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

Technological Utopianism in Visions of Specific Contexts

Many of the books and articles which are infused with technological utopianism focus on some specific segment of society--such as home, schools, factories, or libraries, or upon specific technologies--such as computer networks or virtual reality.

The first selection, "2001: A Meetings Odyssey" by Ross Weiland examines how new forms of virtual video conferencing might enable people to have cross-country business meetings from their desktops. Or they might even videoconference from their bedrooms and appear in business clothes to everyone else who is tuned in. Weiland vividly portrays a way that this technology might be used, and emphasizes the benefits of this technology and others that he expects to see developed in the next decade. But he mentions potential problems in these words:

"While the techno-types are working to perfect a brand-new field of applied science, sociologists worry about the human element: What about the loss of human contact? What about the employer's enhanced capability to monitor a person's work? Such concerns may well slow the acceptance of desktop videoconferencing. But like the fax and the PC before it, we will embrace this technology in the near future and ask a familiar question: How did we do business without it?

A picture, even a live-action video, may never substitute for a site inspection. But imagine using these capabilities to conduct a meeting from your desk. Wouldn't you think twice if the alternative were an arduous and costly trip by air?"

One of the distinctive features of Weiland's analysis is illustrated in this brief excerpt. He mentions potential problems of desktop conferencing, such as tightening surveillance over people's activities at work. But he doesn't examine them seriously. Rather he trivializes them into minor worries that people will just "get over." People who have become accustomed to new technologies often won't want to return to older forms: inevitably the refrigerator replaces the ice box, the flush toilet replaces the outhouse, the computerized word processor and spell checker replace the typewriter and pen, and so on. But many technological advances are not simple substitutions. For example, we did not simply replace horses and mules with cars and trucks. We have configured an elaborate system of motorized transport, including new roads, traffic regulations, gas stations, repair shops, insurance, and so on. In many cities, cars come first, and pedestrians come second. But many city planners have been finding ways to design downtowns, shopping centers, and residential neighborhoods so that people can walk, drive cars or even bicycle without feeling unsafe. One hallmark of Weiland's technological utopianism is his unwillingness to acknowledge and examine how desktop conferencing can be done badly, and how deploying these technologies in a humane way may entail important kinds of social designs as well as hot technologies. Weiland's analysis is but one illustration of technological utopianism. There are some important technological utopian analysis which emphasize a good life for almost all participants, for example, by democratizing access to important technologies such as computer networks. --

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