new technology

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new technology

any form of technology which is more advanced or automated relative to that which preceded it in a given social context. The term is normally used to refer to information and communications technologies based upon microelectronics. ‘New technology’ entered the sociological vocabulary in the early 1970s. The term is used loosely, often left undefined, or assumed to include the various applications of microelectronics. Other ‘new’ technologies, such as biotechnology or the technologies of light, have, so far, received little attention from sociologists.

Developments in information technology have been heralded by some writers as a major qualitative advance in technology compared to mechanization, such that they warrant the label ‘information society’ or ‘second industrial revolution’ (BELL, 1980). Studies of technology in the 1960s generally divided technical change into three broad stages: craft production, mechanization and automation (see TECHNOLOGY), but recent research has adopted more complex classifications to more accurately describe the changes involved with information technology. In manufacturing, three broad stages of AUTOMATION have been identified (Coombs, 1985), namely:

  1. primary mechanization, i.e. the transformation of raw materials into products;
  2. secondary mechanization, i.e. the mechanization of transfer of materials between machines (for example, the continuous-flow assembly line);
  3. tertiary mechanization, i.e. the use of information technology to control and program the operations of transformation and transfer in the overall production process.

    Information technology therefore involves a considerable advance in process technology (the way things are done) which is more significant than developments in product technology (what is produced). The implications of process technology for work and employment have been examined in studies of economic growth and innovation (see LONGWAVE THEORY, DIFFUSION OF INNOVATIONS) and, in sociology, in research into unemployment and the INFORMAL ECONOMY (Pahl and Gershuny, 1979). In the service sector the introduction of information technology has involved similar developments in process technology where the range of new computer and communications applications have automated the collection, processing and retrieval of information.

    Sociological research into new technology has included its relationship to changes in occupational structure and unemployment and, in the workplace, changes in the nature of work and work organization. Research on the consequences of the introduction of new technology for overall employment levels is inconclusive. Automation eliminates many routine jobs in both manufacturing and services. At the same time, jobs requiring new skills are created, such as computer programming and highly skilled maintenance and technician jobs.

    The consequences for employment and the future of work are difficult to estimate on balance, because the assumed ‘effect’ of new technology cannot be separated from managerial employment strategies and other causes of changes in employment such as the international division of labour, economic recession and the market for goods and services. Sociologists have also been concerned with changes in the pattern of employment and the labour market – e.g., the possible polarization of the workforce into a minority of ‘technology winners’ who are highly skilled and enjoy secure employment, and those who are ‘technology losers’ in the sense that their jobs are either deskilled or displaced altogether. These changes in the occupational structure also reveal inequalities based upon class, gender and race. See also DUAL LABOUR MARKET, SEGMENTED LABOUR MARKET.

    These optimistic and pessimistic scenarios for new technology and work are also found in the research on changes in the quality of work. One line of argument develops the earlier work of Woodward (1970), Blauner (1964) and BELL (1980) (see TECHNOLOGY), to argue that new technology allows an increase in skill levels and more participative work organization. In contrast, LABOUR PROCESS THEORY has analysed the use of new technology for managerial control of the labour force and DESKILLING. Recent research (Piore and Sabel, 1984) into new technology in manufacturing has suggested that new forms of automation allow the possibility of flexible specialization - multi-skilled, ‘high-trust’ work – in contrast to Fordism and Taylorism as predominant features of earlier production systems geared to mass production. However, the evidence for these emerging new work forms is limited and confined to sectors such as metal-machining (see also FORDISM AND POST-FORDISM, SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT).

    Applied sociological research on new technology has generally been critical of TECHNOLOGICAL DETERMINISM and supportive of programmes for human-centred technology