Disruptive Technologies, Social Transformation and the Socio-Digital

Thursday 17th December, 2015

William Housley

Special Section on Digital Sociology 

During the course of this short article I reflect on the sociological study of ‘disruptive technologies’ in the digital age. My starting point begins with a sociological framing of these phenomena through the mobilization of classic sociological questions that concern how social organization is possible? Why do societies change over time? What type(s) of identity are promoted in a given social form? These questions are identified as consistent with C.Wright Mills’ vision of the sociological imagination and are as relevant today as they always have been, especially in relation to the emerging contours of digital societies.

‘Disruptive’ technologies include Social Media, Big Data, Robotics and new forms of Additive Manufacture. The report published by the McKinsey Gobal Institute states:

The relentless parade of new technologies is unfolding on many fronts. Almost every advance is billed as a breakthrough, and the list of “next big things” grows ever longer. Not every emerging technology will alter the business or social landscape—but some truly do have the potential to disrupt the status quo, alter the way people live and work, and rearrange value pools. It is therefore critical that business and policy leaders understand which technologies will matter to them and prepare accordingly.

It can be argued that many of these technologies, identified in this pivotal piece on commercial and market futures, have the recent advances in computerization and digital networks at their core. What is striking is that nearly two years since this report was published a sociological take on ‘disruptive technologies’ and their consequences for social organization and relations is still at a relatively early stage of development. The sociological community needs to mobilise and begin addressing these and related social and technological changes in earnest through a variety of means. As a starting point what is certainly clear is that the McKinsey reports framing of new digital technological developments in terms of the language of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ need to be respecified in sociological terms and through sociological methods of investigation if we are truly to appreciate, understand and anticipate their social consequences and effects.

This is, I believe, one of the current tasks for sociology. Indeed, it is a fecund and important avenue for the future of a discipline that is increasingly relevant; as a new set of socio-technological transformations emerge within the turbulence of a globalized risk society facing significant challenges and opportunities at the beginning of the C21st. A ‘sociology of the digital’ needs to respecify these technological developments within the context of the emerging contours of digital society that are distinct from commercial and market oriented representations. In doing so sociology can be brought to the fore as an explanatory apparatus that operationalizes theory, method and data in ways that account for the re-ordering of social relations in the digital age.

Thus far a significant amount of attention has been paid to social media as a medium through which the self, identity and interaction are transformed. In addition to this the opportunity of approaching social media as ‘data’ has gone some way to alleviating the capacity for public sociology to accomplish some purchase on the commercial bedrock of ‘Big Data’ and attempt to deal with the empirical asymmetries generated by new data landscapes often dominated by commercial barriers and closed data flows. Far less attention has been paid to new forms of manufacture and the rise of robotics although the study of ‘the future of work’ in the context of automation represents a new frontier that sociology is moving rapidly to address through a theoretical lens and studies on the digital ground.

As this range of studies gather pace, matters relating to method and new forms of data, automation and predictive analytics will need to be attended to as routine features of the digital imaginary where ‘disruptive technologies’ are understood as data generative, algorithmic, networked, distributed and organizing socio-technical assemblages. Indeed, the next stage of disruption and change may come from the rise of social automation and new forms of governance and policy practice that reify digital data streams, as driven by algorithms, effectively sovereign. This raises important issues about the nature of algorithmic power and accountability that are only beginning to be interrogated in sociological terms.

A digital sociology and the sociology of the digital might mobilise the frame of methodological pluralism in charting, scoping and understanding this new frontier. As discussed elsewhere this should include ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration with computer scientists, including the co-construction of algorithms and models for supporting the analysis of big and broad social data, the observation of data practices and the use of networked human proxemic devices and ‘sensors’ in social interaction and a methodographic approach that supports the examination of automation and predictive capacities as part and parcel of the social life of methods. The ‘methodographic’ imagination critically approaches the generation and interpretation of digital data, through the assemblage(s) and various configurations of ‘disruptive technology’, as an accomplishment and therefore a topic of inquiry (and not merely an unexplicated resource) in its own right.

