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Technology and In/equality: Questioning the Information Society

Editor: Sally Wyatt, Flis Henwood, Nod Miller & Peter Senker
Publisher: London, UK: Routledge, 2000
Review Published: April 2003

 REVIEW 1: Dougie Bicket
 REVIEW 2: Yu-hua Chang

The role of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) in society has long been a prime subject for debate in communication circles. Ever since Raymond Williams (1974/1989) set the terms of the modern debate as between followers of technological determinism on the one hand, and symptomatic technology on the other, scholars have slugged it out over the extent to which technology determines societal change, or is merely an incidental or symptomatic factor. If the followers of Williams, in the British Cultural Studies tradition, ever thought they were getting the upper hand in this debate, they have perhaps been disillusioned by the more recent reinvigoration of technological determinism (soft or hard, depending on your point of view) under the guise of information theory. The rise of the Internet and satellite communication as a global force has brought the writings of Marshall McLuhan back into vogue, both at the academic level and in the popular imagination as constructed in the pages of Wired magazine (although the extremes of popular hype apparent in the late 1990s have been quieted somewhat in the wake of the dot-com bust). Recent academic expositions by Manuel Castells (1996, 2001) and others on the power of the Internet-driven network society have built on the ground laid by McLuhan, Daniel Bell (1973), Alvin Toffler (1980), and Howard Rheingold (1993), all of whom have enjoyed a significant popular following.

Perhaps it is the sense of a shift in the argument in favor of the information theorists that motivated the creation of Technology and In/equality. The edited book is a collaborative effort by a group of mainly UK-based scholars, most of whom are or have been closely associated with the University of East London’s Department of Innovation Studies. The department is described in the preface as an academic unit that "provides an interdisciplinary approach to learning, teaching, and research about new technologies, science and society" (ix). It is fairly typical of the type of academic unit, focusing on the confluence of media technology and cultural studies, that has grown up in the UK over the past two or three decades, especially in that country’s "polyversities" – former polytechnics reinvented as universities following the passage of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. (UEL itself was previously styled the North East London Polytechnic.) Such units emerged primarily from the academic churning that accompanied the work of Williams and other pioneers in the British Cultural Studies tradition. It is therefore not surprising that scholars steeped in such a tradition would take issue with information theory; and, for the most part, they have in this book.

The task set by the editors is to challenge the core belief of information theory scholars: that the spread of new information technology around the globe is in and of itself a progressive force, and therefore "a good thing." The tone of the book is therefore cautionary, exhorting readers to take some time to recall the arguments against a world view that places technology firmly in the driving seat of societal change. To this end, an interdisciplinary approach is evident in the range of approaches taken by the various contributors. While the relationship of technology to social equity in the emerging "information society" is the central theme throughout, it is tackled from a range of perspectives (see below).

As befits a book with a strong British flavor, the first chapter, authored by the book’s editors, opens with an account of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s first substantial encounter with the new class of ICTs. They cite a newspaper report of a two-hour public training session attended by the prime minister on the use of word-processing, email, and the Web (not surprisingly, a PR stunt tied to a new government initiative on IT training). On the basis of this somewhat perfunctory introduction, Blair felt moved to declare that widespread access to the new ICTs was essential not only for economic growth, but also for greater social equity. In other words, simply give more people more access to more computers and the internet, and all will be right with the world. Anyone who has followed the long-running debates over ICT adoption and improved achievement in U.S. schools and colleges will be quite familiar with such a position. Not surprisingly, the authors of this book see this sort of populist technological determinism as part of the problem. Not that new technology should be ignored or their impact downplayed, they insist; but they do clearly wish to "question the assumption that there are simple technological fixes to complex social problems" (2).

Having thus set the stage, the remainder of the first chapter sets up the organization of the rest of the book, beginning with a focus on issues pertaining to control of and access to media technologies (part I). Part II shifts the focus to unequal access in the educational sphere, while part III concentrates on the broader economic implications of new technology and its role in society, focusing on issues such as globalization, opportunities for meaningful employment, and gender and income inequality. This breakdown of the content is appropriate, although the lack of specific introductions to each of the three parts of the book is annoying. Part I is perhaps the most useful section of the book to media and cyberculture scholars, but all three sections are relevant. Together, they might be regarded as a triptych that examines recent developments in this area from their complementary perspectives.

The other important function of the first chapter is to place the contributions within the spectrum of approaches to the relationship between media technology and society. The continuum of positions, from the technological determinism of information theory at one end, to the emphasis on social constructions of technology at the other, are reviewed. The debate is familiar territory, though consideration is also given to a middle position of "technology as neutral." Even so, most of the writing adheres broadly, if not completely, to one side of the debate: As the authors state, all the contributors "argue against technological determinism, although some find such a position more difficult to sustain than others" (12). Most also argue against a "technology as neutral" position, thus limiting the book to an array of opinions on how technology’s role in society is socially constructed.

