For many Americans, technology is mysterious. Despite the fact that technologies of all sorts impact almost every aspect of our daily lives, we continue to function with relatively uninformed conceptions of technology. We usually don’t know or understand the technical mechanics of the technologies that we enjoy. When we purchase technologies such as computers, we have a vague sense that the computer may affect our family life, our friendships, the ways we work, and the development of our children, but we don’t know much beyond that.
In the past two to three decades, there has been a proliferation of works concerning technology and its effects on various spheres of society. It is now common to find books and conferences on technology and democracy, technology and gender, technology and the workplace, technology and religion, technology and education, technology and community, technology and literature, just to name a few. While this growing literature is extremely helpful in examining the ways that existing social institutions and cultural practices are challenged and reshaped by new technological developments, these texts are often thinly veiled normative arguments about how democracy, education, or communities ought to be, rather than works that clarify the nature of technology and how it “works” in society. These texts are crucial to the development of a robust public discourse about our technologies, but they often fail to provide a broader framework from which individuals can engage and assess technologies. Many questions that need to be addressed remain unanswered: What is technology? How does it relate to individual action and social order? Is technology an autonomous force that determines history? Or can it be resisted? How does a new technology shift from being the stuff of science fiction to becoming a part of our everyday worlds, even shaping our sense of reality? Is our society prone to develop or use particular kinds of technologies over others? Are there certain types of technologies that are better than others for living the “good life”? Do technologies tend to reinforce or break down power structures?