Thursday, September 09, 2004

"Computer Revolution" Thought

In his book Cyborgs@Cyberspace, self-proclaimed 'Cyberspace Ethnographer' David Hakken tries to problematize the notion of 'Computer Revolution' thought. His main point is to say that while we might unanimously agree that the current revolution has the potential to 'foster social transformation,' there is little agreement (and even less evidence) on whether it has thus far done so.

In particular he objects to the notion that a revolution is an all or nothing proposition. As an alternative he proposes this alternative:
"CR Thought can be arrayed into the following propositions, that
  1. At the most expansive level, computerization will result in the End of the Human Age, the marginalization of even total transcendence of human society altogether;
  2. Somewhat less cosmically, computerization will mean the End of the Job, the creation of a fundamentally new type of human social formation;
  3. Even more soberly, computerization will only mean the End of Machinofacture, passage to a new stage within the same basic type of social formation; or
  4. Anticlimactically, computerization implies the End of Nothing Really Significant. The attraction of revolutionary language is primarily rhetorical, and computerization is best seen as merely another development within the same stage of the current social formation."
This is in some ways a recounting of our discussion in class regarding identifying the 2 (or 4, or 8, or 57) information revolutions. I like Hakken's treatment in particular because he seems to come down on the side of #4: that social formations are now (and will continue) to be like they have always been. As long as there have been innovations, people have be employing apocolyptic language to describe their effects. In understanding the problem of quality of information, I think it might be more useful to adopt proposition #4 because it forces us to focus on the socio-technical systems which surround information and the historical forces that have created them as they are today.


Blogger Joseph Lorenzo Hall said...

What about the Internet Archive's Internet Bookmobile[1]? In this epitome of the latest information revolution, we see the combination of a number of technologies (automobiles, satellite-based broadband, efficient scanning and printing of *entire* books on demand with a user interface that is superlingual).

There's just something inherently different about being able to instantaneously reach even a decent fraction of the humans on planet Earth with a technology implemented in a matter of decades, that's networkedly external.

The Internet et al is a very good *information* network... but still may be a pretty poor knowledge-dissemination network... but imagine what it would be like if it was (if it could be, that is).


11:01 PM  
Blogger Paul Duguid said...

John Perry Barlow's "Declaration of Independence", which Joe's earlier post points to, looks a prime candidate for the first of Hakken's categories. At the other end of the scale, and closer to Judd's socio-technical view and Hakken's category 4, is Jon Agar's book, The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History , which was reviewed recently on EH.NET by Roger Middleton.

Agar's title plays up the idea of revolution but the theme in many ways has more to do with continuity. His view is perhaps particularly British, as like Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray (Computer: A History of the Information Machine, NY: Basic Books, 1996), Agar situates the appearance of the computer within the increasing complexity of bureaucratic administration within a developing industrial and imperial society. (Campbell-Kelly and Aspay start with the 19th century railway clearing house; Agar looks at civil service administration.)

10:17 AM  
Blogger yardi said...

Perhaps I have a more pessimistic view of the computer revolution, but the 4 propositions Judd outlined made me think of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which warns of giving the state control over technology. Although the book's technologies are more related to the biotech field than computers, there are a lot of analogous scenarios - I think we need to study the quality of information from the other end of the scale, towards #1.
Of course, the book is written as a satire and is too extreme and unrealistic to have practical relevance to our study of information, yet certain parallels exist. Some examples: people playing computer games all day instead of interacting socially, lack of privacy (did you know that if you walk through Sproul plaza I can watch you from my computer and zoom in enough to identify you?, online chat rooms, child porn. I think these things suggest the beginnings of a new social formation that would put us somewhere between #2 and #3 on Judd's scale.
From this perspective, I would have to agree with those who grouped the first three information revolutions together in our class discussion. I don't believe that either the printing press or the telephone would have had the same effect of creating a new social formation.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Judd said...

Just an interesting side note on the perceived and actual effects of technology. Many people have assumed that the internet and IT have had a profoundly negative influence on sociability - that people are sitting inside playing games and chatting online instead of interacting with real people. Interestingly, the opposite appears to be true. People who are moderate or heavy computer and internet users also seem to be more social in more diverse ways. (See the web journal IT & Society, Issue 1)

10:18 AM  

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