Computerization Movements and Tales of Technological Utopianism
Computerization Movements and Tales of Technological Utopianism Suzanne Iacono, Boston University ([email protected]) Rob Kling, University of California, Irvine ([email protected]) January 8, 1995 (Draft 4) For: Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices. 2nd Ed: Rob Kling (Ed). Academic Press, 1995. Copyright, 1994. Suzanne Iacono and Rob Kling. Note: This article may be circulated for non- commercial purposes. Please contact the authors or compare it with the final published version before quoting directly.
1993 was a watershed year for the promotion of communications networks and computer technologies in the United States. President Clinton and Vice President Gore linked America's destiny with the creation of the National Information Infrastructure (NII), a vision of universal access to seamless computer networks and unlimited amounts of information. The NII is a new concept for transforming the lives of American people and revitalizing the economy (White House, 1993). It promises to "unleash an information revolution that will change forever the way people live, work and interact with each other." While high-speed computer networks, including the Internet, and related information technologies have been widely used and written about by computer specialists for many years, a recent explosion of articles in the popular press has raised public awareness and interest in the transforming potential of networked forms of social life. Ordinary citizens, as well as those with special interests in business or education, now resonate with the government's framing of a national agenda to network the nation.
This national campaign to promulgate social change through the Internet and other communications networks is also stimulated by organizations whose members have long-standing interests in the development of networking standards and other issues related to security, reliability and civil liberties. Organizations such as the Internet Society (ISOC), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), and the Center for Civic Networking (CCN) render new technologies socially meaningful to the general public and advocate positions in national debates about computing policy.
Beyond such organizations, there are coalitions of organizations, such as the Federation of American Research Networks (FARNET), an association whose members include Internet service providers, telecommunications companies and equipment vendors, and the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), a professional group which is supported by three associations of academic institutions, EDUCOM, CAUSE, and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). While the members and leaders of these diverse groups do not agree on many issues (similar to differences among the members and leaders of various environmental groups), they are generally united in preferring a computerized future premised on universal access over one that would perpetuate the gap between the information haves and the information have-nots.
Participation in these organizations has grown considerably in the last several years. People who had previously expressed little interest in computer networking often want to be on the net even if they don't know exactly what it is or what being on it will do for them. For example, the Vice-President has promised to connect every classroom, public library and health clinic to the NII. Many school administrators and teachers eagerly seek to be connected, even though they are not sure what kinds of materials will actually be available for improving education. But being on the net has become an important symbol of progress and accessibility. Even the President and Vice-President have electronic mail boxes and the White House recently announced a home page on the World Wide Web. While some people may be drawn to the excitement and transformational possibilities of computer networking, others may simply fear being left out of an important new social capability.
This discussion of the campaign to promote computer networking illustrates how the spread of these technologies is not simply the byproduct of ambitious marketing departments in high-tech companies. The government, media, grass-roots organizations and coalitions of organizations all communicate favorable links between computerization and a transformed social order which help legitimate relatively high levels of computing investment for many potential adopters. While the specific goals of these organizations and coalitions vary, they all envision an extensively computerized future that is deemed preferable to the less computerized world in which we currently live.
Our argument challenges the belief that the adoption of communications networks and computer technologies is based solely on fine-grained rational calculations about how a technology fits a set of tasks and the relative costs of alternatives. The mobilization of support for extensive computerization through loosely organized, but purposive, collective action does not mean that computer technologies are not useful to people and organizations. Many computer systems have arguably made organizations more effective and efficient. But large expenditures on the latest equipment and systems are often out of proportion for the attained value while social costs are typically ignored. What this suggests is that computerization has important social and cultural dimensions that are often neglected in discussions of the rise of computer-based technologies and networking.
For example, the U.S. government's promise of universal access to the NII and societal renewal through technology resonates with key American beliefs about equal opportunity and the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. The government, and others, construct utopian tales about these technologies to render them socially meaningful and to mobilize large-scale support. If the goal of the NII is to revitalize the economy or enhance equal opportunity, who can disagree? Despite the fact that goals such as economic renewal are complex problems which continually elude us, people's hopes are renewed by the promise of new technology. In fact, however, we know little about how computer networking will be deployed, who will benefit and who will lose.
The belief that computing fosters positive forms of social life glosses over deep social and value conflicts that social change can precipitate. Conflicts of interest among groups such as labor, government, and higher education, between workers and their managers, or between students and teachers are ignored. Sacrifices that might accompany the attainment of these goals, such as displaced workers or teachers, are portrayed as minor unavoidable consequences. Instead, computer technologies are linked to all socially valuable behavior and are singled out as the panacea for all social problems. We refer to these kinds of ideas and the literatures that embrace them as "tales of technological utopianism." They are easily spotted by the common, often unexamined, assertion that computing technologies are the single most important vehicles for moving us out of the "dark ages" and into the 21st century. Such utopian accounts are bloodless, portraying social change without reference to the battles staged and the consequent winners and losers.
