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Electric Dreams: Computers in American Culture

Author: Ted Friedman
Publisher: New York: NYU Press, 2005
Review Published: November 2007

 REVIEW 1: Suzanne Damarin

The basic premise of Friedman's Electric Dreams is that technological determinism is dialectical in that the inevitability of technological progress occurring in broadly identifiable directions creates the opportunity and space for imagining and shaping those directions. In Friedman's acceptance and provocative framing, technological determinism opens what he refers to as a utopian sphere that provides the only opportunity available in current society for hopeful discussions of alternative futures and social change. The price of the utopian sphere, however, is that it is open only when a particular broad conception of future technology is widely accepted as the essential domain of both development and discourse; such acceptance reifies the current state of technology. As he points out repeatedly, technological determinism is double edged; it forecloses exercise of some forms of political agency, while opening possibilities for speculation. Thus, Friedman's argument subverts the common oppositional positioning of technological determinism and the social construction of technology (SCOT) by arguing that the only opportunity for social construction occurs in the utopian space that exists solely in the shadow of determinism.

The Electric Dreams of Friedman's title are instances of utopian visioning, creativity, and production within the space opened by the inevitability of increasingly powerful computing technology. Each chapter addresses a particular development in the history of computing; chapters are in a rough chronological order, and together they provide a genealogy of computers in popular culture. Friedman has chosen the topics well for his purposes, and his discussion of each topic furthers his argument about the dialectical nature of technological determinism. For example, in the chapter on Charles Babbage he considers the historical contingencies of technological determinism, pointing out that although in its day the Analytical Engine was a failure as hardware creation, from a longer view, Babbage and his work anticipated the directions of computer hardware and software development. The chapters on Napster and Open Source point, in different contexts and ways, to the multiplicities of vision within ongoing linear development. In each of these chapters, Friedman deals with several views of the ways in which (inevitable?) developments occur in relation to existing technologies, laws, theories, and ideologies. Other chapters analyze the ways film (notably The Desk Set), advertising (Apple's "1984"), and the SIMS simulation games all take up computer technology and shape our relations to its development and to broader societal ways of accepting, using, and extending technologies. In each of these chapters, Friedman includes a wealth of historical detail; thus, in addition to supporting his position, these chapters provide interesting, well-informed, and highly readable stories of the development and multifaceted implementation of computational technologies,

Discussions and work within the utopian sphere are, of course, steeped in ideologies, a feature that Friedman brings to our attention at many points. The chapter on analog and digital computers is a gem in this regard, pointing out how the power of digital logic is evident even in the binary framing of the discussion. In several places, notably the chapter on Open Source, he discusses how competing ideologies are accommodated within technological development. Friedman is careful to explicate two positions, but also to acknowledge his own commitment (to the left). Although these are not his focus, issues of gender, class, and, to a lesser extent, other dimensions of diversity enter his discussion at various points; here, too, he sets out competing views, but also offers thoughtful and compelling responses to narrowly defined positions. Reading as a feminist theorist, I found his brief discussions of women, gender, and technology to be refreshing departures from the treatments typical of much writing on technology.

The book was published in 2005 and almost all of it is based on developments and discussion prior to 2003. Thus it predates most of the development and certainly the popularity of social networking and Web 2.0 technologies, although he clearly anticipates their importance. His analyses of Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs and of bloggers' influence on Trent Lott's political career are compelling in this regard. The ascendance of Second Life, ipods and iphones, Youtube, GPS, and many other current applications is too recent to be addressed in Electric Dreams. This is not to say that Friedman's work is dated, but rather to point out that there are many current opportunities for the reader to examine and elaborate Friedmanís views and genealogy as a way of testing them.

Friedman's invitation to embrace technological determinism, albeit as double edged, is compelling. The high quality of his research and writing contribute to the "holding power" of his premise. But I wonder whether it gives us the discursive space we need to address the future. As he points out, acceptance of the broad sketch of the technological future as inevitable opens spaces in which we can discuss and shape the details (many of them of great importance) of the developed technology. But this acceptance also naturalizes the current state of technology, making it hard to effect any change in it. Not every issue rises for discussion or experimentation in the utopian sphere, and the discussions and decisions made toward some utopia will always have "side effects," that is, real effects not considered in advance. Such effects will be what the computer "does automatically" -- the local everyday experience of technological determinism as it affects users, ecology, and culture. The dreams Friedman discusses are largely liberal (and libertarian) dreams of individual empowerment, not the command / control / communication / informatics dreams of corporate, governmental, political, or military agencies. It is not clear where the "utopian sphere" can be found within the development of the latter well-financed dreams of power. And, even when a utopian discussion space is found, it is unclear how influential the discussion can be. Technologies of surveillance provide a current case in point: the technologies, ideologies, and practices of surveillance seem to be too tightly bundled to allow a "utopian space" to emerge.

In summary, Friedman has given us a thought-provoking and insightful book. It is well written, and the various chapters provide a level of detail that enlivens each topic in dynamic, interesting, and important ways. Electric Dreams provides an important genealogy of computing and a compelling case for the value of considering technological determinism as dialectical.

Suzanne Damarin:
Suzanne Damarin is Professor in the Culture, Technology, and Policy section of the College of Education at The Ohio State University. Her work is focused on ways in which gender, culture, computer and related technologies, and mathematics come together in many contexts.  <damarin.1@osu.edu>

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