Friday, September 30, 2011

Mapping the literature landscape

It is worthwhile making a point about my mental starting point when it comes to this topic of connecting theology with technology (I am really going to have to come up with a better word and technium isn't it).

As I read the literature on technology it seems to me that there is an interesting feature that comes across if we show it.

Most of the theological discussion of technology derives its material from the broad field of sociology (Ellul and also philosophy - probably in part becase these three disciplines share some commonalities in their worldviews.

We can then add the work done by the engineering profession which I am not familiar with but what I have read comes across as a bit of an orphan field. However, Mitcham does a good job of surveying this literature. And to this literature we can also add the growing body of writing by people who create technology and want to have their say on the experience of creating something they hope is useful to somebody. In my first blog I noted two blogs I like - Rosie's prime inspiration is from this practioner eperience.

Lastly there is a collection of academic studies that group around two themes and which have developed almost in opposition to each but which have the greatest attention to the nature of technology. The first is Science and Technology Studies - which is focussed on the connections between society and technology. Although a sub-field of sociology because of its own course of development it warrants its own category. It has had a particular emphasis on the idea that technology is an expression of the societial context in which it is developed - giving rise to the expression the social construction of technology. This is not my native academic field but I have been doing a lot of reading in it lately primarily as part of a project on the the role of health charities in the science system.

Recently an excellent collection of papers on STS were published but it made this rather interesting comment on the backcover: It will be an essential resource for scholars in S&TS as well as for those in such neighboring disciplines as anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, law, political science, feminist and critical theory, and literary studies. Dave Stearn's tech.soul.culture blog is facilitated by his STS training.
What I find very curious about this comment is the fields of science policy, economics of technology and the management of technology are not mentioned as being relevant to STS. This broadly is where I come from, spending 10 years in science and technology analysis and policy positions in government and following that years in university environments. The primary questions behind these fields (addressing it with different emphases)  are: how do new technologies come into being (from a technical perspective), where (geographically) does it arise, how can it be encouraged and in the corporate environment what are the conditions under which technology activities can be profitable? On the diagram I have labelled all this as Neo-Schumpeterian - because Schumpeter is seen as the modern economist with the most understanding of technology - but probably more accurately is derived from Chris Freeman and Keith Pavitt (google these guys sometime). It is a pity that STS and the Neo-Schumpeterian researchers are not more familiar with each others' work - it would make for a more informed discussion.

This list does  not include the many sub-fields relevant to the topic as perhaps most disciplines have have specialisation that deals with technology as it is relevant to them - but this list is probably the main ones. If you want to read article from many of these perspectives in the one place I recommend the Canbridge Journal of Economics - what special about technology issue

Each of these many fields has something valid to offer - but much of the Christian critique of technology derives from the fields on the right hand side of the image which emerged and became entrenched before the writings on the left hand side even existed (Neo-Schumpeterian literature first got moving in the 1970s). The transforming vision is to include more of the left hand side in discussions of theologia and technologia.

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