This paper is organized in the following way: in the next section, we present several competing explanations for why the U.S. is rapidly computerizing. Then, we describe the processes by which computerization movements persist and recruit members. Next, we illustrate these processes by focusing on two specific computerization movements, computer-based education and computer networking. We then discuss why the emergence of a counter computerization movement is unlikely and make some conclusions regarding the elite status of computerization in the U.S. today.
Why is the United States Rapidly Computerizing?
Computerization is the process of developing, implementing and using computer systems for activities such as teaching, accounting, writing, or designing circuits, for example. Local actors make social choices about the levels of appropriate investment, access to equipment and expertise, as well as technical choices about what kinds of hardware and software will be available. Many professionals, managers, educators, and students are rapidly adopting computing systems, while puzzling about ways to organize positive forms of social life around them. By the early 1990s, computing and telecommunications accounted for half of the capital investments made by private firms (Dunlop & Kling, 1991). The latest U.S. Census Bureau numbers indicate that one-third of American workers used a computer at work in 1989, up from one-quarter in 1984 (Kominski, 1991). Today, the Internet comprises over 31,000 interconnected networks with 2.5 million computers attached (Wallich, 1994). Over twenty million people currently have access to the Internet and it is growing at a rate of one million new users a month (Leiner, 1994). However, the most fervent advocates of computerization have argued that the actual pace of computerization in schools, offices, factories, and homes is still too slow (Feigenbaum & McCorduck, 1983; Hodas, (this volume); Lidtke & Moursand, 1993; Papert, 1980; Yourdon, 1986; also see Kaplan, 1983).
Why is the United States rapidly computerizing? One common answer argues that computer-based technologies are adopted because they are efficient economic substitutes for labor or older technologies (Simon, 1977; Rule & Attewell, 1991). Rapid computerization is simply a byproduct of the availability of cost-effective computing technologies. A variant of this answer views computerization as an efficient tool through which monopoly capitalists control their suppliers and markets, and by which managers tighten their control over workers and the labor process (Braverman, 1975; Mowshowitz, 1976; Shaiken, 1985).
A second type of answer focuses on major epochal social transformations and argues that the United States is shifting from a society where industrial activity dominates to one in which information processing dominates (Bell, 1979). Computer-based technologies are power tools for information or knowledge workers in the same way that drill presses were the power-tools for the machinists of the industrial age (Strassman, 1985).
These answers depend on two kinds of social actors: computer vendors who devise and manufacture products for sale and consumers (often managers or organizational decision-makers) who purchase computer systems and services because they meet an instrumental need which can be determined by examining task structures or specific organizational functions. Social influences from other environmental actors, such as colleagues, trade associations for the computing industry, professional societies, regulatory agencies, and the numerous journalists who write about innovations in computing are assumed to play minor roles. In addition, the subjective meanings that people attribute to computing, e.g., their value as cultural symbols, are considered insignificant. This viewpoint has a strong grounding in both the traditional bureaucratic view of organizations in American sociology, and in conventional economic analysis.
While each of these responses offers insight into computerization processes, we believe that they ignore some of the broadly noneconomic dimensions of computerization in industrialized countries. The market assumptions of these common answers have also shaped the majority of social studies of computerization (See Kling, 1980, 1987 for a detailed review of the empirical studies of computerization). Over the past 15 years, our own research and participant experiences have taught us that the adoption, acquisition, installation and operation of computer-based systems are often much more socially charged than the adoption and operation of other equipment, like telephone systems, photocopiers, air conditioners, or elevators. Participants are often highly mobilized to adopt and adapt to particular computing arrangements through collective activities that take place both inside and external to computerizing organizations (Kling & Iacono, 1984; 1988).
We argue that the rise of computer technologies and networking is due to collective action similar to that of other social movements, such as the environmental movement, the antitobacco movement, the movement against drinking and driving, or the woman's movement, for example. While each has its own particular goals, e.g., clean air, elimination of smoking in public places, reduced traffic accidents and deaths from drunk driving, or equality of opportunity, they all focus on correcting some situation to which they object or changing the circumstances for a group that suffers some sort of social disadvantage (Gamson, 1975). Similarly, advocates of computerization focus on the creation of a new revolutionary, world order where people and organizations use state-of-the art computing equipment and the physical limitations of time and space are overcome.
