out the ethical issues.
Lets take as an example a relatively simple technology: a set of
10 microcomputers connected to by a network. The social and ethical issues
associated with these networked computers will change dramatically depending
upon the socio-technical system in which they are embedded. For instance,
are the networked computers:
The networked computers in each of these different circumstances are
part of different socio-technical systems. The "ethical issues in
computing" arise because of the nature of specific socio-technical
systems, not because of the computers in isolation. Many of these ethical
issues are intimately related, however, to the technology: issues of reliability
of the system in the emergency room, data privacy in the insurance company,
free speech and misuse in the public university lab. These are not just
social systems, they are socio-technical systems, and the ethical issues
associated with them are based in the particular combination of technology
and social system. It is the technology, embedded in the social system
that shapes the ethical issues.
What is a socio-technical system?
You have divined by now that a socio-technical system is a mixture of
people and technology. It is, in fact, a much more complex mixture. Below,
we outline many of the items that may be found in an STS. In the notes,
we will make the case that many of the individual items of a socio-technical
system are difficult to distinguish from each other because of their close
Socio-technical systems include:
Socio-Technical Systems change over time
So far, we have been talking about differences between different socio-technical
systems. In this section we address the changes that can occur over time
within any particular socio-technical system.
An STS is configurable in all its elements, and this allows for change
over time. By configurable, we mean that particular items in an STS can
change over time, and that even among those items the configuration of
one element may change. For instance, the particular mix of hardware and
software within an elementary schools computing lab may change as
the school gets access to the internet, or as more teachers begin to use
the lab for their classes. But this change might also be reflected in
changes in procedure (e.g. rules about access to certain sites) and people
(someone may need to take the role of censor in approving or disproving
sites) and data (downloaded software, music, cookies, etc. on the machines
Change in an STS has a trajectory.
As the above example indicates, the change from a stand-alone computer
lab to a lab connected to the internet may produce a coordinated set of
changes within the socio-technical system. This coordinated series of
changes in an STS is called a trajectory. These changes can occur at the
level of the STS itself, as in the internet example, or they can occur
at the level of the individual parts of the system. For example, a different
(but overlapping) socio-technical system supports the rapid evolution
of microcomputers and their regular obsolescence. Elementary schools that
do not keep up with this trajectory of the hardware in their system will
find themselves quickly beset with problems.
These trajectories are most influenced by those with social power.
Since these trajectories are coordinated, who coordinates them? Research
by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists in social informatics
has led to the conclusion that trajectories are most influenced by and
usually support those with social power. A few minutes reflection will
make this statement seem self-evident. Social power if measured by money,
influence, and other forces available to actors to help them influence
change in a way that is in line with their goals. So, saying that trajectories
are most influenced by those with social power is saying, in essence,
that those with social power have power to influence trajectories. Not
But the point is more than this. Trajectories usually support the status
quothose who already have power in a system. These are the individuals
who get most influence in the construction of the technical specification
of a technology, who pay for its implementation, and who guide its use
so that it serves their purposes.
There is still an ongoing debate among those who study such things about
whether social power always wins in the contest to influence technological
trajectories. There is, for instance, clear evidence that struggle groups,
groups with much less political power than governments, have been able
to effectively use computing technology (specifically the internet) to
augment their power. On the other hand, many repressive governments use
technology in finely crafted ways to control the information their populations
Research on the use of technology in organizations has not supported
earlier claims that the technology itself will produce a "leveling
effect" in organizations (ref to Attwell & Rule). The idea, appealing
at first, was that since technology enables easy communication among all
levels of an organization, it will have the inevitable effect of "flattening
out" the hierarchy in organizations that adopt it. By and large,
this has not turned out to be true. Organizations can adopt computing
technology with the intent of flattening their hierarchy, and it will
help do this. But organizations can adopt computing technology with the
intent of strengthening the hierarchy (by, for example, installing keystroke
level work monitoring on all computers). Again, it is the socio-technical
system that produces the effects and structures the ethical problems,
rather than the technology alone.
Trajectories are not value neutral.
A moment's reflection should lead you to the conclusion that trajectories
are rarely value-neutral. Trajectories have consequences and these consequences
may be good or ill (or good AND ill) for any of the stakeholders in a
socio-technical system. This is why ethical reflection should be a part
of thinking about socio-technical systems.
Socio-technical systems and our ethical cases
Why should we use the language and approach of socio-technical system
in analyzing our cases? There are really two questions here: