DOS as an institution

MS DOS Command Promt

Trevor Pinch writes nicely on DOS as an institution while highlighting neo institutionalism’s skimpy regard for technology. Here is the meat and potatoes:

The new institutionalism in sociology has surprisingly little to say about the topic of technology. Walter Powell and Paul Dimaggio’s 1991 edited collection, The New Institutionalism in Organizational Theory, despite paying lip service to the need to address the material and symbolic aspects of institutions and the occasional references en passant to technology, fails to analyze technology except in that it provides a background technical environment where organizations exist. Typical is the piece by Meyer and Rown where technology is a source of “myth binding on organizations” (Meyer and Rown, p. 45 in Powell and Dimagggio 1991). One of the few exceptions in the volume that gives more attention to technology provides a nice way into thinking about this topic in relation to institutions. Ronald Jepperson gives the example of a microcomputer’s basic operating system (DOS) that he says “appears to be a social institution relative to its word-processing program (especially to a software engineer)” (Jepperson in Powell and Dimaggio 1991: 146). This example caught my eye because it is one of the few instances where a piece of technology is explicitly described as an institution. For Jepperson and the other sociologists writing in that book, institutions are taken to be sets of rules or patterns whereby social actions ands practices are ordered. To be institutionalized, actions and practices must be reproducible.

For Jepperson, DOS provides a highly constraining set of rules—the way the software interacts with the hardware of the computer is prescribed and proscribed by DOS while a word processing program allows the user to write in many different ways. DOS is actually a nice example of a technological institution because today the possibility to run programs in DOS has all but vanished for most users. Nevertheless we are still constrained by this operating system that is now embedded within other programs like Windows. Because DOS has becomes less visible the institution is actually more powerful. The embedding or freezing of choices within scientific and technical systems, what the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard calls phenomenotechnique, makes technology actually one of the most powerful institutions in Jepperson’s sense we as social scientists face. It is because social choices appear to have vanished from technologies, or are so deeply embedded within technical structures that they become invisible to all but the technical experts, that technologies are powerful institutions.

My italics. I like this because it is an experience most pre-millenial computer users will recognise. This notion of social choices vanishing behind the user interfaces of technologies is useful to consider, particularly as we digitise our social network and commit more of our lives to the cloud. We make these choices consciously today, but how soon before the decision points are forgotten.

Reference: Pinch, T., 2008. Technology and institutions: living in a material world. Theory and Society, 37(5), pp.461–483.