Monday, May 24, 2021

Flipping the Script: When do technologies disrupt morality?

Answer: when they flip the social script.

Technologies change how humans perform tasks. Consider what I am doing right now. I’m typing words onto a screen using word processing software. Later, I plan to publish these words on a website where they can be accessed by all and sundry. This is a very different way of writing and sharing one’s thoughts than was the historical norm. If I was living in Europe in, say, the 1600s, I would probably first write out these words by hand using paper and ink, then, if I was lucky and wealthy enough, I might pay to have them printed up as a pamphlet. I would then hand out at that pamphlet at street corners and public meetings.

But just because technologies change how humans perform tasks, it does not follow that they will be morally or socially disruptive. Some changes in what we do don’t have substantive ripple effects on our social relations and social organisation. For that to happen, technologies have to do more than simply change what we do; they have to change how we relate to one another.

That, at any rate, is one of the arguments developed by Stephen Barley in his research on technological change in the workplace. Barley argues that it is only when technologies disrupt our ‘role relations’ that they have substantial impacts on the normative and bureaucratic frameworks in which we live out our lives. Barley’s empirical research focuses almost entirely on technology in the workplace, but I think his research has broader lessons. In particular, I think it can help us to distinguish between technology that changes some day-to-day behaviours from technology that is truly morally disruptive, i.e. capable of changing our social-moral beliefs and practices.

I will develop this argument in the remainder of this article. I do so, first, by outlining the explanatory framework that Barley uses. I will then consider a practical illustration of this explanatory framework drawn from Barley’s research. I will conclude by considering the broader lessons that can be learned from this framework when it comes to understanding technology-induced moral disruption.

1. The Explanatory Framework: All the World’s a Stage…

Let’s consider the explanatory framework. One of my favourite bits of Shakespeare is Jaques “All the world’s a stage…” speech from As You Like It. The speech suggests that human life is a bit like a drama played out in seven acts. We play different roles in each act (the infant, the school-boy, the soldier, the lover etc) and hence our life can be said to follow a script. Of course, Shakespeare’s particular conception of the different roles we play is somewhat limited, and the main focus of the speech is on the ageing process, not necessarily the complexity of human social interactions. Still, the speech is memorable because it seems to capture something true about the human condition. Human life has a dramaturgical aspect to it.

It’s no surprise then to learn that social psychologists and sociologists have developed a dramaturgical theory of human social life. Barley draws from this in his research, taking particular inspiration from the work of Erving Goffman. The essence of the dramaturgical theory is quite straightforward. Humans encounter each other in different contexts in social life — the school, the restaurant, the workplace and so on. In these different contexts we play different roles — the pupil, the waiter, the boss. When doing so, we tend to follow a social script that tells us how we ought to behave. This is not a literal script, handed to us so that we can learn our part. It is, rather, something that we learn through imitation and observation. We see that there is a structured pattern to each social encounter. If we disrupt the script, and try to play a different part, then this can cause anxiety and unease, even if sometimes the disruption is warranted.

One of the classic examples of this dramaturgical theory is the interaction between a waiter and a customer at a restaurant. When you enter a restaurant, you expect your interaction with the waiter to play out in a certain way. You expect to be shown to your table. You expect to be handed the menu. You expect to be asked if you would like anything to drink before you order your food. And so on. If a waiter disrupted the script and asked you what you would like for dessert before you sat down, you would find this very strange.

The dramaturgical theory can be pushed quite far. Each social encounter can be said to play out on a stage. This stage is the physical and material environment in which the actors meet (e.g. the restaurant). The actors sometimes use props in their encounter (e.g. menus, notebooks to record orders and so on). There are also other supporting actors that can influence the interaction (your dinner companions; the chefs in the kitchen).

How does this relate to technology and social disruption? Barley’s research is about technology in the workplace. Drawing from the dramaturgical theory, he argues that workplaces are usually organised around roles and scripts. When you take up a particular job, you are given a role within an organisation. This organisation will occupy a physical stage of some kind (this is true even if it is a digital or remote workplace — more on this in a moment). It will consist of many supporting actors playing other roles. Each of these actors will follow scripts set down by organisational rules and habits.

