Machine World

An eight-week course at the WEA – each session to last for two hours.

Dr. Anne Lorraine Scott


Many of the most important social, economic, cultural and political developments in the world today relate closely to the explosive developments in technology over the past few decades. This is the world that we are living in, and in my experience, everybody, and particularly young people, are fascinated by new technologies and their social implications. 

The primary focus of Machine Worldis to explore the social, economic and political implications of technology, especially new technologies. We will explore the many ways technologies co-create, co-structure and co-shape our economic, political, social and cultural world. Key issues for this course will be the changing nature of capitalism; changes to geopolitics and the nation-state; the effects of technological change on agriculture and the world food system; ecological consequences of new technologies; some social implications of modern biomedicine; and the changing nature of the labour market. Thus, this course will focus on macro social science – the large-scale processes, structures and developments which shape and influence our world.

This course will be run over a period of eight weeks, with each session lasting for two hours. I will provide one reading for students each week. Class sessions will involve a great deal of discussion, along with my presentation of some of the crucial research being done around each of these issues. We will include a break for snacks and informal discussion in each session.


A provisional programme:

  1. Technology is society made durable. The French anthropologist Bruno Latour has argued that technologies can be used to solidify and sustain socially created power relations. In examples ranging from the speed bump or judder bar as used by traffic authorities; to the use of military weapons including drones and depleted uranium to enforce a large nation’s geopolitical dominance; to the creation and maintenance of the prison industrial complex to discipline lower social classes; we will explore some of the many ways this process works in contemporary society. 
  2. McDonaldizing societyIn a famous argument, Canadian sociologist George Ritzer claimed that technology has been used to rationalize social processes, thus making predictability, efficiency, calculability and control central to processes of work and consumption. He called this process McDonaldization, and we will use Ritzer’s case study of the famous fast food restaurant chain to explore how it works. McDonaldization can lead to workers being deskilled; to mealtimes being decultured; and to speed being prioritised over food quality, individual diversity or the experience of enjoying a meal.  A beautifully written personal account of a visit to McDonalds by science and technologies studies theorist Susan Leigh Star explores in detail some of the personal implications of this process. 
  3. Identity and resistance in the Network Society Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells argues that the international order is being dramatically reshaped by global digital networks, which now organise most core human activities. Because digital networks are much denser in some places than others, new patterns of inequality have been created; some cities and regions are cosmopolitan powerhouses while other towns and regions – sometimes in the same country – are economically excluded and socially marginalised. Castells demonstrates that the Network Society can erode the many-layered and deep connections which once held local communities, tribes and peoples together. As a result, a backlash is now in full swing, taking forms which have been traditionally seen as right-wing, but also as left-wing. Ethnic hatred; religious fundamentalism; defensive nationalism; populism; environmental activism; anti-capitalist struggle; identity politics; trade wars; and community-based social movements are all similar in that all involve a process of defensive identity creation which seeks to protect local practices, traditions and communities against the hybridization and social atomization which can be created within cosmopolitan network spaces. We will discuss Brexit in Great Britain, Trumpism in the United States, and Hindu nationalism in Modi’s India.
  4. Industrial agriculture and the world food system:Four technological innovations have enabled industrial agriculture to go global. These are computer databasing and project management software; computer-mediated communication; long distance transport through container ships; air freight and lorry; and the lateral shape of transnational corporations using interfirm networking/ sub-contracting. These innovations have instigated the creation of a world food system based on global supply chains, corporate ownership and just-in-time production. Focusing on the world-wide trade in produce such as avocados, strawberries, pork and flowers, we will consider the implications of global industrial agriculture for the wellbeing of workers; ecological sustainability; food security; and quality of our produced food. 
  5. Corporate power and the “Green Revolution”:In this second session on industrial agriculture, we will focus on another set of technologies finding their place within large-scale farming. New crop varieties have emerged in the last half century which produce more, but also require greatly increased technological inputs in the form of licensed seeds; fertilisers; pesticides; and increased irrigation. A consequence of this “Green Revolution” has been to embed corporate control of the agricultural economy, pushing small farmers off the land. Another consequence has been to establish monoculture as the normal state of affairs in farming, leading to food insecurity for people who traditionally have lived off the land. A third consequence has been to reduce biodiversity, exhaust soil quality, and reduce water reserves over the long-term, setting up preconditions for future ecological collapse. In our case study, we will focus on the marketing and social impact of genetically-modified “terminator seeds” which do not self-reproduce, thus embedding farmers firmly within corporate supply chains. 
  6. Antibiotic resistance and the future of human health:In this final session on global agribusiness, we will explore the social implications of the widespread use of antibiotics within the industrial meat industry. We will also look at the way antibiotics have been developed, used and misused within biomedicine and the pharmaceutical industry. We are entering a new era, in which multi-drug resistant bacteria and fungal infections have re-emerged. What are the possible implications in contemporary society -- where many people are living in large, densely populated, cities; in which natural immunity has been reduced through a lack of exposure to pathogens within daily life; in which the overuse of antibiotics has denuded many people’s guts of the beneficial bacteria which naturally defend against infection; and in which traditional “grandmothers’ healing lore” has become less available to most people?  
  7. “Creative destruction” in the economy: automation and the future of work:In this session on the changing nature of capitalism, we will start by looking at the consequences of the 18thand 19thcentury Industrial Revolution for traditional artisan industries and the resistance to those changes by small-scale artisans. We will then apply this understanding to an exploration of possible consequences of what is now being called the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. The arrival of robotics in manufacturing; intelligent decision-making algorithms in professional occupations; and autonomous vehicles in transport; all portend a tsunami of change in the world of paid employment. We will explore arguments that these developments may lead to dramatic social polarization in the workforce, with a few people in highly-paid, creative and/ or managerial positions, while the large mass of workers are engaged in casualized and insecure forms of service work on the edges of a technologized economy.
  8. Farewell to the traditional commodity? Emerging forms of ownership: In this last session of the course, we will explore a more positive development; we are seeing the emergence of a “light-touch” form of ownership/ use of goods and services which draw on the social capacities created by digital technologies. Rather than making “products”, which are sold as commodities in the traditional marketplace, many contemporary companies are producing services or processes, which are shared through subscription to consumers on an as-needed basis. One possible consequence of this change is that in the future, we may all own a great deal less “stuff”, instead drawing on commonly held goods only as and when we need them. Our case study will focus on two fascinating recent developments: music streaming services such as Spotify; and digitally organised public transport – the Lime e-scooters of Christchurch.