The Socio-Tech Argument, Where Lies its Nature?

For the International Workshop on Socio-Technical Perspective in IS development (STPIS’20), @davidlhawk had responded to an invitation to submit a paper. The time difference – the conference was run in Estonian time – led to some challenges, so the presentation didn’t happen. I’ve got permission to repost the paper, here. [DI}

“The Socio-Tech Argument, Where Lies its Nature?”

David Hawk, Center for Corporate Rehabilitation; Fairfield, Iowa & Guangzhou China


Differences that Make a Difference

In 1950 considerable success came from reconsidering the differences between the nature of machines and of humans. This work was titled socio-tech systems thinking. It was initiated in response to troubles in the logic of asking humans to think and behave as machines, all consistent with Newtonian industrial thinking. This meeting raises a rethinking of current logic about machine operations relative to human values. It seems timely.

Redesign seems warranted in business operations that include expansion of information technologies to assist or control the business. At some point socio-natural systems thinking may be added to socio-tech systems thinking. This would be a good idea if we were interested in a better human future. A socio- natural perspective could add needed knowledge from growing problems in nature-human relations as they relate back to human-technical relations. The disharmonies in all have many things in common.


The logic of technical thinking seems to arise from Aristotelian logic. Early IT developers often referenced Aristotle’s logic as their point of departure. To examine this logic provides a window into information technology and to where it seems headed. Aristotle’s logical essence, as stated by the mathematician Bierce, was: “Logic, n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding…” [1]

  • [1] Bierce, Ambrose, The Devil’s Dictionary, New York: Hill and Wang, 1957, pp. 108-9.

The role of Aristotle’s logic is seen in the limits of the 1830s design of the mathematics of IT. [2] Later this raised concern about logic being a limitation as well as an asset. As well as important to IT, it was near to the heart of the industrial revolution and the design of the technical. The developers of socio-tech systems thinking of 1950, Eric Trist, Kurt Lewin,, examined this carefully, then criticized the Babbage thinking. They found his ideas to disenfranchise the leadership of the social. They designed a system of work where workers gained greater authority over themselves and the technical. The results were seen to raise productivity and human well-being.

  • [2] Babbage, Charles, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, London: Charles Knight, 1832, Chapter 14.

It seems timely to now re-examine that 1950s work in light of 2020 behavior in many companies at the socio-tech interface. It seems there is now a return to a high valuation granted the IT aspect of operations; higher than that given the social.

We might also want to add concerns for the natural relating to the social, and how the artificial is given prominence over the natural, as is the case with the social.

Information systems have now become the leading edge of the technological. As such, they define the artificial. Information systems now define the public and private sectors including education, politics, governance, business, economics, family, and community. The socio is now clearly organized by and around IT. Much of this is not in the interest of humans. It poses danger to systems of life. This shows up clearly in examining the current relationship between the socio and technical be it in the classroom, living room, office, city or farm. It seems that the technical, via IT, is seeking artificial intelligence to replace human lack of intelligence.

Researching Business as Usual to Initiate Business as Unusual

Innovative research into the socio-tech of IT is urgently needed. It can serve to guide changes in the human interface with information systems and redistribute control. Just now IT is treated as having omnipotent.

Continuing with development of current applications of information technology to humans is creating problems beyond the social and the technical. This is strangely like problems confronted in pre-1950 Europe. Back then a devastated Europe needed to rebuild its industrial, social, and food-production base. Emerging technologies were thought to be the answer. Sadly, the early applications of were seen to make the problems worse. Researchers like Kurt Lewin, Eric Trist,, entered the scene to see the problem as systemic and not susceptible to a tradition of reduction into bits and pieces based on causal thinking in science. They thus founded the socio-tech construct, via systems thinking and action research.

Their model of socio-tech systems thinking was found beneficial to integrating the dichotomies of rapid technological change as it then dictated rapid societal change. Trist, upon reflecting on a much earlier stage of development found use for leadership and managerial ideas associated with the “hunting party.” Such became his metaphor for rethinking the problem he was given and tapping into socio-tech potentials. Fundamental to this were the ideas of Lewin, especially Lewin’s model of action research. This encouraged learning from action, not from traditional private reflection. For Lewin then for Trist, research was a means to “look again, and for the first time, see.”

Definitional Basis:

“Socio,” of the human, is a phenomenon with bio-physical requirements (i.e., needs) linked to peculiar psycho-centric desires (i.e., wants). Humans fit with, fight with, and/or seek power over others thus they use social as essential to acting as human.

“Tech” differs. While also being crucial to ideas of control over what is out there, technology is accepted as fundamental to humans meeting human bio-needs. Later it becomes seen as essential to the meeting of psycho-driven wants. While tractors are essential to standardization of production of a diversity of food, the results come out with little diversity. Farmers are working on this dilemma. Nuclear bombs are thought essential to feelings of personal and national security, yet many humans cannot tolerate the stress of their existence. Each technology presents its own dichotomies.

