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

Visions of Computerized Societies

So far, I have discussed technological utopian accounts that focus on some specific area of social life, such as desktop conferencing or electronic commerce. The classical utopian writings were much more expansive since their authors examined whole societies, and discussed leisure as well as work, child rearing as well as schooling, and so on. There are some relatively broad technological utopian accounts that focus upon computerization. But more frequently, we find powerful images that link computerization and social change characterized with sweeping terms like "computer revolution", "information society", and "intelligent machine." These catch phrases have strong metaphorical associations, and are often introduced by authors to advance positive, exciting images of computerization.

The third selection, "The Electronic Hive" by Kevin Kelly illustrates this more expansive, and almost poetic writing. Kelly's essay is drawn from his recent book, Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-biological Civilization, which examines how emerging computer technologies may develop like biological collectives--beehives. In the selection, Kelly examines some parallels that he sees between bee colonies and computer networks, especially the groups of people who use the Internet. Kelly argues that humanity is moving to a new stage of technological co-evolution with decentralized systems, like the Internet and that computer networks provide new opportunities for people to deepen their communications with others. As in the previous selections, the technological utopianism of Kelly's essay (and his much longer book) is constructed from the troubling questions that he ignores as well as from the buoyant themes and examples that he examines explicitly.

Kelly writes about the epochal changes in whole societies, much like George Gilder and Alvin Toffler. Alvin Toffler's best seller of he early 1980s, The Third Wave, helped stimulate popular enthusiasm for computerization. Toffler characterized major social transformations in terms of large shifts in the organization of society, driven by technological change. The "Second Wave" was the shift from agricultural societies to industrial societies. Toffler contrasts industrial ways of organizing societies to new social trends that he links to computer and microelectronic technologies. He is masterful employing succinct breathless prose to suggest major social changes. He also invented terminology to help characterize some of these social changes--terms like "second wave", "third wave", "electronic cottage", "infosphere", "technosphere", "prosumer", "intelligent environment", etc. Many of Toffler's new terms did not become commonly accepted. Even so, they help frame a seductive description of progressive social change stimulated by new technologies. The breathless enthusiasm can be contagious--but it also stymies critical thought. Authors like Toffler, Gilder, and Kelly open up important questions about the way that information technologies alter the ways that people perceive information, the kinds of information they can get easily, how they handle the information they get, and the forms of social life that we develop. Yet these accounts often caricature key answers by using only illustrations that support their generally buoyant theses. And they skillfully sidestep tough questions while creating a sense of excitement about the new. --

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