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

Beyond Technological Utopianism and Anti-Utopianism

The selections and quotations introduce some of the controversies about the visions of computerization: To what extent are utopian or anti-utopian visions helpful in understanding the social possibilities of computerization? To what extent is social realism a more interesting and reliable guide to the future than the more utopian or anti-utopian visions? If one doesn't trust the anti-utopian or utopian visions, how does one develop a broad framework for asking questions about what should be done--what activities should be computerized, in what way, and with what associated practices?

Attractive alternatives to utopian and anti-utopian analyses should be more credible in characterizing conflict in a social order, the distribution of knowledge, the ways of solving problems that arise from new technologies. They should rest upon less deterministic logics of social change. Most important, they would identify the social contingencies that make technologies (un)workable and social changes that are benign or harmful for diverse groups.

"Social realism" refers to a genre which uses empirical data to examines computerization as it is actually practiced and experienced (Kling, 1994). Social realists write their articles and books with a tacit label: "I have carefully observed and examined computerization in some key social settings and I will tell you how it really is." The most common methods are those of journalism and the social sciences, such as critical inquiries, and ethnography. But the genre is best characterized by the efforts of authors to communicate their understanding of computerization as it "really works" based on reporting fine grained empirical detail. Social realism gains its force through gritty observations about the social worlds in which computer systems are used.

Social realist analyses often acknowledge complex patterns of social conflict, and yet are more open-ended and contingent than both genres of utopian analysis. In the following sections of this book, you will find many social realist analyses of computerization. --

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