Technology can have a profound effect on all of this. When you are playing out your role, you may have to use or interact with some new bit of technology. This could be part of the new material environment of the workplace or a prop that you rely upon to play your part. This can change how you play your part. Sometimes the effect might be minimal, only changing what you do but not how you interact with others. Sometimes the change can be more significant, affecting how you interact with other roles and how they interact with you. When this happens, the roles may need to be redefined and the script altered.

Barley’s main contention is that it is only when technology affects role relations (i.e. interactions between different the different social roles) that we see the more disruptive changes to workplace norms and organisational rules. Indeed, some of the most disruptive changes arise when technology alters the entire stage upon which the social interaction plays out. When this happens the actors scramble to figure out new roles and new scripts that fit the new stage.

2. The Impact of the Internet on Car Dealerships

Barley has studied the organisational impact of technology on a range of workplaces over the years. His typical mode of inquiry is ethnographic in nature, i.e. detailed on-site shadowing and observations, coupled with interviews. I’m just going to consider one of his case studies here: the impact of internet sales on car dealerships. I find this case study to be informative, in part because it shows how a technology can completely disrupt the social script associated with a workplace activity.

The focus of Barley’s study is on car sales in the US, specifically California. The traditional script — the one that long predated internet sales — is one that is baked into the American popular consciousness. Barley argues that there are three ‘acts’ to this script. In the first act, the customer would arrive at a car dealership and start to look around. They would be greeted by a salesperson (all male in Barley’s study). The salesperson would engage in lots of smalltalk, trying to build rapport with the customer, sometimes even lying in the process. As Barley puts it:

… if the salesman noted a car seat in the customer’s car, he would ask if the customer had a child and then inquire about its age. The salesman would then either profess to have a child of roughly the same age or reminisce about when his children were that age (sometimes even if he was childless) 
(Barley 2020, 56)

The goal of this first act was to ‘land’ a customer on a car and get them to agree to a test drive. Some customers would bow out at this point. If not, things would proceed to the second act: the test drive itself. This was a short act, typically lasting about 15 minutes, during which the salesperson would accompany the customer, point out all the features of the car, and answer any questions.

Upon return to the car dealership, the third act would begin. The customer would be invited to a back office to ‘complete the paperwork’. Again, some customers would bow out at this point. If not, the customer and the salesperson would haggle over the price of the vehicle. This act tended to be the most adversarial. The salesperson would insist there was a price below which they could not go. If the customer insisted on a lower price, the salesperson would sometimes leave the office to ‘consult’ with the sales manager. There was often an extended delay as a result, with the explicit goal of building suspense and anxiety for the customer. The salesperson would sometimes return with the manager, who would put additional pressure on the customer to purchase the car. Oftentimes, the salesperson would do things to up the ante, suggesting that they could not guarantee the negotiated price beyond today. The customer, for their part, could also engage in various negotiating tactics, threatening to take their business to another dealer or even disparaging the salesperson to their face. Overall, the tenor of these interactions could be quite unpleasant and tense:

In many cases, the interaction between the customers and salesmen became strained. It was not uncommon for one party to insult the other. Many negotiations, therefore, never reached an agreed-upon price and, hence, a deal. However, if a deal was struck, the atmosphere became less tense… 
(Barley 2020, 57)


What is noticeable about this traditional script is how formulaic it often was (standard talking points and negotiating tricks) and also how negative it seemed to be from the customer’s perspective. Customers often saw salespeople as sleazy and dishonest. They often brought negotiating partners with them (family, friends) to counterbalance the onslaught from the dealers.

The internet changed this. By the early 2000s, most dealers had extensive web catalogues of the cars they sold and also back office internet sales teams. An entirely new stage was set for the process of buying a car. Customers would first browse through the online catalogue, looking at various options, oftentimes armed with knowledge from other websites about makes and models. If they liked something, the website would encourage them to send an email notification that would be followed up with a sales call from the dealership (many online sales processes follow this model). Once they did this, a new script, with two acts to it, would play out.

The first act took place entirely over the phone. The salesperson would talk to the customer about their preferred make and model and give them a price quotation (sometimes they would just leave voice messages that may or may not be followed up by the customer). The price quotation during this phase of the discussion was remarkably honest. The salesperson would tell the customer how much the dealer paid for the vehicle and how much profit they wished to make on the sale. The purchase price quoted was, in Barley’s study, ‘always accurate’ and the profit was relatively minimal, often no more than a few hundred dollars per vehicle. If the customer disputed the price and suggested that another dealer was offering the same make and model at a cheaper price, the salesperson would do one of two things: (i) point out that the customer was mistaken (because the make and model were not the same) or (ii) tell the customer to purchase the vehicle from this other dealer. There was never any haggling over price and none of the standard negotiating tactics were used by the internet salespeople.

