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

Technological Utopianism in Visions of Specific Contexts

The second selection by Thomas Stewart illustrates how technological utopian themes can appear in news magazines and business magazines such as Time, Fortune and Business Week. Stewart published, "Boom Time on the New Frontier: Growth of Computer Networks" in Fortune, a major business magazine, in 1993. In contrast with Weiland, Stewart focuses upon emerging trends for which he can provide concrete examples today:

"THE FUTURE of information technology descends upon us in a swarm of buzzwords: global village, electronic superhighway, information age, electronic frontier. Someday soon, cyberspace--the vast, intangible territory where computers meet and exchange information--will be populated with electronic communities and businesses. In your home, a protean box will hook you into a wealth of goods and services. It will receive and send mail, let you make a phone or video call or send a fax or watch a movie or buy shoes or diagnose a rash or pay bills or get cash (a new digital kind) or write your mother. That will be just the living-room manifestation of what promises to be a radical--and rapid-- transformation of commerce and society, the greatest since the invention of the automobile.

The process has already begun. In Japan, used-car dealers gather via their computers on Saturday mornings to take part in an electronic auction, buying and selling cars by pressing the button on a joystick. In New York City, a seller of surgical gauze and other medical disposables recently logged on to a global electronic bulletin board operated by the World Trade Center and found a supplier in China. Now, instead of buying from U.S. wholesalers, he sells to them. The largest market in the world --the trillion or so dollars a day in international currency transactions--runs almost entirely over networks.

During the next few years, electronic markets will grow and begin operating over cheap, accessible public networks--the so-called electronic highway. Just as railroads opened the West, the highway will open wide the electronic frontier. Whole industries will be destroyed and new ones born; productivity will leap and competitive advantage shift in the direction of small business."

The technological utopianism in this article is not simply signaled by Stewart's buoyant optimism about the growth of "electronic commerce" and growth of services on the Internet. It is marked by his failure to carefully engage critical questions about the downsides of the explosion of excitement over computer networks. He starts by noting the flurry of buzzwords that journalists, technologists, and scholars use in discussions of computer networking: global village, electronic superhighway, information age, and electronic frontier. But he then quickly picks up "cyberspace" and launches his analysis of emerging trends and significant examples.

Stewart's article builds on the recent and growing public popularity of the Internet in the United States. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore stimulated substantial interest in computer networks (and the Internet) through their promotion of "information superhighways"--or, The National Information Infrastructure (NII). In 1992, most professionals outside of the computer industry, research institutes, and academia had never heard of the Internet. By 1994, many people who didn't know what the Internet was wanted accounts to access it so that they wouldn't be left out. Bookstores that carried a few books about services on the Internet soon devoted whole shelves to the topic. Many of these books are rather practical guidebooks that describe diverse services (such as email, LISTSERVs, gopher, ftp, and World Wide Web) and inform readers about specific examples and some pragmatics of using specific software. These books are generally buoyant about network services, but are not structured within technologically utopian conventions. While they encourage people to try out the Internet, they don't promise people that wide-scale network use will eliminate social ills such as street crime, social isolation, lifelong poverty, and unemployment! But people often turn to them after their interest has been piqued by articles such as Stewart's.

It is unfortunate that the executive branch of United States federal government has not been a good source of studies which help us understand the possibilities--but also the dilemmas and social choices--of a society which depends as much upon computer networks for daily services as we have come to depend upon the motorized transport system for cars, busses, and trucks. For example, a recent federal report about the NII discusses the ways that "improvements in the technical foundation upon which modern communications rests can benefit all Americans (IITF, 1994)." This report relentlessly focuses upon applications of computer networking to applications like digital libraries, life-long learning, manufacturing and commercial transactions. The authors of this report, emphasize the way that the widespread expansion of computer networks can vitalize numerous aspects of business activity and social life in the United States. Like Weiland and Stewart they occasionally mention potential problems, and then rapidly skate by them. --

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