Masthead CMC Magazine / February 1, 1996
 Hopes and Horrors, by Rob Kling

The Social Production of Technologically Utopian Materials

Technological utopian and anti-utopian analyses of computing do not "just appear" in journals, magazines, and books. Their production and publication has some social organization, although not a simple one. Firms marketing their services and products through advertisements, product brochures, and broadcasting is one kind of large-scale social process which couples utopian imagery and computerization. Typical business journalism is also a systematic source.

Let's take a simple journalistic example. The editorial staff of a business magazine may agree that an article about the ways that work is changing in "virtual offices' would appeal to an important segment of readers. The reporter might have a few weeks to read some background materials and contact a set of people who might be plausible experts for more details and lively quotes before she writes her story. She might develop a list which includes managers firms which have reputedly created reduced their physical office space and created some virtual offices, consultants who advise about these business practices, and professors who are developing advanced versions of possibly relevant technologies, such as computer conferencing systems. Many of these informants have an interest in putting a positive spin on virtual offices. If the managers are willing to be quoted, they would like their firms to appear well managed in the magazine story. The professors believe in the potential contributions of their technologies, and would like to stimulate more interest in them. So they will also emphasize interesting ways to organize with them. The consultants might like their names in the article to help stimulate new business for them. They have an interest in suggesting that virtual offices can be tricky to organize well, but that they can be good and productive workplaces with the right consultant on-hand to provide wise advice. The reporter, would like to publish an engaging story and business reporters often seem to push for short vivid quotes (sometimes called soundbites in television).

Business reporters often produce stories with a technologically-utopian spin, like the selection by Stewart about electronic commerce, out of a research process like this. It's an exciting story about a possible business trend. The reporter will usually strive to construct the story within a frame that readers can readily grasp. Technological utopianism and technological anti-utopianism are two such frames whose conventions readers can readily grasp.

In addition to advertising and journalism, there is a third important large scale social process that results in numerous books and articles about computerization that are framed in technologically utopian terms. "Computerization movements" refer to loosely organized collections of groups that promote specific forms of computerization, such as computer networking or instructional computing.

Computerization movements are like other kinds of movements that engage people in diverse organized activities with an interest in gaining broader support: political movements, like the civil rights movement; art movements, like surrealism; religious movements, like fundamentalist Christianity. Certainly, political, art, and religious movements differ in their public goals, the ways that they recruit members, their collective activities and so on. But they share important commonalities. They also give us insights into sources of technologically utopian and anti-utopian writings written by professionals (in addition to ad copy and journalism). In the last selection "Computerization Movements and Tales of Technological Utopianism," Suzanne Iacono and I examine these sources in some detail. We examine two computerization movements--computer-based education and computer networking. But we could have examined other computerization movements as well, such as those which promote digital libraries or artificial intelligence. One of the surprising aspects of our analysis is that we treat these technologies as the products of social movements rather than only as the products of research labs and industrial firms.

Technological utopian and anti-utopian visions embody extreme assumptions about technology and human behavior. They portray new technologies as either extremely pure and innocent or as hopelessly corrupting. But the simplicity of these storylines gives them great clarity and makes them easy to grasp--to enjoy or to abhor--and to serve as a source of inspiration or despair. They can resonate with our dreams or nightmares. Consequently, they have immense influence in shaping the discussions (and real directions) of computerization.

As we approach the year 2000, there will be a large market for social analyses of computerization stimulated by:

  • the steady stream of computing innovations;

  • the drive by academic computer science departments and Federal funding agencies to justify large expenditures on computing research;

  • justifications for major national computerization programs, such as expanding the National Information Infrastructure; and

  • articles examining life and technology in the 21st century.

Many social analyses of computing that appear in popular and professional magazines, as well as in newspapers and the trade press, will be strongly influenced by technologically utopian assumptions. Consequently, sophisticated professionals and researchers should be specially aware of the --strengths and limitations of this genre of analysis.


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