Can engineers change the world? Why we need to rethink a widely-held belief about tech

Professor Lelia Green, who wrote a book on Technoculture, discusses whether technology or culture has the power to profoundly change our societies.
Paul Ratner
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VR headset on sculpture.

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  • Can technology and engineers change the world?
  • Professor Lelia Green argues that culture may be an even more powerful driver of change.
  • Technology is often used to support the status quo instead of disrupting it.

Technology is ubiquitous in our lives from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep. We use some form of tech at nearly all times throughout the day, from our smartphones to cars, TVs, refrigerators and microwaves, and of course, smartphones. Technology also influences what we think, feeding us news and political information based on algorithms of what we are already interested in. And much of this everyday tech has been developed in just the past century or so. But even with all the ways, the constantly re-engineered technology affects us and arguably improves our lives; is it really the driving force behind meaningful societal change or is culture more responsible? Such is the question at the heart of our interview with the Australian professor Lelia Green of Edith Cowan University, whose book Technoculture: From Alphabet to Cybersex speaks to this issue.

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The book was published in 2001, but Green recently revisited its key points for the Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI) in a piece bluntly titled “Technological determinism is wrong.” Green lays out the reasons why she believes it is erroneous to evangelize technology as the primary engine of social change. She believes instead that changes in culture are what drive technological changes. Without the cultural impetus, she argues, technology is more often employed in maintaining the status quo than in disrupting it.

Did COVID change us?

In her discussion of the interplay between culture and technology, Professor Green uses the example of the present day, and the way that it has been impacted by the ongoing COVID pandemic. She proposes that COVID has made us reexamine many of our values, from the way we work to how we relate to one another, truly changing our societies in a number of ways.

It's likely that the main changes are in ways that we relate to some types of technology. Certainly, think back a few years ago, and you might have been hard-pressed to know more than a handful of people who used Zoom for work or took classes online, or did most of their grocery shopping via services like Instacart. Many of the technologies involved in these activities have now become a part of our daily lexicon and daily lives.

As Green writes, "Some would argue that it was technology that enabled the cultural shift that COVID required, as well as our slow return to 'normal life' [which] is being facilitated by the technology of the COVID tests, the vaccines and treatments."

But if you look at the bigger picture of our interaction with tech during COVID, can we truly say that it is technology that is changing our lives, or has the pandemic accelerated our cultural adoption of already-existing technologies?

Did computer change us?

In another example of the culture versus tech debate, Professor Green looks at the history of the invention of personal computing. Industry mythology tells us that the development of the personal computer was the product of a number of singular visionaries. In reality, argues Green in her essay for IAI the path towards the development of personal computers started with World War 2, which shifted our “social and economic priorities” and led to a tremendous amount of investment in technology.

The tech which was originally developed for, or alongside of, defense purposes in the 40s and 50s, and which focused originally on military purposes, resulted in developments which eventually led to both the invention of personal computing and the internet (originally a project of the United States’ Advanced Research Projects Agency — ARPA). It was the larger military need that led to the development of personal computers for the general public, not a cultural push by independent visionaries, proposes Green.

What about the Gutenberg Press?

In an interview with Interesting Engineering, Professor Green also explored whether one of the most famous pieces of transformative technology, the Gutenberg Press, invented around 1436, actually had as much of an impact as it’s credited with. She argues, like many, that the positive effects of the Gutenberg Press were to increase literacy rates for people outside the Church and to make reading more accessible, resulting in “access to a wider range of ideas and thought-leaders.” The press also made it possible to offer “materials other than handwritten parchment to people who wanted to learn to read and write, and who wanted to teach others to do so.”

Highly influential, the Gutenberg Press, as Green writes, “responded to a cultural driver of a desire to capture an idea and communicate it beyond the time and space directly inhabited by the idea sender.” This was previously achieved in other ways, including through media like painting, in everyday styles and designs like those used in dressmaking, and even in the expansion of food supply chains, which made different and imported foods accessible to more people. But Green argues that the printing press vastly sped up this process, saying, “ideas are more generally accessible when expressed in words, and last longer and travel further when captured in print or recorded in other media.”

This desire to communicate ideas and to have ideas serve to ”attract some fellow travelers while excluding others” is cultural, however, reiterates the professor, and is “an age-old dynamic.” For its time, the Gutenberg Press “was the most recent means through which that cultural desire could be enacted.”

Can engineers change the world? Why we need to rethink a widely-held belief about tech
A printing press from 1568. Left foreground shows a "puller" removing a printed sheet from the press. The "beater" to his right inks the form. In the background, compositors set the type.

Credit: Jost Amman 

What about social media?

Delving further into how tech affects us, Green looked at the influence of social media. It's evident that social media has had a tremendous impact on our lives, both positive and negative. It has allowed us to stay connected with people all over the world. It has both spread democratic ideas and helped totalitarian regimes. It’s also vastly sped up the global spread of disinformation and untruths and has been linked to depression, illness, violence, and political instability. But has social media changed us?

Green writes that while one could ask if social media is changing us, better questions may be — “What has social media changed us from?” Or “What has social media changed us to?” She shares that “It might be argued that, for example, a proportion of people have always cared disproportionately about how others perceive them.” And this group of people, she added, “may find social media an attractive way of feeling affirmation, to start with, and then an exhausting task master as they search ever harder for ways to build their 'likes’.” So is it that social media changed us or maybe it just “made some social insecurities more visible, and more difficult for individuals to manage, but I would say that the dynamic is one of amplification, rather than change.”

In other words - both influencers and purveyors of disinformation were always out there, and technology has simply given them a new platform - albeit one capable of reaching many more people, reaching them much faster, and choosing them based on more specific criteria.

The drivers of tech change

In her article for the Institute of Art and Ideas, Lelia Green stated that, "it is culture that drives technological change and innovation," and so we end up with technologies our culture determines. Or more specifically, the technologies determined by "the elite groups we support in our culture."

In her examination of the issue, professor Green established these main drivers of technological changes:

A” for Armed Forces, or the military more broadly, which tends to be a big driver of technological change and innovation thanks to large investments in military and weapons advancements.

B” for Bureaucracy, which includes decisions made by bureaucracy in higher education and research sectors, as well as the administration necessary for invention and innovation.

C” for Corporate Power, which refers to the ability of corporations to become juggernauts of innovation. The extent of Corporate Power was demonstrated during the pandemic as labs and corporations quickly pivoted to develop new vaccines, PPE, and COVID tests.

D” for Distributive Collective — the 'hive mind' that maintains the non-commercial internet — regular people who spend their free time “updating wikis, moderating chat rooms, refining open-source software” as described by Green. These people also advance some technologies through participating in crowdfunding -- think of the devices that get funded through Kickstarter and similar sites.

E” is for Everyday Users, who drive the adoption of new technologies. These are the ones who camp in lines for the newest iPhone but also our own friends and relatives who tell us about the latest app or a gadget they have heard from.

People change culture and technology

In correspondence with Interesting Engineering, Professor Green referred to a quote by the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead – “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Agreeing with the quote, Green shared her belief that ultimately “People are the driving force behind cultural change and technology change.” Unfortunately, the people involved in the forces that develop most technologies — the Armed Forces, Bureaucracy, and Corporate Power — are not "necessarily democratically accountable and tend to represent disproportionately powerful socio-cultural elites," wrote Green. As such, the technology that they wield is more likely to support their power and status quo than social transformation.