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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

In recent years, scholars have turned their attention to how technology impacts social consciousness and how new products affect the future potential of all levels of society. Most scholars adhere to different schools of interpretation; one group is called “technological determinists.” They tend to focus their attention on how technology shapes and forms our perception of human society. Proponents of another accepted view, “technology as neutral,” claim that people have sufficient power to decide whether technologies are good or bad. Yet another view is concerned with how the power structure among different levels of society affects technological development.

Sally Wyatt, Flis Henwood, Nod Miller, and Peter Senker, the editors of Technology and In/equality: Questioning the Information Society, have drawn upon the spirit of this last view to compile a collection of articles about new media’s role in society. This scholastic compilation helps clarify the history of the advancement of modern technology. The book, however, differs from other accounts of technological advancement; many of the authors in this book deal with technology’s socio-economic impact. Most of them condemn technological determinism, and suggest that technologies no longer (if ever) construct a utopia, but bring about inequalities to society. They discuss how this impact has transformed from traditional media to the hottest new media, Internet. These articles force the reader to ask what is the social impact of new technologies, and how should the policymakers face the new change in the society?

There are three parts in this book: Promises and Threats: Access and Control in Media Technologies; Exclusion, Inclusion and Segregation: New Technology and Skill in Education; and Technology, Inequality and Economic Development. In Part I, four chapters discuss access issues in recent media history, from the television to the Web. In the past, the Internet used to be viewed by many as a means to realize democratic utopia because its easy access empowers audiences and further transfers them as producers. However, in Thomas and Wyatt’s piece (chapter 2), they argue that the inequity of access may be a more serious problem, but they also suggest that the flexibility of the Internet could help narrow the division between the have and the have-nots (43). They claim that various groups using the Internet could provide a sort of pluralism in the marketplace. However, unless both economic and cultural costs are lessened for new groups to get online, there is no way to get the plural situation.

In chapter 3, Allen and Miller analyze different forms of media to discuss in/equity issues. They specifically talk about how the usage of different media would bring in different democratic expectations. They are concerned that if the Internet is used as chat or shopping media, it is harder to reach the democratic goal. At the same time, Pimlott in chapter 5 also talks about the relationship between media and democracy. He uses Canadian community television to examine the new communication technology. He warns us that if Internet access is still a privilege for only wealthy and powerful social strata, the democratic ideals of the Internet will not be realized. Of course, the in/equity issue is not a new topic created after the invention of Internet. The public broadcasting system in UK was also facing the challenge of market-led cable system. In chapter 4, Walker notes how the market-led system makes the media ownership more concentrated and therefore the consumers have less and less power to select what they want from the media. She suggests that public service with the commitment to the social, cultural, and political needs of its audience presents a powerful argument for its continuing importance in the digital environment.

The second part of this book consists of two articles. The authors talk about gender, class, and race in the education system in relation to available technologies. Henwood, Plumeridge and Stepulevage, in chapter 6, “A Tale of Two Cultures,” conduct research on computer education in the UK. One is a conventional computer science program (CS), and the other one is an interdisciplinary (ID) information technology program. They found the social construction of technology has deeply rooted in the CS program. Skill discourse has been adopted by the CS program, which has already excluded lower female students’ competence. The other program, ID, deals more with gender issues and takes computing as part of the broad technology. However, both of the two programs’ female students still have underestimated their competence of their profession. In Chapter 7, Miller, Kennedy, and Leung, through an analysis of Project @THENE (Accessing Technology for Higher Education and New Enterprise), point out the challenges and tensions – economic, technical, and pedagogic – in a virtual learning community which was created for distance learning. They challenge the optimism of the rhetoric about new technologies and further indicate the practical difficulties, personal uncertainties, and ideological tensions in using new technologies to overcome inequalities.

Part III is about technology, inequality and economic development. In chapter 8, Freeman traces the connection between technology and economic growth. Scholars have noted how the industrial revolution broadened the wealth distribution mainly because of unemployment, but Freeman notes that the information gap is not just about unemployment. It is about the uneven distribution of social costs and benefits. He further indicates that the information revolution also contributes to an inequal distribution on an international scale. In the end, he suggests four solutions for the economic inequality: following more closely Keynesian ideals; prioritizing social policies; implementing closer regulation and control (like taxation); and reversing the control to redistribution. In chapter 9, Poynter and Miranda discuss the labor problem in the post-industrial societies, or the so-called information or network age. They contrast the three main themes that optimists usually propose: the replacement of monotonous and repetitive work, the upskilling of the workforce, and breakdown of gendered divisions of labor. They perform a case study on the finance industry and found that these key points are not the same as what the optimists suggested. Instead, female workers are still working in monotonous work within unequal environments.

In the last chapter, Senker talks about the relationship between technology and economic development, especially focusing on the world economic distribution problem. He indicates that optimists suggest that technology can fix the world’s poverty problem. The optimists argue that though the rich party will get benefits in the beginning, in the long term, the “trickle-down” effect will help the poor party gain benefits from the rich. However, he notes that because the alleviation of poverty is not a major goal of those multinational corporations, technology has not succeeded in eliminating poverty. He suggests that international regulations on finance, trade, agriculture, and industry will help control the inappropriate exploitation of technology. The three articles in Part III highlight the economic and ideological inequalities brought about, in part, by technological development.

It is not easy to define “technology” and “inequality.” Most of the chapters in Technology and In/equality: Questioning the Information Society are trying to associate the two terms. The optimists of technology too often suggest the sunny side of technology. Yet, it is not merely increasing social welfare. The process of technological development, at the same time, follows with inequality as well. All of these articles in the book introduce broad and clear discourses around the questions surrounding technology. We can see the concept of social constructionism appearing again and again. This book will be useful for different readers interested in understanding the theories, phenomena, and backgrounds of in/equality in the technological developing process.

Yu-hua Chang:
Yu-hua Chang is a graduate student in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, Seattle.  <yuhchang@u.washington.edu>

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