This begs the questions of how and why, and in whose interest, such technology is so constructed. To this end the authors provide a handy typology of ways in which technologies can be conceived primarily as social constructions: materialistically, as the "embodiment of the values and interests" of powerful groups in society (referred to as "social shaping"); symbolically, as the articulation of the social and cultural meanings we attach to technological artifacts; or collaboratively, as the result of negotiation among social groupings to determine how technology should be developed and applied. The last approach is seen as the most progressive and, arguably, democratic in terms of conceptualizing media technology’s role in society. Not surprisingly, given the title and thrust of this book, it is also the approach that is least apparent in the contributors’ views of the world as it is today.

The editors cite two chapters as clear examples of the social shaping approach in action. Kathy Walker’s piece focuses on the challenges brought to British public service broadcasting by the onset of the multichannel environment brought on by cable and satellite television – a challenge closely associated with the rise in power of multinational and other for-profit media corporations, at the expense of state-affiliated broadcasters charged with serving the public interest in the broadest terms. The following chapter, by Herbert Pimlott (a former UEL lecturer now teaching in Canada), focuses on the means by which corporate forces undermined the supposedly democratizing and equalizing forces of a new medium – in this case, community television – by encouraging a process of "professionalisation" in its programming. What both chapters evince is the rise of "consumer sovereignty" within an increasingly market-driven information paradigm – at the expense of notions of democracy and a commitment to a thriving and inclusive public sphere. Most of the other chapters complement this perspective, covering such issues as use and control of the Internet, visions of the Internet as a democratizing forum, and technology’s relationship with global poverty.

In some ways, this book, published in 2000, is already showing signs of age. Most of the writing was completed before the dot-com bust of the past two years had begun to clearly manifest itself. So the contributors have been unable to incorporate more recent events, such as the potential economic and social impacts of extended contraction in the ICT industries, into their theses. Still, while most of the content remains relevant, there is a deeper issue over the content itself. It’s a question of quantity as well as quality. A clue to this is in the slimness of the volume itself. A book that sets out to question such a complex array of issues as is presented here should, one might feel, be more substantial in terms of the number and variety of scholarly sources. When Manuel Castells contributes three volumes to the debate on the nature of the new information society, we could be forgiven for expecting more breadth from an edited work that is, at least in spirit, a riposte. Instead, there are too few contributions, and the contributions that are included, while broad, are thus inevitably limited in their range of perspectives. Perhaps the concentration of authors from a single country and institution acts as an impediment to the range of sources and backgrounds necessary to an endeavor of this scale. These limitations seem particularly apparent in Part II, which comprises only two chapters, on gender and inequality, and distance learning. Both stay determinedly within a British context.

Another concern lies with many authors’ approaches to the political economy of information flow. In relation to the core issue of globalization, the discussion of governmental and corporate power in this emerging information society is somewhat lacking. This is not to say that such forces and their impact are ignored – they aren’t. The recognition of a – mostly pernicious – role played by such bodies is suggested in the aforementioned pieces on public service broadcasting and community service television in Canada, as well as other chapters such as Peter Senker’s critique of new technology and global economic growth. But such forces are dealt with more in the abstract, as ephemeral elements, without a clearer exposition of how they are manifested through the interaction of nation-state governments and transnational corporations around the world. Given the key contributions to this debate by scholars such as Robert McChesney (1999) and Ben Bagdikian (2000) in recent years, the relative absence of this perspective is surprising.

Overall, this book works best as a broad introduction to the interplay of the many issues it touches on. For example, the chapters in Part I provide, for those new to the field, some useful overviews of historical and cultural developments with relation to the Internet. Graham Thomas and Sally Wyatt, while discussing issues of Internet access and control, along the way provide a concise and helpful review of the history of the Internet. Rod Allen and Nod Miller, in writing about our tendency to regard new technology as a panacea for social ills, include much historical context for the development of early cable television. On a broader economic level, Part III’s chapters give communication scholars what will probably be a much-needed primer on global economics, and the role of ICTs within that context. While the emphasis on British and, to a lesser extent, European perspectives might limit the book’s accessibility to some non-UK scholars in this area, there is still much in these chapters that will be of use to those in the United States and elsewhere. And, in fact, most scholars of media technology and society can glean a good deal of contextual information here – enough, certainly, to catalyze some new thinking and original analysis.

Bagdikian, B. (2000). The media monopoly. Boston: Beacon Press.

Bell, D. (1973). The coming of the post-industrial society: A venture in social forecasting. New York: Basic Books.

Castells, M. (1996). The information age: Economy, society, and culture, vol. 1: The rise of the network society. Oxford: Blackwell.

Castells, M. (2001). The Internet galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, business, and society. New York : Oxford University Press

McChesney, R. (1999). Rich media, poor democracy: Communication politics in dubious times. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. London: Methuen.

Rheingold, H. (1993). Virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

Toffler, A. (1980). The third wave: London: Collins.

Williams, R. (1989). Television: Technology and cultural form. London: Routledge.

Dougie Bicket:
Dougie Bicket is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at SUNY College of Arts and Sciences, Geneseo. His research interests include the historical interrelationship of media technology, society, and public policy in North America and Europe; and the role of media and technology in the social construction of reality.  <bicket@geneseo.edu>

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