If the customer was still interested in the car, they would be invited to the dealership to look at the car, take a test drive and, if they wished, 'complete the paperwork'. This phase of the interaction was often straightforward. Customers that showed up to the dealership typically wanted to make a purchase. If they changed their mind after seeing the vehicle or taking it for a test drive, they would leave amicably. Overall, the atmosphere of the interactions was much more pleasant and much less tense. Customers, indeed, seemed to prefer internet sales in Barley’s study, finding the internet salespeople less ‘pushy’.

Why did this happen? The internet changed the stage for the social interaction and hence required a new script. It equalised the power differential between the salespeople and the customers. Customers were given the power to start the process and could easily terminate whenever they wished. Customers typically had more information at their fingertips (or at the end of online search) and salespeople couldn’t get away with the same pressure tactics that they employed during in-person negotiations:

…Internet salesmen [could not] avail themselves of supporting actors to create pressure on the customer to buy. Instead, the Internet salesmen had to work entirely with information contained in databases. Under these conditions, it would be disadvantageous for a salesman to misrepresent the data, because doing so would eventually undermine the sale… the Internet pushed the salesman to be highly factual and to forgo the stance of a negotiator to sell vehicles successfully. 
(Barley 2020, 63)


Another way of putting it: the internet transformed car sales from a margin business — in which the goal was to maximise profit on each sale — to a volume business — in which the goal was to maximise sales. The customer benefitted from this technologically-mediated disruption (at least in the dealerships that Barley studied).

3. Lessons for Moral Disruption

As should be obvious from the preceding description, the technological disruption caused by the internet to car sales changed social moral beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Car sales no longer depended on perceived dishonesty, hard bargaining and inequality of power. Instead, honesty and relative equality ruled the day. 

This is a welcome form of moral disruption. The traditional process was unpleasant, possibly harmful from the customer’s perspective and arguably corrosive to the virtue of salespeople. No one would, I think, view the traditional salesperson as the paragon of virtue, at least in their professional lives (they may have been wonderfully virtuous in other respects).

But this is just one case study. Are there any general lessons to be learned? Is Barley right to say that technology is most disruptive when it affects role relations? Could we take Barley’s explanatory framework, apply it to other contexts, and, perhaps, predict the possible direction of technologically-mediated moral disruption? Let me conclude by trying to answer some of these questions.

First, is it true that technology is most disruptive when it affects role relations and not simply tasks? I think this is true, at least to some extent. In previous writings, I have endorsed Michael Tomasello’s theory of the origins of human social morality. In brief, Tomasello (following a philosopher called Stephen Darwall) argues that human social morality is characterised by a ‘second personal’ psychology. We don’t just view the world from our own perspective but can switch perspective to that of other people with whom we interact. In Tomasello’s recounting, this second personal psychology is a role-based psychology. We see other people as occupying certain social roles and we expect them to behave in a manner that fits those roles. This generates concepts of duty and obligation — ‘If you occupy role X, then you ought to behave in manner Y”. If someone fails to live up to their role-related duties, then we develop reactive attitudes toward them. We get angry, upset, jealous, disappointed. This, in turn, can generate moral blame and condemnation.

If Tomasello’s theory is correct, then human social morality is a role-based morality. Our moral beliefs and attitudes centre on the roles that we and others perform. If those social roles get disrupted, and if the expected performances associated with them change, then it stands to reason that there will be greater disruption to social morality. This doesn’t mean that disruptions to role relations are the only thing that matters from a moral perspective, but they are one of the more significant forms of moral disruption.

That said, the concept of a role relation is a little fuzzy and figuring out whether a technology disrupts role relations can be tricky. In obvious cases of disruption — like those observed in car dealerships and internet sales — there may be little disagreement, but in other cases there may be some room for disagreement. Barley, for instance, insists that some technologies can change task performance without changing role relations, at least not in a significant way.

