Ghouls in the machine

The Machine at Work
November 21, 1997

Technology pervades the dominant culture of 20th-century society. Idealised conceptions of technology and its impact on work assume that technology is synonymous with progress. Yet the technological intensification of work does not carry unambiguous implications for the human experience of working life. The Machine at Work analyses the relationships between technology, work and organisation from a sceptical perspective.

The book argues powerfully against technological determinism, according to which technology has some given essence or capacity and, when deployed in a normative fashion, this deus ex machina exerts an independent impact on the organisation and experience of work.

In a provocative challenge to this position, Keith Grint and Steve Woolgar integrate two previously separate domains of sociological analysis, the sociology of science and technology and the sociology of work, in order to stimulate alternative conceptualisations of the technology-work relationship.

The sociology of science and technology offers many different ways of debating the relationship between technology, work and organisation. Dominant is technological determinism, at once ubiquitous (it can be seen enshrined in work practices and policies for technology) and elusive, as few are prepared to admit that they hold this position. Indeed, partly due to the power of recent philosophical attack, technological determinism is increasingly considered to be untenable.

The Machine at Work sets out critically to evaluate a range of responses to technological determinism: socio-technical systems theory, the social shaping approach, socio-technical alignments, actor-network theory, constructivism and feminism. In strong opposition to technological determinism (and in reaction against the residual technicism exposed in pluralist analyses), Grint and Woolgar argue from an anti-essentialist position that the influence of technology cannot be independently assessed but is instead an interpretation, a social construction.

In pursuit of this main sceptical theme, the authors skilfully progress and apply their anti-essentialist argument through analysis and interpretation of a vast body of sociological research into technology and work relations. They weave their debate through examples of radical technological change - a reinterpretation of the Luddite "rebellion against the machine", the development of Fordism and post-Fordism (flexible specialisation), the construction and implementation of information technology - to address ultimate questions central to the relationship between technology, life and death, the configuration of reproductive technologies and Russian roulette.

For example, in a compelling ethnographic account of computer development Grint and Woolgar demonstrate the interpretive flexibility of the technology-work relationship by adopting the metaphor of technology as text. Their exploration of the processes of computer development (writing), computer use (reading) and the technology-mediated relationship between users and developers is a powerful rebuttal of essentialism that emphasises the contingency of interpretation and challenges essentialist notions concerning the "impact" or "effect" of technology.

In questioning the extent to which recent critical perspectives on technology are premised on sufficiently radical foundations, Grint and Woolgar pursue their sceptical, anti-essentialist line of argument towards what is for them the ultimate and, for the time being at least, elusive goal of post-essentialism.

Many might consider this goal to be excessive. The assertion that there is no single objective truth, merely competing truth claims, can be frustrating for those intent on urgent political action. But the authors convincingly contend that political debate can be enriched only by the generative potential of the sceptical position to expose a full range of possible alternatives for action.

Notwithstanding the number of 'isms this book is well written and accessible. Besides being of interest to scholars, especially students of sociology, organisational theory, innovation and management studies, The Machine at Work should provide stimulating reading for those with a more general interest in contemporary analyses of technology.

Jane Millar is research fellow in knowledge management, Open University Business School.

The Machine at Work: Technology, Work and Organisation

Author - Keith Grint and Steve Woolgar
ISBN - 0 7456 0924 4 and 0925 2
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £45.00 and £12.95
Pages - 199

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