In more abstract terms the assemblage(s) of disruptive technology and their data configuring and generating capacities in concert with human input, at a variety of levels, requires an ongoing theoretical analysis. Where these discursive, networked and material assemblages are conceptualized as ‘motile’ and underpinned by an array of digital data imaginaries that envision new forms of relating, governing, working and being in a re-ordered and digitally colonized institutional landscape within which digital crowds and mass are being re-materialized. 

In short, this re-materialization and re-ordering of groups and populations are being brought to the fore in significant ways that require sociological investigation. Examples of what is meant here includes the use of crowdsourcing to annotate big and broad data for machine learning, algorithm design, statistical modeling and the end point delivery of automation within an emerging digital social system. Thus, the automation of crime sensing, for example, in social media and other policy domains needs to be understood; not least in terms of unintended consequences, such as racial profiling, but also in terms of the automation of social problems as reified constructs on a rolling real-time basis. Furthermore, the refreshment of algorithms and rapid social change means that automation and real world conditions become rapidly decoupled as behaviour changes and the inexorable obselence of algorithms in accurately capturing such behavioural developments in locomotive fashion becomes a manifest rather than latent (dys)function. Other examples include crowd-working and digital micro-work, as exemplified by Amazon Turk and related platforms, where small-scale tasks are tendered out en masse in reward for micro-payments. The consequences of this for the future of work and political economy are poorly understood although recent studies on ‘Uber-fication’ and its effect on workers and citizens alike has sparked off considerable debate and interest in how these and related technological forms of ‘disruption’ impact on critical services within urban and organizational settings.    

To this extent, it may be worth advancing the notion that ‘disruptive technologies’ are also, at the same time, ‘technologies of design’ that exhibit automated affordances that are configured so as to re-engineer and ‘drive’ social relations and being. Thus, whilst these technologies may ‘disrupt’ they also, through design, remake and reconfigure the social in terms of specific interests and imagined futures. Thus a sociology of the digital needs to examine these features and advance strategies for making sense of digital society that draw on collaboration with computer scientists, observation of socio-digital interaction, methodography and critical engagement with digital data imaginaries. In doing so the sociological gaze can move beyond the preoccupation with the digital data deluge towards the wider view of the complex panoply of social change and transformation that is occurring in one of the great transitions of our age.

Thus, a sociology of the digital might advance a framework for studies of digital society that attempts to understand disruptive technologies as social, cultural and economic forces in their own right underpinned by enduring sociological questions and concerns. As stated previously, in order to advance this process sociology will have to work in interdisciplinary contexts utilising a range of methods and ideas. However, it also, at the same time, needs to make the space for critical reflection and to confidently draw from its rich theoretical base that has uniquely accounted for modernity. The sociology of the digital is merely a logical step (amongst many others) in accounting for rapid social change, re-organisation and the place of individuals in the changing topographies of contemporary collective human life. To this extent it is worth reminding ourselves that Sociology’s roots lie in the great age of disruption and transition associated with the industrial revolution. The story of the next great age of disruption and transition will need some sort of ‘sociology’ to account for and understand this unfolding process. How strange it would be if it were not one reflexively grounded in the very self same logic(s) and theories built and tested over the last two centuries? A potential state of sociological amnesia that would be a great disservice to the civilizational challenges and opportunities that lies ahead. Indeed, the rise of (digital) disruptive technologies and associated phenomena represent a prime opportunity for Sociology to assert its relevance to the contemporary human condition and in anticipation of future social trajectories. It is to this challenge that digital sociology and the sociology of the digital needs to rise to.

William Housley, is a sociologist, based at the Cardiff University School of Social Sciences, who works across a number of research areas that include language and interaction, social media, the social aspects of disruptive technologies and the emerging contours of digital society, economy and culture.

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