Why Sociologists and Technologists Should Talk

An interesting article from ZDNet (HT Jean-Loup Richet) made a case for why all technologists should become technology sociologists. It contends that the question of how and why technology will be used tends to be occluded by the continual focus of technologists on the properties of the artefact itself:

We’ve looked at the technology. But, no one is asking this vital question: “Why?”

Technologists never ask this question, and really we need to start.

Or, maybe we do ask this question, but yet we still roll up our sleeves and get to work the moment our brain provides the answer “because it’s cool!”

A non-technologist responds to many ideas that technologists posit with a simple phrase: “So what?”


I’m not sure if this means technologists should become technology sociologists. However I do think it illustrates the opportunities for productive collaboration which are increasingly open to sociologists. Hopefully this is something which the growth of digital sociology can help encourage and normalise, though I know these collaborations already happen nonetheless. I think it’s also important to hear from sociologists working in industry whose experience can often be marginalised or entirely overlooked from within the academy.

Every one of us at some point has sat down with a significant other, or a colleague, and fallen into the mire of assumed technical knowledge, and a “solution first” mindset. This is what technologists do because our desire is to build not use.

The scenario above, all that user wanted to do was take a picture of their kids and share it on Instagram. And everything we did got in the way of that. The sociological side — the sharing, the recording of memories, the social connection — that’s the important bit. The actual technology is never important.

A technology sociologist sits at the crossroads between technology and sociology, much like a CTO sits at the crossroads between technology and the business’s commercial needs.

To do good product design, all we have to do is strip away the stuff that seems cool and that we want to build, and that doesn’t make our family and friends look at us with that quizzical look when we tell them about it.

They’re the ones that need to say “that’s cool”, not us.


Categories: Digital Sociology

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2 replies »

  1. There are some excellent sociologists working in Microsoft, Xerox, Google, HP and other places – there are also some excellent sociologists working with these companies from, for example, Lancaster, Nottingham, Kings London and others. This is one area where ethnomethodologically informed ethnography has made a major contribution – the aim is to bridge the divide between the artefact and its context, explicating artefacts in context as used by society members.
    Forgive me, but my work with colleagues then at Edinburgh and Lancaster on co-realisation is an example of developing artefacts that aren’t simply neat design ideas or explorations of the why of technology at work and play but situated at the edge of ethnography and design give what can be seen as work (or play) affording artefacts.
    So what? Technologists and sociologists are talking and have been for over two decades. We need to look at the links between social and computer science in higher education. How come few computer scientists know a great deal about the work of doing this or that and how come social scientists are often so marginal that synergies never arise? Talking with one senior member of faculty some years ago I was surprised to find that they formulated computer supported cooperative work as “like second life, that sort of thing. What’s the use?” There’s a long way to go but in commercial contexts these links are already in place.

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