Not all movements are successful, however. Social movement success has variously been defined as: social acceptance, the accrual of new advantages, the creation of new social policies or the implementation of new laws (Gamson, 1975). Still other analysts argue that the most important outcome of a social movement is a shift in public perception. For example, the movement against drinking and driving and affiliated organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have shifted public perception about "killer drunks" so that state legislatures have raised the legal age for drinking alcoholic beverages and lowered the acceptable level of blood alcohol for drivers with little controversy or debate.
Similarly, organizations affiliated with computer networking, such as CNI and CNN, as well as writers and the popular press, have attempted to shift public perceptions about computing technologies. Until recently, computer networking was the province of serious scientists, nerds, hackers and hobbyists. But new magazines, such as Wired and ComputerLife, and writers, such as Rheingold (1993), emphasize the "cool," often counter-cultural, side of computer networking. Their articles focus on new-found freedoms, the loosening of regulated behaviors or the emergence of long-distance common-interest communities. Multi-user games and chat rooms allow participants to take on identities from other epochs or from fiction and play out their fantasies in virtual night clubs and hot tubs (Quittner, 1994). Enthusiasts of virtual communities argue that computer networking allows people to expand their circle of friends and affiliate with them at a community level (Rheingold, 1993). While virtual hot tubbing and virtual communities are less visible than a march on a state or national capital, similar to other social movements, these activities challenge the status quo and offer alternative visions of utopian social arrangements.
In this paper we examine how computerization movements advance computerization in ways that go beyond the effect of advertising and direct sales by the industries that produce and sell computer-based technologies and services. Our main thesis is that participants in computerization movements, along with the media and the state, emphasize technological progress and deflect competing beliefs, laying a foundation for social visions that include the extensive use of advanced computer systems. In this vision, computer users actively seek and acquire the best computer technologies and adopt to them regardless of their associated costs. These processes also frame adopters' expectations about what they should use computing for and how they should envision the future. In the next sections, we focus our attention upon the character of computerization movements and their organizing beliefs, paying less attention to the ways in which social movements serve as social worlds for participants.
Sociologists have used the concept movement to refer to many different kinds of collective action. The most common term found in this literature is social movement, often used in a generic way to refer to movements in general. But sociologists also have written about professional movements (Bucher & Strauss, 1961), artistic movements, and scientific movements (Aronson, 1984; Star, in press). What analyses of these movements share is a focus on the rise of organized, insurgent action to displace or overcome the status quo and establish a new way of life. Computerization movements (CMs) are no different. Large-scale computerization projects are typically accompanied by political struggle and turmoil as the established structure is threatened and powerful actors fear being displaced (Kling & Iacono, 1984; 1988). Historically, those who advocate radically new forms of computerization find themselves in the role of challengers of the status quo.
Our analysis of the development and maintenance of CMs is focused on two key processes: 1.) the ways in which movements persist over time through Computerization Movement Organizations (CMOs); and 2.) the ways in which computerization movements recruit participants.
Computerization Movement Organizations
In order for any social movement to persist over time, pioneering activists create more enduring organizational structures than those embodied in emergent and informal groups. These organizations are entities capable of taking social action. They can raise money, mobilize resources, hold meetings and formulate positions (Gamson, 1975). For example, the Moral Majority (an organization in the Christian Right) raised 2.2 million dollars via mass mailing campaigns during its initial year. These funds were used to appeal to other religious conservatives and to tie them into the organization's network (Snow et al., 1986).
Similarly, CMs persist over time with the help of Computerization Movement Organizations. These are organizations or coalitions of organizations like FARNET, CNI and CNN which act as advocacy groups for the CM. They generate resources, structure membership expectations, educate the public and ensure the presence of recognized leaders who can lend their prestige and interorganizational connections to the movement (McAdam, 1982; McCarthy & Zald, 1977). For example, CNI has task force members from 170 institutions and organizations, including major universities and corporations, all of whom contribute resources and time to the mission of the coalition.
Since movements are not monolithic, they may have any number of organizations affiliated with them. For example, the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s consisted of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Black Muslims, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Black Panthers, among others (McAdam, 1982). Each had its own particular interests to push and under some circumstances worked with the other organizations to achieve their goals. In other cases, these organizations were in direct conflict about strategies and insurgent tactics. Similarly, the CMOs affiliated with computerization movements have different foci. During periods of crisis or opportunity, they may work in concert with each other. For example, the NII has galvanized many CMOs to form coalitions to insure a bigger voice in national policy. At other times they may be in direct conflict with each other.
