The Autonomy of Technology: Do Courts Control Technology or Do They Just Legitimize its Social Acceptance?

Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, Forthcoming

16 Pages Posted: 16 Jun 2007

See all articles by Jennifer A. Chandler

Jennifer A. Chandler

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section


This article draws on the suggestion that modern technology is "autonomous," in that our social control mechanisms are largely ineffective to control technology, and instead merely adapt society to integrate new technologies. As social control mechanisms, our legal institutions can be examined for consistency with this suggestion. In this article, I raise a working hypothesis that judges, through various private law principles, tend systematically to support and legitimize novel technologies within society. I have selected three case studies to support this hypothesis by showing that courts sometimes (a) characterize harm as flowing not from a technology that actually alters the world but from a rejection of that technology, (b) require parties seeking compensation for serious injury to submit to medical technology that they do not wish to undergo for genuine reasons of fear or moral objection, and (c) whittle away at fundamental theoretical principles of the law in order to promote efficiency in mass production and distribution. Admittedly, I have selected only cases that support the hypothesis in one way or another, but having hopefully raised a question worthy of further study, I hope in future work to look for counter-examples and to conduct a more complete assessment of the hypothesis.

Keywords: law, control of technology, Ellul, tort law, contract law, common law, judges

Suggested Citation

Chandler, Jennifer A., The Autonomy of Technology: Do Courts Control Technology or Do They Just Legitimize its Social Acceptance?. Available at SSRN:

Jennifer A. Chandler (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur Street
Ottawa, K1N 6N5
613-562-5800 ext. 3286 (Phone)
613-562-5124 (Fax)

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