One of his go-to examples of this is the relationship between academics (professors, lecturers etc) and administrative assistants in universities (Barley 2020, 30). He points out that in the 1980s, administrative assistants used to type letters and documents for academics, in addition to performing many student-facing roles (answering queries etc). Nowadays, due to computerisation in the workplace, academics tend to do all their own typing and word processing. Administrative assistants have had to learn to work with new software programs to manage many of their day to day tasks, developing a new skills profile in the process. Yet, according to Barley, this has not had much of an impact on the relations between academics and administrative assistants:

... administrative assistants and faculty continue to have roughly the same relationship as they had in the past. There is no doubt about who has the greater status and who works for whom. 
(Barley 2020, 30)


This doesn’t ring true for me. I’ve worked in universities for over a decade now and have interacted with many administrative assistants, but I have never thought that I had a higher status to them or that they worked for me or on my behalf. I see us as involved in a common endeavour. Furthermore, while I do not depend on them for most of my day-to-day tasks, administrative assistants provide essential background support for the smooth functioning of the department in which I work. I don’t wish to learn how to use all the complicated web-based apps for managing finances and timetabling. They must do so as part of their jobs. As a result, if anything, I would suggest that the status of administrative assistants has grown.

But this comment from Barley may reveal an assumption that underlies some of his research, namely: that role relations are primarily power relations and ‘significant’ disruptions to them involve some change in the balance of power (this is based on reading two of his case studies; I have not read them all). I don’t see things the same way. Technology can also result in significant moral disruption if it changes what people expect of one another. It seems to me that this clearly has happened in the case of the relationship between academics and administrative assistants. I don’t think they have a standing obligation or duty to do my typing. It would be insulting if I asked them to do so. I can, however, expect them to help with timetabling and room bookings since they have the skills to manage the online platforms for these services. So, even if the power differential hasn’t changed, the moral expectations have.

Could we take Barley’s framework and apply it to other contexts? Of course we could. He and his colleagues have done so on several occasions. Other interesting applications of it (beyond the workplace) might include how technology has disrupted the relationship between politicians and constituents. Instead of relying on door-to-door canvassing and in-person clinics, politicians increasingly rely on social media broadcasts and web-based interactions. It seems obvious that this has changed the content and civility of those interactions to some extent. Likewise, the impact of technology on various human relationships (friendship and intimate relationships) is something I have considered in my own research. Technology can completely change the social script when it comes to those relationships. For instance, it can change how we find friends (online first instead of in person first), how we interact with them (zoom calls, texts and messaging groups instead of in-person meetups), and even who our friends might be (long distance friends, machine ‘friends’). I don’t believe that these technological changes to human relationships are necessarily good or bad, but it seems to me that they are quite disruptive of the previous social scripts.

Can we use this framework to predict the course of future moral disruptions? This is challenging. It seems unlikely that we could make precise predictions about future changes. A lot will depend on (a) the existing social script and role relations and (b) the nature of the technological disruption. Still, we might be able to predict some general patterns. If we go back to the power question, some technological disruptions can have an equalising power by removing advantages that one role has over another. Contrariwise, some disruptions may reinforce and compound existing inequalities. It is possible that we could predict these changes by carefully mapping the existing power relationships and the likely effect of certain technologies on the existing power differentials.

4. Conclusion

This brings me to the end of this article. To briefly recap, I have been looking at Stephen Barley’s explanatory framework for understanding how technology can lead to disruptive social change. Barley’s framework focuses on social scripts and social roles. His claim is that technology is at its most disruptive when it changes the social script and hence how different roles relate to one another. Although he applies this framework to the impact of technology on the workplace, I have argued that it can apply to the impact of technology on social morality. Why? Because social morality is, in large part, dependent on a role-based moral psychology. If we disrupt the roles, we disrupt our expectations of what we owe one another.

1 comment:

  1. Reproductive technologies are among those that have certainly changed the script... Anyway, it seems quite clear that tech changes human interaction and thus norms and your conclusion makes sense. I summarized this process in a blog post a while back. The truncated version:
    Technological change leads to
    Changes in ways people need to produce and distribute stuff, which lead to
    Changes in social power relationships, which lead to
    Changes in what is acceptable to believe is "natural" or "just" in social arrangements.
    With changes in power relations, transformative messages become "acceptable" to believe, rather than heretical, offensive or nonsensical (usually after backlashes and largely unnecessary suffering - witch burnings, civil wars, for example).
    You might find Ian Morris's Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels interesting, or Spar's Work Mate Marry Love.