The number of CMOs affiliated with a CM is not constant across time and space. Some time periods are more favorable than others, due to resource availability and historical conditions. Beginning in 1990 with the growth of NSFNET and the passage of the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991, more resources became available and CMOs dedicated to computer-based education and networking flourished. In addition, some geographical regions, such as San Francisco Bay/Silicon Valley and Boston/Cambridge, are hotbeds of innovation and centers of CM activity due to the proximity of multiple universities, research centers, high-tech startups and large numbers of computing specialists. Relational networks and professional associations are plentiful in these areas, fostering social intercourse across organizations and the emergence of new CMOs. Recruitment to Computerization Movements
The primary resources of all social movements are members, leaders, and some form of communication network. Shared beliefs are communicated along these networks and lines of action are advocated. For example, organizations may learn about and implement the latest computer architectures because their members belong to professional associations that recommend them. Alternatively, friends, classmates and family members may be avid Internet users and mobilize individuals to participate.
Since the social significance of technologies, like the Clipper Chip, multi-user dungeons or hypermedia, are often obscure, uncertain or uninterpretable, most people depend on the analyses of their friends, known or self-described experts, government officials and CM entrepreneurs to interpret, frame and attribute meaning to them (Snow et al., 1986; Snow & Benford, 1988). CMOs undertake much of this framing work for constituents by amplifying current problems, interpreting events, and emphasizing the advantages of a transformed social order, where computerization and networking are central, over the current arrangements. Once these frames become publicly available, people can align their own beliefs and actions with those of movement entrepreneurs.
A rhetorical form, which we call technological utopianism, is a key framing device used by movement entrepreneurs to envision the renewal of society through technology. Specific technologies, such as groupware or personal digital assistants, are key enabling elements of utopian visions (Dunlop & Kling, 1991; Kling, 1994). Technological utopianism does not refer to the technologies themselves. It refers to analyses in which the use of specific technologies plays a key role in shaping an ideal or perfect world. For example, the Executive Summary of the NII: Agenda for Action (White House, 1993) asks readers to imagine a world where people can live anywhere and telecommute to work, where everyone has access to the best teachers via virtual classrooms, and where health care is available on-line. With little or no articulation of the underlying technologies, the costs associated with actually implementing such a vision, or the political struggles that will certainly ensue, the government invites public identification with and participation in the mobilization of support for the expansion of computer networking into every facet of people's lives -- in their homes, workplaces, and schools.
Thus far, we have focused on positive identification with new technologies and the rhetoric that accompanies it. But, negative identification with technology is also available, although somewhat less widespread today than in the past. Technological anti-utopianism analyses examine how certain broad families of technologies facilitate a new world order which is relentlessly harsh, destructive and miserable. For example, technologies embedded with artificial intelligence (AI) are common focal points for science fiction scenarios where humans have lost control to machines (cf., Gibson, 1984). Alternatively, the dark side of computerization can be seen in the cyberpunk movement, i.e., the hackers, crackers, and phone phreaks who exploit the weaknesses of telecommunications systems. Cyberpunks wreak havoc, engaging in hacking for profit (Edwards, 1991), espionage (Stoll, 1989) or the pure pleasure of it (Hafner & Markoff, 1991). Whether portrayed as science fiction or actual exploits, anti-utopian analyses focus on the central role of computerization in the emergence of a dystopian future.
Technological utopianism and anti-utopianism signify distinct poles in the framing and interpreting of large-scale computerization projects and what they might mean to the people that will experience them. While actual outcomes of past computerization projects have fallen somewhere in-between the two extremes, these visions serve to either galvanize support for or the rejection of an extensively computerized future. In the next section, we focus on the beliefs and goals of two specific computerization movements, computer-based education and computer networking, and the CMOs and recruitment processes which enable them. Specific movements are the various wings or submovements of a broader, general movement (Blumer, 1969). Many movements, like those that advance the Christian Right, Eastern religions, antitobacco interests or computerization, are heterogeneous. The distinction between specific movements and general movements helps us to characterize the relationship between a general computerization movement and some specific or distinct wings of the larger movement.
Specific Computerization Movements
One theme in our discussion of computerization and the specific movements that help produce it is the importance of seeing how local practices and concerns, in schools, homes or communities, are linked to external developments. By distinguishing between a general CM and several specific CMs, we want to draw attention to how similar conceptions about modes of computerization found across many organizations or social settings should be understood. The rise of computing in general can be characterized as steady over the past thirty to forty years with recent large growth. Similarly, the two specific computerization movements that we investigate here, computer-based education and computer networking, are particularly interesting because of their recent exponential growth. For lack of space, we do not focus on other computerization movements such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and personal computing which we have written about elsewhere (Kling and Iacono, 1988; in press.) In addition, we expect that new CMs will continue to emerge as new technologies are developed. If this were a book length document, we could, at length, list the major CMOs in each of these movements and describe their members and communications. We could sample their publications, topics from their conferences, describe their meetings, and excerpt keynote speeches and reports. Instead, our descriptions of computer-based education and computer networking will be suggestive rather than definitive.