Humans develop, modify, and organize their environments, including the other humans in them. This is to achieve desired but not necessarily desirable ends. Humans draw on the sociology of groups and couple them to the physics of mechanical, electrical, and chemical phenomena, all to meet personal ends. Therefore, humans come to think they must then manage others to accomplish their own ends. They often turn to new technology to achieve these ends. Technology becomes an ally in conflict with others, and self, but at a cost. As history illustrates, the technological is designed to assist in conflict, yet soon becomes problematic in the conflict. We now see this in 2020 development of Information technology, e.g., yahoo.

The Anatomy of Two Doorways into the Future:

We are presented with two openings into the future; to where we want to be: a) the social and b) the technical. They have returned from a 1950 resolution via the socio-tech to be a major dilemma to business and governance. Relations between the social and the technical are crucial to resolution of many human challenges in 2020. We must rise above the psycho in discussing their relations, just as Eric Trist, did in 1950 experiencing human degradation in coal mines using the latest technology of production. The Government had asked why the newly implemented “long-wall coal” technology ended in greatly reduced productivity and much higher injury and death of workers?

The widely accepted values of the technical over the social was accepted until the Trist projects. While they raised the value of the social, the technical seems to again be the control factor. This is illustrated in this recent quote:

“In this view, socio-technical principles are regarded as a means of helping to achieve the company’s objectives (particularly economic ones). Humanistic objectives are perceived as having limited inherent value, but if their achievement leads to better employee performance, and the company benefits as a result, then all well and good.”

The above quote illustrates the essence of where we, and much of Silicon Valley, now are relative to the concerns mentioned above. We need to now examine the intentions and values provided behind that quote.

Within the precepts of industrialization, and its capital costs, we often shift business emphasis to how best to soften the importance of the social in light of the needs of the industrial. This is clearly demonstrated in what we call the Al Dunlap approach to productivity. From designing more flexible machines for men to use we now design humans to be more flexible in their requirements. This is in line with the Babbage logic. From Aristotle to Leibnizian calculus the pathway for programming the artificial has become clear. Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts illustrated this in the basis of information technology management, as outlined in “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity.” (Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics 5, 1943, 115-133)

Thus, we are at the interface of the social and the technical where both have come to be defined by the logic of the technical, especially that from Aristotle. Later we encounter Newton’s interpretation of Leibnizian calculus.

The emphasis herein is with our reliance on a perspective of information technology that is decoupled from the social context which it attempts to manage. My fear is that we are again using the thinking that preceded the 1950 development of the socio-technical systems perspective. We seem more than willingly to apply the rules of the technological to the sociological in business. Just now we might look deeper into what was carried out in the 1950s to redress a world gone wrong.

The current Socio-Technical perspective seems opposite to the thinking of the founders of “socio-tech.” They, in the Sir Vickers sense, appreciated how the technological was assuming dominance in the operations of the social. Clearly, the technical needs to find reduced dominance in management thinking, in that the social could be better managed to achieve human ends of systems of life.

An Eric Trist 1983 Update on Socio-Tech, and warning of its future in IT

Early in the career of Bill Gates and Calvin Pava the two met. Pava was a graduate of Wharton, and then professor at Harvard. Gates was a student at Harvard. They became instant friends as both came to see a need to develop outside of Harvard. They spent much time Northern California vineyards and wine bars discussing the future of information technology relative to business and human conduct. Some of this found its way into a 1983 book by Pava. Calvin Pava’s mentor at Wharton, Eric Trist, was to write the forward but Cal was in such a hurry that the book got written and Trist’s forward became an afterword.

Therein Trist went into some depth on the socio-technical systems view of information technology. He feared, once again, that the technical would come to diminish the social and end up producing an economy with extreme income gaps between rich and poor and a lack of humanity all around.

This is part of the 1983 Trist commentary on socio-tech and its meaning for information technology:

“This is a far cry from the prevailing perspective, which concentrates attention so steadfastly on the technological aspect that what-so-ever the equipment makers propose is solemnly installed with the eager support of data processing and internal “systems” staffs. Absent is any informed scrutiny of organizational and social aspects, with untoward consequences: the creation at the lower levels of large numbers of poorly designed jobs which lower performance and increase alienation; failure to appreciate the subtle yet profound changes required in managerial and professional roles; the export on to the labor market of those made redundant without serious thought to their retraining or future place in society.”

This might be the right thread to post my question about Eric Trist and Kurt Lewin etc.

I tried to find papers, journal articles or books written by Eric Trist, Anatol Rapoport, Kurt Lewin and others such as Vickers etc. but they don’t seem to be found anywhere online. Are they only available in libraries or amazon etc?

I’d love to find books by Eric Trist or Anatol Rapoport since they would be very useful to me upon this quest for socio-tech systems.

Yes, these works are generally more likely to be available at university libraries, rather than public libraries. The best place to check for holdings is at .

Otherwise, there’s the used book marketplace worldwide, aggregated at .

The hardest books on systems thinking to find seem those to published by Intersystems Publications. They held a lot of promise in the 1970s, but then disappeared.

I have been fortunate to be an alumnus of the University of Toronto, where an identity card would permit me access into the book stacks that where I had spent a lot of time during undergraduate days. I can’t take any books out, but I can read them onsite … and then decide if they’re sufficiently valuable to purchase as used scholarly works.

I’ve also benefited by many years of scheduled visits to the Trinity College book sale, and the University College book sale, but in the age of pandemic, they’re unfortunately not likely to happen this fall.

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