Non-neutrality of Technology

In the 21st century, information technology scholars have rediscovered the work of the media theorists who documented the strong and active sociocultural influences of information technology, and they are beginning to study technology as a non-neutral factor in society. Andrew Feenberg (1999), a philosopher and historian of science and technology, captured the difference between information theorist and media theorists in their perceptions of the effects of technology on humans when he observed, “Technology was thought to be neutral since it did not alter [the] natural ends but merely showed the path to them” (2) . Feenberg used the term ambivalence to capture the range of social uses and effects that characterize any technology. Embedded in ambivalence is the observation that technology necessitates decisions to be made and those decisions can be made in response to both the context in which the technology is used and the side-effects of the technology. Feenberg noted, “Given the range and consequences of the effects for which technologies are responsible, it is not surprising that the choices are often political” (7).

In a 2005 article, Paula Furr, Ronald Ragsdale, and Steven Horton, three scholars from Northwestern State University in Louisiana, recognized that educators frequently find it difficult to perceive the effects of the technologies they use on students’ learning. They observed that many educators perceive information delivered via print and the same delivered via electronic resources as an equal experience for the students—which represents the information theorist’s view that technology is neutral. Educators also believe they can predict with accuracy what the effects of the technology on their practice will be. Accurate predictions about the effects of any endeavor that is ICT-rich have proven difficult to make accurately, and this has been true throughout humans’ history with technology. This unpredictability is a second characteristic of technology that makes it non-neutral. Furr, Ragsdale, and Horton (2005) suggested educators must be cognizant of this unpredictability and they recognized the “importance of understanding and explicitly looking for unplanned side effects of technology use, whether good or bad, that often supersedes original intentions” (281).

Edward Tenner (1996), who served as the editor for physics and science at Princeton University Press, suggested in many instances, the actual outcomes of technologies are contrary to the intended outcome and even make the original problem worse. Tenner used the term revenge effects to describe the outcomes of technology that are opposite the intended outcomes. The “paperless office” that was predicted to arrive with the arrival of computers is a familiar example of this reality: Many offices produce more paper when computers are introduced despite the promise of electronic information and communication. Further, Tenner cites evidence that the arrival of computers that were supposed to increase efficiency was associated with decreased productivity in many offices. Tenner argues that revenge effects are exacerbated when a technology is combined into social systems of laws, rules, and regulations that are designed to achieve political goals through technology.

The non-neutrality of technology also arises from the choices that are necessitated by technologies and the outcomes or consequences of those choices. Technologies themselves are neutral (Kevin Kelly’s technium notwithstanding) in that none of the outcomes is preferred by the technology; an ICT system for example carries data regardless of its contents or meaning. In this sense, technology is ambivalent or ambiguous. Humans, on the other hand, prefer some consequences of technology to other consequences, and thus they are not ambivalent and they are unambiguous. A human may censor some messages that are sent through and ICT system for example. Humans evaluate the social consequences of technology choices, and humans set limits and priorities for technological solutions. The unpredictability of technology arises from humans’ inability to foresee all of the potential outcomes or extensions of outcomes, iterations and combinations made possible by the ambiguous nature of technology.

The non-neutral effects of technology are an example of emergent properties that are observed when complex systems are built. Emergent properties are frequently very different from the properties of the constituent parts of the system and cannot be predicted from the properties of the constituent parts. The history of information technology contains many instances of systems in which emergent properties became the dominant use of the technology. Castells (1996) described how the Minitel data system gained wide use in France in the 1980’s. Originally installed as an alternative to traditional telephone directory service, Minitel saw limited use until the ability for users to initiate text-based chatting was introduced. Soon Minitel use exploded with users gossiping and seeking romantic links. James Gleick (2011) described how barbed wire fences became the infrastructure for primitive (but effective) telephone systems in the American west. In both situations, the authors observed the information technologies were initially for “information” but were quickly adopted for social interaction, and gossip became the dominant (but unpredicted) use of the technology.

Media theorists observed that culture is associated with information technology and information technology is associated with culture. From within the literate culture that was dominant in the west for centuries, it is difficult for individuals to perceive the influences of print-based information technology on cognition within the society and the reciprocal effects between technology and cognition and technology and culture. Mehlenbacher (2010) observed that when studying information technology in society, “we are tempted to either set them apart from the phenomena or phenomenon we are studying and to ignore them, or worse, to treat them as individual variables that we can either include or remove from analysis” (7). The media theorist did not make this separation when analyzing information technology and societies, and educational scholars are rediscovering the importance of those ideas to their work.


Feenberg, Andrew. 1999. Questioning Technology. New York: Routledge.

Furr, Paula, Ronald Ragsdale, and Steven Horton. 2005. “Technology’s Non-neutrality: Past Lessons Can Help Guide Today’s Classrooms.” Education and Information Technologies 10(3): 277-287. doi:10.1007/s10639-005-3009-4.

Gleick, James. 2011. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon.

Mehlenbacher, Brad. 2010. Instruction and Technology: Designs for Everyday Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Tenner, Edward. 1996. Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.  New York: Aldred A. Knopf.