Thursday, September 02, 2010

Social Science and Technology

I'm leading a faculty development seminar designed to encourage the creation of Science, Technology, and society classes, courses that look at the ways in which science and/or technology affect and are affected by culture. At our first meeting yesterday, we began discussing the difference between science and technology. Science is the search for explanations for and the rules that govern natural phenomena. Technology, on the other hand, consists of human made tools that alter the way we do things. The two are different. One can create new technological advances without understanding anything of the science underlying their workings. Similarly, one can study science without any concern for applications.

But, of course, they are interconnected. New advances in our understandings of the way the world works does allow us to design new and better tools to solve preexisting problems. Similarly, new technologies often force us to realize that the world around us is more intricate and complex than we had thought before.

But when we think of scientific advances giving rise to new technologies, we think natural science -- physics giving us transistors, chemistry giving us plastics and Teflon, biology giving us new hybrid crops and gene therapy. But what about the social sciences? Do they spark technological advances? If a sociologist figures out a new way of organizing ourselves in a group that would make for a more efficient transfer and compilation of knowledge, for example, would that notion be a new technology? Would an economist who developed a new taxation scheme which increased fairness and encouraged economic growth have given us a new technology? Would a political scientist who develops a new voting regimen, something like instant run-off voting, or a new parliamentary structure be endowing humanity with a new technology?

We often think of technology in terms of objects, material tools we can hold in our hands like a light bulb. But now that most technological advances are really just clever sets of lines of code, should we consider these developments from the social sciences to be technologies too?