Utopian Narratives: How they have transformed Technology and Organisations

The unprecedented development of technology over the last century has transformed the very foundations of our world. We have now reached a moment in time in which technology is one of the strongest pillars of society; the pandemic has shown as much. Many of the activities that make up our daily lives are only possible because of our high dependency on technology to keep us afloat during these times, whether that be social, physical or mental. One of the most affected parts of our daily lives has undoubtedly been the workplace. Work practices and the social organisation of the workplace have seen an immense transformation that has redefined  what a ‘workplace’ actually is. Before the pandemic, only 7% of workers in the UK had access to a ‘flexible’ schedule which allowed them to work from home. Current data, however, shows that at least 46.6% of workers in the UK worked remotely in some capacity during 2020.  So why is it that technology has become such a prominent tool? Why has it redefined the norms of organisations?

One answer to this question is the increased rhetoric around this idea of ‘Utopia’. This has greatly contributed to the adoption of technology in organisations. This rhetoric has formed through the use of narratives, and when repeatedly consumed throughout society, these narratives help to form public opinion. The Industrial Revolution can be viewed as one of the earliest causes of the evolution of the workplace. The progression from inefficient production through labour, to efficient production through automation had taken centuries to occur. When certain narratives of Progression, Evolution and Revolution had implemented themselves into public perception, the rate of change increased exponentially. About a quarter of a century ago, we could have not imagined working from home, because we did not have the necessary technology. The pandemic, like the Industrial Revolution, will likely be another narrative used to convince organisations to adopt technology within  their work practices. This can be explored with the use of two concepts, known as Technological Determinism and Social Shaping.

Primarily, Technological Determinism is one such narrative that has shaped public opinion on the adoption of Technology. The concept is defined by stating that there is an ‘inevitable direction in which events move determined by some cause’ (Knights and Willmott 2017). Determinism approaches the role of technology with a very hopeful attitude. The idea of progress is the pillar of determinism and it is the premise the technology will keep improving over time. Observations of the past help to create this mindset, and the belief is that this progress is cyclical. Heilbroner’s “Do Machines make history?” (1967) alluded to this by claiming Determinism seemed self-evident. The way the past has played out has allowed us to believe that the future will likely follow suit. Condorcet’s posthumous publications such as ‘Sketch the Progress of the Human Mind’ detailed the ‘Ocean of Futurity’, the idea that Technology is aiming to achieve perfection in society. This is where Technological Determinism is apparently going to take us. For organisations, this is evident in various ways. For example, the narrative of Globalisation has led to increased adoptions of technology for firms. With countries around the world becoming more economically linked over the last 30 years, competition has become much higher. This is taught in business schools around the world and is a form of rhetoric that has made firms adopt a more cost reducing approach to production. Automation allows firms to achieve this, and as a result we have seen a shift to using machines as a means for production as opposed to human labour. This is a Determinist outlook from Organisations, as they see this technology as a means to progress in the field they are operating in. They receive a competitive advantage and are therefore likely to make more profit. A more recent example of Technological Determinism has been the COVID 19 Pandemic. It can be argued that most of the population are determinists in this matter as we are hoping for the success of the vaccines that are being developed. Our hope for the future rests on the shoulders of the technology that has developed these vaccines.

However, there are clear issues with this outlook that are often overlooked due to the lack of narrative in comparison to the dominant one. The Determinist perspective ignores context of the situation in most cases and therefore overlooks the actual usage of this technology, for better or worse. While technology is a major contributor to the progress of our society, its major failings are often ignored so as not to weaken the rhetoric of Determinism. Without a balanced narrative on Determinism, the perception is that Technology will always lead to progression, and as a result, any holes or issues that can occur are ignored, which, if they accumulate, can lead to large scale social problems. A prime example of this is the recent online racist abuse faced by English players following their loss at the Euro 2020 Final. Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho suffered vile racist abuse on social media, but the likelihood is that the perpetrators are likely to get away with it because of the lack of regulation surrounding hate speech on social media. Of course, this is a fine line. Social media giants must find ways to curb discriminatory abuse on social media without intervening with freedom of speech. But the fact remains that these platforms have contributed to increasing the amount of polarisation in our society as well as hate speech. In a survey conducted in 2018, 52% of US teenagers revealed that they had often come across racist hate speech on social media. The anonymity of social media by design almost allows the abuser to escape punishment. However, some would argue that the benefits of anonymity go a long way to validate the existence of the feature in the first place. It can act as a major asset in the fight against oppressive regimes.  Protecting the identity of the user has proven to be an effective measure in this regard, as it allows individuals to document their lives under very harsh conditions in order to bring light to the issues they, and many others, face in their day to day lives. Another recent issue is that of the digital divide. In these tumultuous times, children of lower socio-economic status may not have access to the internet. With much of schooling taking place online, these children are likely to fall behind their peers, a situation that can very easily lead to potentially greater inequality in the future. Lastly, Determinism is a very hopeful outlook, but evidence does not support it wholeheartedly.  John Maynard Keynes, in 1930 claimed that machines would abolish manual work within two generations. This has not occurred and indicates that the past and predictions may not be suitable narratives to incorporate into our thinking in the present day.

Social Shaping and its influence 

Social Shaping is another theory that we can use to analyse how Utopian narratives have influenced organisations’ decisions around adopting technology. This postulation accounts for the manner in which social, political and economic landscapes shape the use of technology. The best example of this in the current climate is the adoption of software such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Due to the Pandemic, remote working has become the norm, and the adoption of this technology has been necessary for organisations to survive. However, social shaping takes many forms and we can see this in various narratives that have been formed over the use of technology. Dystopian Fiction has been one of the major contributors to shaping public opinion over the use of technology. Books such as 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World come to mind. These works of fiction have circulated around society for the past few decades and have created a certain narrative regarding future uses of technology. 1984, by George Orwell, sees technology as a means of controlling the general population to abide by the strict and often illogical laws of an all-seeing entity called Big Brother. Language is performative and as discussed by Austin (1962), words ‘do things’. They plant a seed in the collective consciousness, which over time and with more exposure to the wider public can grow to become a significant and very real fear. Orwell’s work has led to a discourse that is fearful of the adoption of technology, due to the potential for exploitation. This can be seen in present day practices, with Amazon being accused of tracking their workers with chips. Companies are also advertised through current economic discourse that using technology can cut their costs greatly, and so they will proceed to do so. Social Shaping, therefore, gives us a more realistic outlook on what direction technology might go in. That is not to say it is a completely negative outlook, merely an acknowledgement of the things that can and have gone wrong with technology. China’s use of technology is a perfect example of the dystopian direction that technology might be taking us in. The government has realised that the party that controls social media, also controls the information spread in the country. This has led to an almost dystopian society, where individuals are not allowed to criticise the government’s actions. This is trackable through user data that the government keeps an eye on through social media use in the country. TikTok, the Chinese owned social media app has been proven to be tracking user data, in what is a large-scale violation of privacy around the globe. Using this data, the government of China has allegedly been able to control their population accordingly. We are already witnessing the inevitable direction that technology is going on. When it is in the wrong hands, it can lead to a rise in oppressive regimes, violations of privacy and a lack of freedom. 

It will be intriguing to see which narratives will emerge from this pandemic. Regardless of the rhetoric that emerges, we are more than likely to see Technological Determinism and Optimism reign supreme. With technology acting as a lifeboat for society during the pandemic, the positive narratives are likely to outweigh the negatives. Whether we like it or not, we are entering into brand new territory, a time where many of our past ideas will have to be abandoned to make room for the new narrative to seep into our collective consciousness.

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