The technological construction of social power

Social Epistemology 22 (1):71 – 95 (2008)
Abstract
This essay presents a theory of the role of technology in the distribution and exercise of social power. The paper studies how technical artefacts and systems are used to construct, maintain or strengthen power relations between agents, whether individuals or groups, and how their introduction and use in society differentially empowers and disempowers agents. The theory is developed in three steps. First, a definition of power is proposed, based on a careful discussion of opposing definitions of power, and it is argued that a theory of power should have two components: a theory of power relations and a theory of empowerment. Second, an analysis of power relations is presented, in which five basic types of power relations between agents are distinguished, and this analysis is applied to technology, resulting in an account of the possible roles of technical artefacts in power relations. Third, I analyse how technology can lead to or contribute to empowerment and disempowerment, and what resistance strategies are possible against disempowerment through technological means. The theory of technology and power presented in this paper is claimed to be an essential ingredient of a critical theory of technology, which is a theory that analyses and critiques the role of technology in the distribution and exercise of power in society. In the final section of this paper, it is argued that the theoretical analysis of power and technology presented in this paper provides an adequate basis for the further development of such a critical theory of technology. I study how it may, specifically, be used to develop strategies for the democratization of technology.
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