Computer-based education refers to both specific technologies, such as computer-assisted instruction (CAI) programs, and the social arrangements in which they are embedded, e.g., wired universities and virtual classrooms. Technologies for computer-based education include a broad array of applications such as computer-based simulations, tutorials, and courseware. Advanced graphics capabilities, hypermedia, and object-oriented features allow animation, charts and tables to be linked by professors in presentations or by students in computer labs. During classroom lectures, systems can be connected to student response keypads allowing for instant feedback. The key belief is that interaction and dynamic adaptation of course materials will maintain student interest, improve retention and enhance the learning process.
The social arrangements for computer-based education include all levels, from pre-school to college to life-long learning, and all forums, from classrooms to research labs to the Library of Congress and art museums (White House, 1993). In the mid-1980s, several private colleges and universities required all their incoming students to buy a specific kind of microcomputer to use at school. Other schools invested heavily in visions of a wired campus, increasing computer lab space and wiring the dorms, libraries and study areas for network connections. There was also a major push to establish computer literacy and computer science as required topics in the nation's elementary and secondary schools. In the mid-1990s, virtual classrooms have become the focus, enabled by computer conferencing, digital libraries, distance teaming, and global networking. These new instructional vehicles are being promoted and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and the NII. The President's Fiscal Year 1994 budget included $1.1 billion for the High Performance Computing and Communications Initiative, including $100 million to develop applications in areas such as education, health and digital libraries, and $50 million for NTIA grants to demonstrate application of the NII for non-profit institutions such as schools and libraries.
To mobilize support and generate resources for enabling these large-scale visions at the local level, partnerships and collaboration among business, government, school and the community are encouraged. Advocates of these social changes argue that students will become active learners and information managers rather than passive receptacles of information transferred to them from the teacher (Hodas, this volume). At the same time, the role of educators will be expanded as they collaborate with other educators around the world and move from a "chalk and talk " type of education format to one where they act as facilitators, trainers and innovators. Thus, along with the push for increased computerization in educational settings, this CM advocates a major shift in core beliefs about what students and teachers actually do in the classroom and what constitutes learning.
This CM is very far ranging and includes numerous organizations which promote special projects, publish enthusiastic reports, and sponsor periodic conferences. Brief descriptions of two CM organizations, CoSN and CNI, suggest the scale of this CM. The Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), was founded in 1990 to "promote the creation of and access to information resources in networked environments in order to enrich scholarship and to enhance intellectual productivity." It is a joint project of the Association for Research Libraries, CAUSE, and EDUCOM. CNI's members are organizations, and it currently includes over 170 colleges, universities, publishers, network service providers, computer hardware and system companies, library networks and organizations, and public and state libraries. CNI sponsors several working groups. For example, one group called for descriptions to identify "projects that use networking and networked information resources and services in the broadest possible ways to support and enhance teaching and learning (Coalition Working Group on Teaching and Learning, 1993)." This public call for descriptions also noted:
The Coalition will use the project descriptions it receives in response to this call: (1) to build a database that can be used to share information and experience in this area; (2) to promote awareness of individuals, institutions, and organizations making important contributions to the state-of-the-art in this area; (3) to attract attention to and mobilize resources for this area; (4) to plan a program in this area for the EDUCOM...conference in Cincinnati...and (5) to otherwise encourage individuals, institutions, and organizations to use networks and networked information resources and services to support and enhance teaching and learning.
The organizers of this call are not timid in making their interests in mobilizing support for network applications very explicit. In order to mobilize more commitment and loyalty to their cause, they encourage people with experience to share information about their own projects and to network with others who are interested but less experienced.
The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a non-profit membership organization, is working with FARNET to develop a model for the information-age school, one that incorporates communications and computer technologies in a new culture of active learning. They are promoting the use of electronic networks as resources for kindergarten through high school. Their long-term vision is of a transformed educational system with empowered teachers and involved communities, and of students educated to succeed in the workplaces of the 21st century.
