Professor Adam Joinson, University of the West of England
Technological determinism and behaviour change
When Samsung launched its new Smartphone in early 2014 – the S5 – the head of technical product management at Samsung, Kyle Brown, told the Guardian “Everyone wants to be healthier, but most don’t have enough time for it, so the S5 can now do it for you” .
While the idea that we can outsource our wellbeing to a gadget is clearly preposterous, the general approach of technological determinism is gaining advocates at a rapid pace. In the field of studies of technology – at least over the last few decades - there had been a steady move away from deterministic approaches to the impact of technology on behaviour in favour of a socio-technical perspective. From this standpoint, the impact of a technology on behaviour is a product of both the technology and the human user.
From a socio-technical perspective, a tool (or technology) can influence people’s behaviour only when it works in conjunction with their own psychological motivations or needs. So, sleep monitors don’t improve people’s sleep patterns without supporting an intervention at the human level. The invention of the microwave oven only changed our practices in the kitchen because of an assemblage of other factors, including refrigeration and changing working patterns.
However, the draw of easy solutions to large-scale social problems means that technological determinism remains attractive. For instance, Susan Greenfield has warned  that social media – in particular on mobile devices – is not only influencing people’s behaviour, but also their brains. This provides an easy fix for the perceived moral problems and lack of empathy amongst young people – simply remove or limit their access to social media.
In the health promotion field, the idea that a simple technological ‘fix’ can address seemingly intractable problems such as obesity or heart disease is naturally appealing. The BBC, for example, report that “hi-tech sensors aim to prevent obesity’ , while inflatable airbags and new forms of lighting promise to save the lives of cyclists . In both cases, the technological solution is imbibed with seemingly magical powers to not only change the users behaviour (in the case of obesity), but also that of others who pose the most severe threat to the user (i.e. drivers of motorized vehicles, in the case of cyclist safety).
That isn’t to say that technology can (and does) have wide-ranging effects on people’s behaviour. Rather, it is rare for a technology to have predictable effects on people. While historically we can identify the role of the stirrup on medieval warfare (and the rise of feudalism, potentially ), or the importance of the writing on the nature of knowledge acquisition ), in neither case is it likely that the nature of these transformations was predictable without the benefit of hindsight. Indeed, the words of Lao Tzu, a Chinese Poet writing in the 6th Century BC, "Those who have knowledge, don't predict. Those who predict, don't have knowledge” reflect the view of Neil Postman  that while the effects of technology are not inevitable, they are always unpredictable:
'The Frankenstein Syndrome: One creates a machine
for a particular and limited purpose. But once the machine is built, we discover, always to our surprise - that it has ideas of its own; that it is quite capable not only of changing our habits but... of changing our habits of mind' (Postman 1983, p. 23)
So, while technology may be useful in changing people’s behaviour, don’t expect it to do so in ways that were predicted, or indeed desirable.
 White, L. T. (1964). Medieval technology and social change. No. 79. Oxford University Press, USA, 1964.
 Ong, W. J. (1986). Writing is a technology that restructures thought. In Baumann, G. (Ed.), The Written Word: Literacy in Transition (pp. 23-50). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
 Postman, Neil (1983): The Disappearance of Childhood. London: W H. Allen
Dr Laura Haynes, Capita
A practitioner’s view of the future: Using behavioural science to redesign public services
Four years ago I gave several talks on the theme, “Behaviour Change & Policy: Boom or Bust”. In policy circles, our discipline was at risk of becoming just another faded fad - we needed less rhapsodising about the promise of nudge & behaviour change, and more demonstrations of their practical value to real world policy. Since then, the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team and others have gone some way to achieving this, creating an appetite among local authorities, government departments, and companies for “behavioural insights”. Even the White House has set up their own “Nudge Unit” equivalent.
We are now at another crossroads. We need to push the boundaries again, or risk being side-lined as practitioners who “tinker around the edges” (changing a signature location here, rewriting a letter there), and researchers who call for forever more research activity to understand mechanisms of change.
We need to create opportunities for our research to inspire lower cost public services that deliver better outcomes for citizens because we only fund activity that “works”. Spending on adult social care is one of local government’s biggest burning platforms. How would you redesign adult social care provision around prevention and early intervention to deliver better outcomes at lower cost?
We need to seize opportunities to tackle the big social problems with the practical rigour which few other disciplines offer. Within the criminal justice system, how would you redesign the probation service to reduce reoffending rates?
I’m working to embed behaviour change at the heart of how Capita delivers services. Capita is a major provider of customer –facing services to government and the private sector. We are contracted to transform and run services from end-to-end, thus we can transform the way they are delivered. My talk will explore how this creates the potential for “behaviour change” to crack some of the big social challenges of the 21st century.