Masthead CMC Magazine / February 1, 1996

Blinded by Science?

by John December

I often see the frenzy of interest in online communication technologies played out in the real world. On MTV, movie posters, and Wal-Mart circulars, I see URLs. In one car commercial, an actor says "I surf the Net... I'm on the Web.. I am cyberman!" And Digital Equipment has a television commercial in which business people navigate a huge machine of cogs turning in a dreamlike scene--Digital's metaphor for people considering business strategies on the Internet.

Perhaps I might be oversensitive to references to the Net in popular culture because I make my living describing online communication. But these references to me have an underlying subtext: this is what you need to do, this is your future. While the vast majority of the population has no clue about the Web--nor cares to--these references imply an attitude of how potent technology is in our lives.

Technological Determinism

One school of thought says that "if you build it, they will come." AT&T reflected this point of view in its long-running, "You will!" campaign. To me, that campaign reminded me again and again how AT&T seemed to overhype a potential technology (a variation on the picture phone, as telephone companies have been doing for decades), while at the same time ignore the reality of the Net. So instead of focusing on the real needs of people interested in online communication (try calling up an AT&T representative and ask for home access to the Internet, for example), their strategic plans were to try to create a market for products before they were created, all with the certainty that whatever products they would create, people would adopt and use them.

This kind of technological determinism can lead not only to poor business planning, but it can also lead to narrow research agendas, as Laura Gurak points out in her essay in this issue about broadening the CMC research stances.

But what is technological determinism? Daniel Chandler provides an overview in his essay in this issue. His web site on technological determinism also is a good introductory resource.

A central theme of technological determinism--the view that technology has a potency that shapes our lives--is fairly common. In fact, it is so common in much discussion about the Net, that it may seem very strange to think otherwise. The attitudes technological determinism implies are profound. Rob Kling analyzes utopian social visions and visions of computerized societies and explores what is beyond this dichotomy. John Monberg examines the banking industry's view of the future and what implications that has for defining a public. He shows how, by framing the study of information technology in terms of public, deeper, broader, more nuanced perspectives can be brought to bear on specific projects. And Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Jim Birckhead, David G. Green, and John S. Atkinson look at a new kind of colonization--an electronic one.

The Other Ground

I'm not sure that the sharp dichotomy of views about the potency of technology tells the whole story. Technology and people are both too complex and quirky to precisely map their influences on each other. I hope this issue of CMC Magazine can contribute a small part toward a process of debate that advances the idea that there are other views of technology. [TOC]

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