The Clinton administration supports this approach arguing that what people earn depends on what they learn. Consequently, the NII is dedicated to preparing children for the fast-paced workplace of the 21st century (White House, 1993). This approach emphasizes the preparation of students for new work which will require problem-solving skills and creativity rather than order- taking and narrowly defined specializations. Examples of programs that focus on the acquisition of these types of skills include the Global Laboratory Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Texas Education Network (TENET). The Global Laboratory Project is funded by the NSF and links students from 101 schools in 27 states and 17 foreign countries in a global environmental monitoring study. TENET makes the Internet available to Texas school districts. School children, especially those in remote or impoverished school districts, are expected to benefit from the additional resources and access to distant learning opportunities. These schools without walls are utopian visions of education transformed. Despite their actual usefulness to the students and teachers in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Texas, they may do little to change education in the U.S. or alleviate critical problems, such as illiteracy, high school dropout rates, and inner-city school violence.
Mobilized by the belief that more computerization is better, coalitions of administrators, teachers, and parents are banding together to push for extensive computerization in classroom settings and a basic shift in the educational programs in public schools, universities and libraries. Advocates of computer-based education promote utopian images of information-age schools where students learn in cooperative, discovery-oriented settings and where all teachers can be supportive, enthusiastic mentors (Kling, 1986). In fact, however, the deployment of technology in schools has generally not affected the day-to-day values and practices of teachers and students due to its threat to the existing social order (Hodas, this volume). But utopian visions resonate with parents, teachers and school administrators who are concerned about how education will meet the challenges of the future.
The computer networking movement encompasses a wide range of domains, some of which overlap computer-based education. For example, the computer-based education movement currently advocates extensive network links across schools, libraries, art museums and research centers. The computer networking CM pushes this vision even further, advocating the weaving together of all institutional sectors into one giant electronic web. This web is sometimes referred to as cyberspace, a term first used by Gibson (1984) in his science fiction novel, Neuromancer, to describe the electronic realm where the novel's action took place. Today, we use the term to refer to the place where all social interactions via computer networks take place.
Prior to 1990, the physical manifestation of cyberspace was the Internet and the primary users were government employees, research scientists, and other academics in research universities and centers throughout the United States and western Europe. The Internet started as an ARPA demonstration project on internetworking in the early 1970s (Kahn, 1994). After splitting off from MILNET (the military network), ARPA Internet became known as the Internet. The National Science Foundation (NSF) paid for new computer science sites to be added to the Internet through CSNET (the Computer Science Network) and then commissioned the NSFNET to link NSF-funded supercomputer centers across the United States. The Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) built HEPNET (high energy physics net), SPAN (space physics analysis net), ESNET (energy sciences net), and NSI (NASA science internet), all used primarily by research, academic and government communities.
In the last few years two related events have helped strengthen the public appeal of the Internet: the expansion and growing commercialization of the Internet and the promotion of technological support for the NII by the Clinton administration. These actions have already expanded the range of Internet services to most universities and colleges, many libraries, and some elementary and secondary schools. Government subsidy and other resources generated by CMOs along with strong advocacy about the transformational capacity of computerization by the media and popular magazines help to fuel the increasing demands for computer networking.
While most users connect to the Internet through work or school, situations where the institution bears the financial burden, increasingly people are willing to pay for Internet connections out of their own pockets. Today, PCs can be found in over 26% of U.S. households and many of them are connected to local computer bulletin boards, on-line services or the Internet (Brody, 1992). In 1992, New York City had two providers of public Internet access. In 1993, there were seven. More people have been connected to the Internet in the last two years than in the previous twenty. It is currently estimated that approximately four million homes in the United States are now connected to some type of on-line service and these numbers are growing daily (Eng & Lewyn, 1994). Current scenarios of home use portray exciting social interactions with distant people and places, primarily in the guise of entertainment, home shopping and group game playing. The NII: Agenda for Action (White House, 1993) states, "You could see the hottest video games, or bank and shop from the comfort of your home whenever you chose." Although the Clinton administration consistently advocates universal access and affordable prices for users, today only the rich can afford the equipment and network connections required to be online.
A less entertaining but nonetheless utopian vision of computer networking focuses on uses that empower and preserve the public interest. Several networking CMOs, like the Society for Electronic Access (SEA), and the Center for Civic Networking (CNN) have focused attention on grass roots networks and the recreation of civic life. The first civic network was the Community Memory in Berkeley, California, started in the mid-1970s to strengthen and revitalize the Berkeley community (Schuler, 1994). Today, over 100 civic networks are planned or are currently in operation in the United States. They include the Cleveland Free-Net (Ohio), Big Sky Telegraph (Montana), Electronic Cafe International (Santa Monica, CA), and the Cambridge (MA) Civic Forum, all based in and run by local communities in partnership with networking CMOs. Global civil networks have also emerged. Examples include PeaceNet, EcoNet, GreenNet and ConflictNet, all of which are dedicated to peace, human rights, and environmental preservation. In 1990, these networks with the support of the MacArthur, Ford, and General Service foundations and the United Nations Development Program established the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) with partners in ten countries and affiliated systems in many other countries (Frederick, 1993).
