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

Assumptions Underlying Stories About Computerization

Every year thousands of articles and dozens of books comment on the meaning of new computer technologies for people, organizations, and society. Much of the literature about computing describes emerging technologies and the ways they expand the limits of the possible. Faster, tinier computers can make it easier for people to find information from their homes and hotel rooms, as well as their offices or laboratories. Larger memories can make more data accessible. Richer display devices, which show lively video, colorful pictures, and text can make interacting with computers more of a reality for more people. Emerging higher speed networks can connect thousands of systems, providing communication links only dreamed of a decade ago. The remarkable improvement in the capabilities of computing equipment from one decade to the next excites researchers, developers, and entrepreneurs, as well as the battalions of journalists who document these events in newspapers and magazines. Yet, although we are frequently told that we are in the midst of a momentous "computer revolution", people who use the term rarely tell us precisely what it means.

Accounts of the powerful information processing capabilities of computer systems are usually central to many stories of computerization and social change. Authors write about these changes in technology and social life with different analytical and rhetorical strategies (Kling and Iacono, 1988; Kling and Iacono, 1990; Kling, 1994). Some authors enchant us with images of new technologies that offer exciting possibilities of manipulating large amounts of information rapidly with little effort--to enhance control, to create insights, to search for information, and to facilitate cooperative work between people. Terms like "virtual," "smart," and "intelligent" are often sprinkled through these accounts and help give them a buoyant image. [ []Chandler also comments on the tone of technological determinism. []Monberg comments on the claims made about information technology. ] Much less frequently, authors examine a darker social vision when any likely form of computerization will amplify human misery--people sacrificing their freedom to businesses and government agencies, people becoming very dependent on complex technologies that they don't comprehend, and sometimes the image of inadvertent global thermonuclear war.

Both the optimistic and the pessimistic stories of computerization are often crafted with the conventions of utopian and anti-utopian writing. The utopian and anti-utopian --genres of social analysis are about 500 years old, and predate the social sciences by about 350 years. Authors who write within these genres examine certain kinds of social possibilities, and usually extrapolate beyond contemporary technologies and social relationships. Utopian tales are devised to stimulate hope in future possibilities as well as actions to devise a self-fulfilling prophesy. In contrast, anti-utopian tales are devised to stimulate anger at horrible possibilities and actions to avoid disaster.

Although utopian visions often serve important roles in giving people a positive sense of direction, they can mislead when their architects exaggerate the likelihood of easy and desirable social changes. We are particularly interested in what can be learned, and how we can be misled, by a particular brand of utopian thought--technological utopianism. This line of analysis places the use of some specific technology--computers, nuclear energy, or low-energy low-impact technologies--as the central enabling element of a utopian vision. Sometimes people will casually refer to exotic technologies--like pocket computers that understand spoken language--as "utopian gadgets." Technological utopianism does not refer to a set of technologies. It refers to analyses in which the use of specific technologies plays a key role in shaping a utopian social vision in which their use easily makes life enchanting and liberating for nearly everyone. In contrast, technological anti-utopianism examines how certain broad families of technology facilitate a social order that is relentlessly harsh, destructive, and miserable. This section includes articles by Weiland, Stewart and Kelly which illustrate technological utopianism and articles by Birkerts and Winner which illustrate technological anti-utopianism. Technological utopianism is particularly influential in North America and often influences writing about new technologies.

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