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Demonstrate your understanding of the debate:
What is this debate about?
What does each side suggest?
Focus on how you understand this debate
The important thing is: For this essay topic the two concepts are the two technologies!
I have chosen the two concepts already, which are the pre-1920s Assembly line (Bureaucracy & Taylorism; Fordism (Scientific management)) and after-1920s Computer.
1. For this topic, you need to discuss and apply the sociotechnical debate (technological determinism vs. social determinism) on the emergence of two technologies one pre-1920 and the other post-1920.
2. Essay of 2,000 words (+/- 10%)
3.No right/wrong concept
4.The main body may use headings; signposting
5. Be critical
6.Using examples
7. Discuss also could contact of ERP




Introduction. 2

The assembly line technology versus computer technology. 3

The rise of the assembly line and the computer: Technological determinism or social determinism?. 4

Conclusion. 8

References. 9


            During the twentieth century, two distinct technologies may be said to have existed. The first one is the assembly line of the pre-1920s while the second one is the computer technology of the post-1920s. These technologies were radically different in terms of the way they influenced operations within the organization. For instance, in the assembly line, face-to-face communication was used as opposed to computer-mediated communication in the computer-technology era.


            In most cases, differences between these two technologies are discussed in the context of a socio-technical debate that encompasses two opposing strands of thought: technological determinism and social determinism (Smith, 2008). Technological determinism is based on the view that the technology that exists in a society determines the history, social structure, and cultural values of that society. Supporters of this view argue that technology is the ultimate force that governs society and that technological innovation follows an inevitable path that ultimately drives social progress.

In contrast, social determinism is based on the view that technology is a product of the society in which it has been developed. Proponents of this theory oppose the claim by technological determinists that technology influences society; instead, they argue that the converse is true. The aim of this paper is to discuss and apply the ideas of technological determinism and social determinism on two technologies: the assembly line of the pre-1920s and the computer technology of the post-1920s.

The assembly line technology versus computer technology

            One of the defining characteristics of the assembly line technology is that it was heavily dependent on manual labor. This is in sharp contrast with computer technology, which relies on mental labor. Moreover, in the assembly line, workers would share information through face-to-face communication. With the advent of computer technology, the concept of computer-mediated communication has emerged. Another crucial distinction is the reliance on centralization in the assembly line, which is often contrasted with the reliance on the network in the computer age. Similarly, departmentalism was a crucial feature in the industrial organizations of the pre-1920s era. After the advent of computer technology, these departments and silos were replaced by geographically dispersed networks (Zammuto et al, 2007).

            The context of the assembly line technology was one where the emphasis was on direct control and supervision. Workers operated in a production line where each was expected to make a contribution to the final product by creating and adding a clearly defined part. The conveyor belt technology was introduced because it not only brought tasks closer to workers but also dealt effectively with the problem “soldiering”. Soldiering is the tendency of employees to deliberately perform fewer tasks than expected (Taylor, 1911). This way, the pace of work was effectively being prescribed by machine.

            The concept of soldiering was introduced by Frederick Taylor in his 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management. Today, Taylor is referred to as the father of scientific management (Harris, 2006). While developing ideas on scientific management, Taylor used to work in the steel industry as a mechanical engineer. He observed that three core problems needed to be solved in the industry (Harris, 2006). First, factory operators needed to devise ways of using material and immaterial resources more efficiently. Secondly, soldiers needed to be eliminated. Thirdly, there was a need to replace multiple “rules of thumb” with “best practice” (Harris, 2006). Best practice refers to a single best way in which a task can be executed.


            During the rise of computer technology in the 1940s and 1950s, there was limited business interest in computers mainly because of their sheer size and cost. To put this problem in context, it is worthwhile to point out that in 1949, computer engineers were targeting to produce computers weighing less than 1.5 tonnes in the future (Mowschowitz, 1994). Six years earlier, IBM’s chairman, Thomas Watson estimated that the world market could accommodate at most five computers only (Mowschowitz, 1994). Drastic changes that stakeholders in this technology never anticipated during the mid-twentieth century have occurred. The mainframe computers of the 1960s have been replaced with ultra-small desktop computers, personal computers, laptops, and palmtops. Currently, most computer and phone manufacturers have already developed tablet computers and smartphones that are of greater utility than even laptops and desktop computers.