The goal of participants in these civic networks is to make information flows more democratic, break down power hierarchies, and circumvent information monopolies. At the local level, city- and region-wide citizen dialogue is considered critical to the development of innovative solutions for the improvement of government services, industrial competitiveness and a revitalized democracy. At the global level, network enthusiasts argue that the present flow of world news is too regulated. Five news agencies around the world control about 96 percent of the world's news flows (Mowlana, 1986). By providing low cost appropriate solutions, APC networks can democratize cyberspace and provide an effective counter-balance to trends in corporate control of the world's information flows.
Computer networks are central to utopian accounts of the next wave of human culture where much of life is spent on-line. Participants are referred to as settlers or homesteaders (Rheingold, 1993). Specialists are portrayed as cowboys with keyboards rather than six-guns. Exciting images of life at the frontier propel many into participation. Networking activists imply that there are no limits to what can be done in cyberspace by downplaying the actual costs of new technologies and the continuing benefits of physical forms of social interaction. Other media for learning, socializing, working, or revitalizing the community are treated as less important. Real life is life on-line. The physical world is relegated to IRL (in real life) or life off-line (Rheingold, 1993).
The beliefs and strategies advocated by the two CMs have changed over the past several decades. But both have moved in the direction of increasing computerization and networked forms of social arrangements. Helping to fuel this momentum are utopian visions that downplay the actual social choices that can constrain or inhibit institutions from making such large-scale changes and the political challenges that will certainly accompany them. These CMs require enormous resources and their orientation is sufficiently elitist that one might expect some systematic progressive alternative to it. In the next section, we focus on some organizations that have emerged to serve the public interest and which participate in the forming of national policy about computerization. We also discuss the challenges associated with the development of a general movement to counter computerization.
We have argued that CMs generally advance the interests of elite groups in society because of the relatively high costs of developing, using, and maintaining computer-based technologies. This pattern leads us to ask whether CMs could advance the interests of poorer groups or whether there are counter-movements which oppose the general CM. Many CM activists bridle at these questions. They do not necessarily value helping the rich or perceive themselves as part of the elite. In our fieldwork we have found that CM advocates more frequently see themselves as fighting existing institutional arrangements and working with inadequate resources. While many CM participants may have non-elite opinions and beliefs, they must develop coalitions with elite groups in order to gain the necessary financial and social resources to computerize with their preferred arrangements. Given this elite status, one might expect a counter-computerization movement (CCM) to have emerged.
There is no well-organized opposition or substantial alternative, however. Such a movement would have to rest on technologically anti-utopian visions of computerization in social life. Societies or groups which have adopted anti-utopian visions, such as the Amish in the U.S. or the Luddites during the Industrial Revolution, are typically marginalized and not considered as viable models of future social life. However, some writers are clearly hostile to whole modalities of computerization (Berry, 1991; Braverman, 1975: Mowshowitz, 1976; Reinecke, 1984; Weizenbaum, 1976). These writers differ substantially in their bases of criticism, from the Frankfurt School of critical theory (Weizenbaum) to Marxism (Mowshowitz, Braverman) to conservationism (Wendell Berry).
Today, the major alternatives to CMs come from relatively new and specialized advocacy groups such as Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). CPSR emerged out of a Xerox/PARC antiwar distribution list in 1981 with an original mission to oppose certain kinds of computer-based weapons technologies such as the Strategic Defense Initiative. Today, it is a national organization of computer professionals with 22 chapters and a much broader focus on public issues and computerization, e.g., workplace democracy, civil liberties issues in networking, and broad public access to national computer networks. CPSR has become an active participant in national policy negotiations about information technology policy and currently sponsors action-oriented research to shape social change and social responsibility (cf., CPSR, 1994).
The EFF is a small organization started in 1990 by Mitch Kapor and John Perry Barlow. They argued that long-time advocacy groups such as the ACLU were not taking seriously the violation of electronic publishers' and crackers' civil rights. The Secret Service paid scant attention to due process in their late night raids and confiscation of computer equipment. The EFF supported the accused and continues to support similar litigation, fund educational projects, protect the public interest and insure that the Bill of Rights is extended to include computer and network users.
Long-term advocacy groups such as the ACLU and other social movements, such as the anti-war movement, have tended to focus more narrowly on the specific areas where technology intersects their central concerns. For example, the ACLU has developed long-term projects in the area of technology and privacy while peace activists have criticized new technologies that they view as making war more likely. Union spokesmen are especially concerned about how computerization affects the number and quality of jobs (Shaiken, 1985). However, they are all relatively mute about many other kinds of computing applications. As a consequence, each of these reform movements is relatively weak and specialized, leaving many arenas of computerization still unexamined and unprotected.
