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A sustainable technological society? The role of social and technical discourse in shaping innovation

A sustainable technological society? The role of social and technical discourse in shaping innovation

Coles, Anne-Marie ORCID: 0000-0002-0383-9253 (2011) A sustainable technological society? The role of social and technical discourse in shaping innovation. In: Rethinking Jacques Ellul and the Technological Society in the 21st Century, 17-18 June, 2011, Lisbon. (Unpublished)

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A core part of Ellul’s thinking about the technological society differentiates the concept of modern technique, a rationalist orientation focused on maximising efficiency, from that of more traditional practice-based techniques belonging to pre-industrial societies. For Ellul, the technological society underpinned by technique is a totality which encompasses everything. However, it cannot be a completely closed system, as it also carries within it the necessity of change, through the development and acquisition of new knowledge or other discourses, such that even opposing acts or ideas end up ‘in the service’ of the technological society (Ellul, 1964, 1989). This paper aims to investigate the processes by which the articulation of new social or technical issues are appropriated by and incorporated into the dominant technological ideology. For Ellul, responses to those ‘ideas and acts’ which promote social, ethical or even knowledge issues with values that criticise the dominant technological system will be incorporated and controlled in some way by that system. Examples can be seen in the way in which fair trade goods are regulated to a trading niche by multi-national corporations, and the continual need to defend the public service ethic of the internet against encroaching ownership by e-commerce enterprises (Coles and Harris, 2006, Harris, Coles and Davies, 2003). Such incorporation can also be seen in borrowing from traditional techniques, as in the ambiguous position of alternative therapies, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine within a wider scientific, bio-medical establishment (Coles and Yan, 2010). However the incorporation of sustainability goals into innovation strategies of large firms most clearly demonstrates how an ostensibly strong ecological discourse may be transformed into a weaker aim of meeting achievable technical objectives (Milanese and Buhrs, 2007).

This paper adopts the premise that novel technological solutions to the perceived environmental crisis are expressions of the mundane responses of the technological society to the emergence of problematic situations. It proposes that, by adopting propositions from complexity theory to examine the processes of technological development, it becomes possible to examine, with greater focus, some of the characteristics of the technological society, in particular how it can continuously reproduce itself through new technological iterations. Such thinking adheres to Ellul’s own assessment of the propensity for continuous support for the development of technology – always proposed to solve the problems caused by the previous iteration. Focussing on the way in which various social and technical discourses become attached to an artefact the paper considers how sustainability discourses become transferred from artefact to system, from development to use. By identifying how expectations of sustainability can be dislodged or displaced the paper attempts to show how uncertainties in the innovation process contribute to the emergence of new social problems associated with the wider social embedding of new technologies.

Item Type: Conference or Conference Paper (Paper)
Additional Information: [1] Paper presented on Friday 17 June during a session entitled Ellul and the economy, consumerism and ecologism chaired by José Nuno Matos [2] Conference programme available at:
Uncontrolled Keywords: sustainable innovation, technological society
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
T Technology > T Technology (General)
Faculty / School / Research Centre / Research Group: Faculty of Business > Department of Systems Management & Strategy
Related URLs:
Last Modified: 24 Jul 2020 12:17

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