The rise of the assembly line and the computer: Technological determinism or social determinism?

            The theory of technological determinism is founded on the idea that technological change is inevitable (Ceruzzi, 2005). This theory also proposes that the inherent features of technology are the ones that determine how it is going to be used in that society. The underlying idea in this theory is that new capabilities are impossible in society until technology makes them possible (Ceruzzi, 2005). In this regard, one may want to look at the rise of the assembly line. The assembly line brought about a society-wide paradigm shift in the way work was being done in virtually all industrial settings. Technological determinists argue that the assembly line is the one that influenced society and not the other way round. They hold the view that the fact that technology revolutionized the workplace during the early twentieth century is sufficient proof that society is governed by technology. The same argument may be extended to the issue of computer technology, where virtually all aspects of social life are today being influenced by the computer. For example, billions of people around the world rely on mobile phones, which are manufactured using computer-based technology, for communication purposes.

            In technological determinism, two main ideas have been propounded (Fleck, 2001). The first one is that technology adheres to a predictable path that cannot be circumvented by any political or cultural influence (Fleck, 2001). The second idea is that the impact of technology on societies is inherent and not socially conditioned (Fleck, 2001). This means that once the technology is introduced, society reorganizes itself to fit into the realm of the newly introduced technology.

            When Taylor’s theory of scientific management gained popularity throughout the industrial world, many scholars started looking for solutions to the problems that it had identified. For example, Max Weber came up with the theory of bureaucracy. Weber’s objective was to introduce a new way through which institutions could be organized with a view to sustain and reproduce capitalism. Like Taylor, Weber identified training as one of the characteristics that would make institutions operate efficiently. Other characteristics of bureaucratic organizations include rules, specialization and departmentalism, documentation, rationality, and hierarchical relations. In many ways, the theory of bureaucracy provided solutions to the problems Taylor had identified in scientific management. Technological determinists would view this turn of events as proof that society was simply responding to the changes that had been brought about by the assembly line technology. In this case, proponents of bureaucracy were looking for new ways of improving the organizational platform through which the industrial developments of the capitalistic world could be sustained and reproduced.

            Social determinism opposes the view that society is always at the mercy of technology (MacKenzie, 2004). Social determinists argue that the assembly line was discovered simply because there was a perceived need for its existence in society. They focus on the fact that prior to the introduction of the production line in which a conveyor belt played a critical role, society was in the process of seeking new methods of enhancing, sustaining, and consolidating the capitalistic mode of creating wealth. From this argument, it seems that the assembly line emerged primarily because there was a need for it in society. Social determinists insist that if the pressure to increase production did not exist in the world of capitalism, society would not have embraced the idea of introducing the assembly line as the driving force behind contemporary industries.

            A contrasting argument is often made by technological determinists who point out the circumstances under which computer technology has emerged. During the 1940s, IBM’s chairman estimated that the global market could only take up five computers (Leonardi, 2008). Only half a century later, virtually any person who is old enough to attend school is a potential customer for computer companies. Computers are increasingly becoming essential day-to-day tools not only for adults but also for young children. Based on this observation, technological determinists argue that technological change in the case of computers has continued to follow its own logic. Society may have welcomed it or protested it but it followed its own course anyway (Zammuto et al, 2007).

            Technological determinists may want to give the example of Apple Inc., the company that takes most of the credit for the modern computing revolution. The company’s founder, Steve Jobs, was famous for his strong marketing skills. He spearheaded the development of innovative computing devices such as the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Those who marveled at his strong innovative and marketing skills argue that he had a unique way of convincing consumers to believe that they needed to purchase the latest iPod, iMac, iPhone or iPad. This implies that the need for these computing gadgets did not exist in society until Jobs told them about their existence and importance.