During periods of crisis or opportunity, members of these groups may cooperate. For example, the EFF, CPSR and the ACLU, among others, are responsible for shifting public opinion against a hardware encryption device, the Clipper Chip -- now called Skipjack due to a trademark conflict -- that they believe is potentially harmful. They have emphasized its role in the government's ability to conduct surveillance on the telecommunications activities of American citizens. Computing activists such as John Perry Barlow and Mitch Kapor have framed the technical, political and policy issues involved so that its use is seen as potentially dangerous to privacy rights and other civil liberties. People who before knew little about encryption, are encouraged to think negatively about it and to join the EFF or CPSR to reassert "control over their own government (Barlow, 1993:26)."
Some groups have argued that the EFF effort in regards to the NII is too narrow and they have organized to reach a wider base of public support. The Telecommunications Policy Roundtable, for example, is a coalition of organizations, including the Center for Media Education (CME), American Library Association (ALA), CPSR, ARL, and CCN. They are interested in assuring that upscale elite groups associated with the Internet are not the only groups involved in its development. Their goal is to give consumers and low-income persons more voice and power in the policy making process, to build ties among the various groups and to motivate them to broaden their scope and work together.
In part, the NII has stimulated these groups to form coalitions to insure more say in the development of national policy and the deployment of resources. They view appropriate computerization as something other than the most technologically sophisticated computer use at any price. Some of these groups are trying to envision computer use which is shaped by other values--such as the improvement of human life and the preservation of civil rights. While these groups challenge the most avid computerization enthusiasts, their missions can not be characterized as counter computerization. The general drift in most sectors of American society today is towards increased and intensive computerization with CMs playing the major enabling roles.
We have argued that the computerization of many facets of life in the United States has been stimulated by a set of loosely linked computerization movements guided by mobilizing belief systems offered by activists who are not directly employed in the computer and related industries (Kling, 1983). We have characterized computerization movements by their organizations and the ways in which they recruit new members. In particular, a rhetorical form, which we call technological utopianism, is a key framing device for portraying societal renewal through technology and allowing people, many of whom know little about computing, to identify with the goals of the movement. Our analysis differs from most analyses of computerization by considering movements which cut across society as important sources of interpretations and beliefs about what computing is good for and what social actions people should take to secure the future they envision.
A primary resource for all movements are members, leaders and communications networks. Academics like Daniel Bell, popular writers like Howard Rheingold, and the White House stimulate enthusiasm for the general computerization movement and provide organizing rationales (e.g., transition to a new information society, participation in virtual communities, and societal renewal) for unbounded computerization. Much of the enthusiasm to computerize is a byproduct of this writing and other visions of technological utopianism. Not every computerization movement thrives and the members are selectively influential. We believe that when one studies the sites where new computing applications are being adopted, it is common to find the influences of computerization movements. Members of the adopting organizations or people who consult to them are likely to belong (or have belonged) to a number of organizations which promote that form of computerization.
Computerization movements play a role in trying to persuade their audiences to accept an ideology that favors everybody adopting state-of-the-art computer equipment in specific social sectors. There are many ways to computerize, and each emphasizes different social values (Kling, 1983). While computerization is rife with value conflicts, activists rarely explain the value and resource commitments which accompany their dreams. And they encourage people and organizations to invest in the latest computer-based equipment rather than paying equal or greater attention to the ways that social life can and should be organized around whatever means are currently available. With the recent and notable exceptions discussed in the previous section, activists provide few useful guiding ideas about ways to computerize humanely.
There is unlikely to be a general counter computerization movement, although some organizations, like CPSR and EFF, have emerged with some interest in the humanistic elements central to the mobilization of computing in the United States. But more frequently, humanistic beliefs are laid onto computerization schemes by advocates of other social movements: the labor movement (Shaiken, 1985), the peace movement, or the civil liberties movement (Burnham, 1983). Advocates of the other movements primarily care about the way some schemes for computerization intersect their special social interest. They advocate limited alternatives but no comprehensive, humanistic alternative to the general computerization movement. In its most likely form, the rise of computer technologies and networks, while promising technological utopias for all, will lead to conservative social arrangements, reinforcing the patterns of an elite dominated, stratified society.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Leigh Star for her continuing enthusiasm about this project. Jonathan Grudin has been a stimulating discussant about social movements and new forms of computerization. Vincent Janowicz, Paul Hower and WooYoung Chung made helpful comments which made this chapter more readable and provocative.
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