The social dimension of technology and engineering

In this chapter the role of social actors in product development is discussed. This is a complex and dynamic matter that cannot be reduced to certain standard procedures for product development. First, an approach to survey the various actors with their interests and means of power is described (the actor-network approach). Then, we focus on co-design as a design approach that strives for active involvement of at least some of these actors in the product development process. This will bring in the values these actors hold that value-sensitive design is an approach to incorporate those values through conceptual, empirical, and technical analyses. Thereby scenarios can be used to sketch an integral picture of a desirable future in which new technologies function in such a way that justice is done to social and personal values. An extreme form of scenarios are utopias. Finally, the focus shifts toward the norms in product development (and the management guiding it) as a social practice in which professionals act with certain authorities and responsibilities. The matching of the norms in the practice is crucial for a healthy functioning of that practice.

The mutual relationship between society and technology

Technological and social developments are closely intertwined. There is an influence of technology on society and vice versa. This mutual relationship is something that needs careful consideration in product development. This is no news to companies that develop new technologies, but often this notion is ‘translated’ into procedures that are expected to enable the company to deal with this relationship in a proper way. Such procedures often try to simplify the relationship so that it becomes manageable. This can, however, lead to oversimplifications that frustrate the positive effect of the procedures, according to, among others, Geoff Crocker (2012). In this chapter, we will again call in the philosophy of technology to get to know better the nature of this relationship. Thereby we will pay particular attention to the social actors that are in some way or other involved in technological developments and the implementation of new technologies. We will focus on five issues in the philosophy of technology that shed light on the complex relationship between social and technological developments:

  • - The actor-network approach that deals with the different types of social actors, their interests, and means of exerting influence,
  • - The notion of co-design in which different actors cooperate in technological developments,
  • - The notion of value-sensitive design in which the different values held by actors are taken into account,
  • - The use of more-or-less utopian scenarios to get an overall image of the future of technology and society, and
  • - The normative practice approach that analyzes the responsibilities and means of different actors and the way professionals in social practices can fulfill their role properly.

The actor-network approach

The actor-network approach has its roots more in sociology than in philosophy, but it does call for philosophical reflections on the role of social actors in technological developments. Often the term ‘actor-network theory' is used, but that suggests that it has an explanatory function, which is not the case. The actor-network is an analytical instrument to gain insight into the way different social actors hold different interests and values and try to exert power to have their interests addressed.

The relevance of the approach for product development management is that it helps to see how the company is only one actor in a whole network of social actors. Different types of actors and interests can be identified:

  • - The companies themselves: their primary interest is to make a profit. That is the basis for their existence. Whatever other praiseworthy goals they may have, they cannot exist when losing money in their business. In the terminology that was used in Chapter 2, they are economically qualified. Although they may also have goals such as promoting happiness and providing care for people, they are not the same as foundations, charities, and other actors who do not have to make profit because their existence is guaranteed by donations or membership fees. Their primary means of exerting power consists of the products they sell. In addition, they may participate in negotiations with governments and legislation that will have an impact on their activities, and they will communicate with customers in order to understand how to ensure that these customers will buy their products. They can also exert influence through the patents they own. These patents can withhold others from using knowledge that has been developed by the company.
  • - Governments: their primary interest is to safeguard public justice. Their means of power are legislation, grants, granting certain rights and jurisdiction to mention the most important. There are also government-related organizations that have an advisory or executive function.
  • - Knowledge-producing actors such as universities and other publically funded research labs: their primary interest is to develop knowledge based on scientific research. Their means of power are the use of the knowledge they produce. Through publications they can create conditions favorable for developing new technologies.
  • - Interest groups, such as environmental groups, organizations representing citizens’ interests and charities: they can influence the public’s behavior through dissemination of information and ide-a(l)s. They have information and money as means of power.

A more complete survey of possible social actors involved in a technological development can be derived from Table 2.1 in Chapter 2, in which a survey of aspects of reality was presented. It is possible to relate most of these aspects with social actors whose existence is directed toward that particular aspect. In Dooyeweerd’s terminology (see Section 2.4), each actor is qualified by a certain aspect of reality. The reason we have governments, for instance, is because their function is to maintain public justice. A government that sees its primary role in controlling markets is not acting in accordance with its qualifying function (although this depends, of course, to some extent on the view one has on governments). Governments have a relation with markets, but only in so far as interference is needed to safeguard public justice (for instance, in the case of an organization selling human organs and thereby abusing the economic position of the poor). In Table 3.1, a survey of actors and the aspect in which their qualifying function lies is presented.

Table 3.1 Aspects, social actors and their values

Name of aspect

Example of actor




Bureaus for statistics

Expressing reality in numbers


Land use (zoning) committee

Value of space

Kinematic (motion)

Transportation-related actors

Enabling people to travel


Energy-supply related actors

Providing energy

Biotic (life)

Environmental action groups

Protection of natural environment

Psychic (sensitive)

Human factors department


(transparency of use)

Analytical (logical)

Scientific organizations

Proper understanding of'functioning of products

Formative (historical)

Engineering departments

Well-functioning of products

Symbolic (linguistic)

Language committee

Proper use of language


Societal associations

Social welfare, community


Industrial company



City planning advisory board





Public justice


Ethical committees


Belief (trust)

Church, ideological organization

Religious/ideological values

In the actor-network approach only horizontal relations are taken into account. In reality, vertical relations also exist. Some actors have authority over others. Governments have authority over citizens. Universities and companies have authority over their employees.

According to the actor-network approach, actors need not consist of humans exclusively. Nonhuman actors are also part of the ‘force field’. Philosophically this raises questions. In particular, Latour has argued that technological devices can be ascribed the ability to ‘act’. One of his examples is the speed bump in a residential area. This bump clearly has a power to influence road users. But is this ‘acting’ in the full sense? One of the most pressing questions is that or regarding responsibility (or liability in case of legal affairs). Can the bump be held responsible for possibly damaging the car in case it is not well visible? Maybe for the bump we easily deny responsibility but how about humanoid robots (or even robots in general)? They look more and more

Social dimension of technology 19 like us. Should not they be ascribed actorship and with that responsibility? Here the worldview one holds comes in again. In a materialist worldview, there is no fundamental difference between humans and robots, and in that perspective, it makes sense to think about proper ways of ascribing responsibility to robots, given the fact that we ascribe that to ourselves also. In a worldview in which the human mind cannot be reduced to matter, this is problematic and there is good reason to distinguish between human and nonhuman actors.

This is not a theoretical matter only. Computer software is sometimes seen as a partner in design work. No doubt, this software can yield impressive results in terms of finding new shapes and structures for certain functions. But it lacks the originality and creativity that a human mind has. The solutions will always remain within the (continuously extending but limited) repertoire of the program. Only in a cooperation between computers and humans can this software reach its full potential.

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