            To counter this view, proponents of social determinism argue that technology development follows a project-like approach. Individuals and organizations that participate in innovative processes have to set aside resources, draw clear timelines, and most importantly, identify the intended goals. Towards this end, the crucial thing for researchers to do is to determine whether those who developed computer technology adopted such an approach. The same case should apply as far as the case of the assembly line is concerned.

            The ideas on the basis of which Taylorism was developed used to exist in society even before the introduction of the production line (Taylor, 1911). Society was simply waiting for an innovative individual to synthesize them and put them into practical use. This is precisely what Frederick Taylor did. Another idea that was dominant in society related to the importance of science. This may have provided a lot of motivation for Taylor to propose the integration of scientific principles into each step undertaken, however small it was, throughout the production process. This enthusiasm for science was prevalent in society even before Taylor (1911) introduced the idea of replacing vague “rules of thumb” with scientifically defined elements of work. Taylor’s (1911) objective was to ensure that each building block was accurately measured and utilized to ensure maximum utility at each stage of the production process. The same argument may be raised regarding the other ideas such as scientific selection and training of workers, division of labor, and cooperation between employees and management. From this perspective, society seems to have influenced the development of the assembly line technology.

            On the other hand, the ideas that prevailed in society during the development of computer technology also need to be examined. During the 1970s, when the current computer revolution started, the term enterprise resource planning (ERP) had not yet been coined (Grant, 2006). However, the ideas underlying ERP had continued to exist since the 1960s (Ross, 2000). In the manufacturing sector, ERP principles were being used in inventory management. During the 1970s, the ideas were concretized into materials resource planning (MRP) (Chung, 2000). Two decades later, the concept of ERP emerged. All this time, computer technology was evolving. Today, virtually all ERP systems run on computer technology. This analysis creates the impression that technology evolves alongside ideas in society. At the very least, it demonstrates the difficulties that scholars encounter in efforts to determine which school of thought between technological determinism and social determinism best captures the circumstances in which technology develops in a social context.


            In conclusion, technology influences society in very significant ways. In the pre-1920s, it revolutionized the way production activities were being undertaken in factories with the introduction of scientific management. In the post-1920s, computer technology has revolutionized education, science, manufacturing, exploration, ERP, communication, and virtually all other aspects of social life. Conversely, society influences how technology develops. For example, in the pre-1920s, technology was greatly influenced by the need to enhance capitalistic production systems. In the post-1920s, it was influenced a lot by ideas relating to ERP. This shows that technological determinism and social determinism are two sides of the same coin. Society has influenced technology as much as technology has influenced society; none can exist without the other.


Ceruzzi, P (2005), ‘Moore’s Law and Technological Determinism: Reflections on the History of Technology’, Technology and Culture, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 584-593.

Chung, S (2000), ‘ERP adoption: A technological evolution approach’, International Journal of Agile Management Systems, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 24 – 32.

Fleck, J (2001), ‘Technology, the Technology Complex and the Paradox of Technological Determinism’, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 523-531.

Grant, D (2006), ‘The false promise of technological determinism: The case of enterprise resource planning systems’, New Technology, Work and Employment, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 2–15.

Harris, M (2006), ‘F. W. Taylor and the legacies of systemization’, Information, Communication & Society, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 109-120.

Leonardi, P (2008), ‘Materiality and change: Challenges to building a better theory about technology and organizing’, Information and Organization, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 159–176.

MacKenzie, D (2004), The social shaping of technology (3rd ed.), Routledge, London.

Mowschowitz, A (1994), ‘Virtual organization: A vision of management in the information age’, The Information Society, vol. 10, pp. 267-288.

Ross, J (2000), ‘The ERP Revolution: Surviving vs. Thriving’, Information Systems Frontiers, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 233-241.

Smith,M (2008), Does technology drive history?: The dilemma of technological determinism, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Taylor, F (1911), The Principles of Scientific Management, Harper & Brothers, Detroit.

Zammuto, R, Griffith, T, Majchrzak, A, Dougherty, D & Faraj, S (2007), ‘Information Technology and the changing fabric of organization’, Organization Science, vol. 18, no. 5, pp. 749-762.

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