Sociotechnicality: Odd Word, Odd Concept

I’ve described the basic concept of sociotechnicality before. I know it’s an awkward word. We don’t really have an easy word for it, because some very old and successful approaches to the world that didn’t need it. The world, however, has changed. Just about everyone I’ve spoken to has some idea of what "social" is and what "technical" is. Still, let’s take at least a second to reassert these conceptural clusters.

By "social", we really mean to include every topic that can be seriously discussed in the context of individual humans directly interacting with other individual humans. Psychology is involved here, for sure, and sociology, and group psychology. But also anatomy, and even evolution as it applies to humans. Linguistics, for sure. Consciousness, will, agency, all these huge areas can conceivably contribute to our notion of "social".

By "technical", we mean topics whose primary emphasis is on the inorganic: physical machines, machine-like procedures, the stuff that the 19th century, though surely not the 20th, associated with the so-called "hard sciences" of physics and mathematics. The social and the technical, especially the machine notion, meet constantly, of course, and this is hardly a radical or troubling notion.

Clinging, still, to a cleaner & simpler 19th c view, we see a thin border between what is social and what is technical. We hold the technical to be entirely subservient: technique in this vision is always human. Machines are made by humans and they’re made for humans.

And with these notions, the social, the technical, and the thin border between them, we really have a pretty good grip on what we might call the old school.

"Sociotechnicality", as a concept, takes that old school vision and opens gaping holes in it. It’s all about that idea, of "here" being social, and "there" being technical, and a "border" being between "here" and "there".

"Sociotechnicality" says, "Not so fast. Let’s look at that border thing again." There are a couple of ways to get at the strangeness. There’s a viable math metaphor, and a viable physical metaphor. Let’s do both.

Math: the border isn’t a border as we normally understand it. It’s a self-similar plane-filling fractal, and when you zoom in on any piece of it you see that what you thought before was "here" and "there" and "border" is all three of them all at once.

Physics: "here" is oxygen and "there" is hydrogen, both of which are gases with certain behaviors. If you put them together in certain circumstances, though, they make water, and it has separate and different behaviors.

(Both of these metaphors are barely bridges. They can help you jiggle the idea around in your head. They don’t prove anything, and they don’t really mean anything beyond that jiggling.)

So. What then, is this sociotechnical jiggling gonna do for us? And what’s that bit about the world changing?

First, the world-chanhging: the software trade — setting up organizations that write software to please other people — combines some of the most advanced technical artifacts in human history with the largest human enterprise in history, namely "the market".

That industry’s growth has been extraordinary because its social" aspect exploded at the same time and to much the same extent as its technical* aspect exploded.

The software trade is, if not unique, at least quite exceptional in this. We have been simultaneously inventing faster than we can sell and selling faster than we can invent for forty years.

That is the world-changing.

And what does this sociotechnical change, in turn, about our understanding of all this?

Gosh, I’m so glad and so frustrated that you asked.

I’m glad, because I can see at least a few dim outlines of what it might change. I’m frustrated because what I have is dim and incomplete.

Two aspects of that dim outline that have had real consequences for me as a person deeply involved in this trade. 1) How I evaluate technique. 2) How I promulgate technique I find felicitous.

I’m not gonna blather on too much about these two aspects, just maybe a couple lines about each.

1) Technique evaluation is different for me in two ways. In the abstract, I assess techniques based almost entirely on the ways in which they work with or work against ordinary proclivities as I understand them.

A f’rinstance: my case for TDD involves in part its phenomenal power as a food-pellet lever for myself as a geek-rat. One important reason why TDD is faster is that every tiny green test causes a tiny rush of motivation and pleasure to the human who flipped it red to green.

That’s the abstract eval. The other change is that I rely much more heavily on empiricism over abstraction in my evaluations. If I think a technique is good in working with the human, I insist we try it for a while to see if it’s really good. I don’t adopt from "good theory".

2) Technique promulgation is very different, too. No technique, no matter how brilliant or proven, is useful to me unless I can get from here, where I’m at now, to there, where the technique is useful.

In fact, if I can’t find a way to approach some technique from wherever we start, I don’t promulgate it at all. It’s got to be stepped, and it’s got to be neutral or better at every step. Otherwise, it just doesn’t do me any good. Both of these changes in my approach are neither social nor technical. We can argue about whether "social AND technical" is all we’re seeing here, as opposed to some whole new thing, "sociotechnical", and some folks do.

Here’s the thing: that’s fine. Argue away, it doesn’t bother me, because at least we’re talking and thinking about it. What bothers me is the folks who aren’t talking and thinking about it.

(Doesn’t mean I won’t argue back: Water is hydrogen AND oxygen. But it’s neither hydrogen nor oxygen, it’s water. I think sociotechnical is the right concept.)

Every technique carries social ramifications. Every social activity carries technical ramifications. If you don’t think that’s true, put down your browser and your cellphone and cast your mind back to 1980, when neither one existed.

I get grief sometimes for this abstract philosophical crap. On the other hand, I get a certain amount of love for the practical positive advice I try to give about the trade. Here’s the thing: to me, it’s the same song, just chorus and verse. I will keep using "sociotechnical".

Want new posts straight to your inbox once-a-week?
Scroll to Top