Thursday, June 22, 2006

Some Phil Agre thoughts on tech determinism

In case you didn't get what I was saying about Willinsky being a technological determinist, here are some thoughts on different types of technological determinism from Phil Agre's (UCLA) article Internet Research: For and Against. He has posted it on his website at <> I think Willinsky's thinking would fall into Agre's "discontinuity" category.

It is part of a larger collected volume: Mia Consalvo, Nancy Baym, Jeremy Hunsinger, Klaus Bruhn Jensen, John Logie, Monica Murero, and Leslie Regan Shade, eds, Internet Research Annual, Volume 1: Selected Papers from the Association of Internet Researchers Conferences 2000-2002, New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

"Progress in the social study of computing requires us to discover and taxonomize the forms that technological determinism takes in received ways of thinking. Two of these might be called discontinuity and disembedding (cf. Brown and Duguid 2000). Discontinuity is the idea that information technology has brought about a sudden change in history. We supposedly live in an "information society", a "network society", or a "new media age" whose rules are driven by the workings of particular technologies. These theories are wrong as well. Of course, new information technologies have participated in many significant changes. But many other things are happening at the same time, yet other things are relatively unchanged, and the changes that do occur are thoroughly mediated by the structures and meanings that were already in place. It is easy to announce a discontinuity and attribute it to a single appealing trend, but doing so trivializes a complex reality.

Disembedding supposes new technologies to be a realm of their own, disconnected from the rest of the world. An example is the concept of "cyberspace" or the "online world", as if everything that happened online were unrelated to anything that happened offline. The reality is quite different. The things that people do on the Internet are almost always bound up with the things that they do elsewhere (Friedland 1996, Miller and Slater 2000, Wynn and Katz 1997). The "online world" is not a single place, but is divided among various institutions -- banking sites, hobby sites, extended family mailing lists, and so on, each of them simply annexing a corner of the Internet as one more forum to pursue an existing institutional logic, albeit with whatever amplifications or inflections might arise from the practicalities of the technology in use. People may well talk about the Internet as a separate place from the real world, and that is an interesting phenomenon, but it is not something that we should import into serious social analysis."

Note: Agre's Real-time politics: The Internet and the political process, The Information Society 18(5), 2002, pages 311-331 also provides a nice typology for thinking about information technology and social change.

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