Doing Things Electronically

David Crowley (McGill University)

Abstract: There is a tradition of inquiry in Canada focused on the wider questions of technology and society. This set of themes may again be relevant as we are drawn away from the form of monopoly practices associated with mass media and we begin to deal with the resurgence of social and technological activity centred around contemporary transformations of the book, the newspaper, and the broadcast. More often than not, the instrument of this challenge is the computer. What are the outlines of this development and how can we address its consequences?

Résumé: Il y a une tradition au Canada de recherches qui portent sur le domaine assez vaste de technologie et société. Cette tradition peut nous servir, comme nous nous éloignons de recherches sur les formes que prennent les pratiques monopolistiques reliées aux médias, et commençons à nous adresser à la renaissance d'activités sociales et technologiques centrées sur les transformations contemporaines du livre, du journal et de la télévision. Le catalyseur de cette renaissance, c'est en grande partie l'ordinateur. Quels sont les contours de ces transformations et comment adresser ses conséquences?


By way of introducing the essays in this volume, I would like to explore how the transdisciplinary field of technology studies has begun to influence our understanding of communication in a technological society. The growing appeal of communication technologies as artifacts worthy of study by other disciplines probably highlights a maturing theme: recognition of the role that media play in the project of modernity, in the early modern rise of industrial societies, and now in the process of globalization and its argued transformations--post-industrial, informational, postmodern. In writing about the rise of modern institutions, social theorists now recognize that between the seventeenth century and the present period in the West, the major social transitions all significantly involve developments in the material modes of communication. In recent works Anthony Giddens and John Thompson have identified two such entwinements of the modes of communication with social change in the late twentieth century (Giddens, 1991; Thompson, 1991). The first is the increasing scope and scale of local-global interactions, which brings about further stages of "disembedding" or disengagement of individuals from localized containments through expanding opportunities for their co-location in wider systems of expression and action. The second is a growing capacity for doing things at a distance, involving opportunities for reflexive engagements with organizations and with others. As Giddens notes: "Mechanized technologies of communication have dramatically influenced all aspects of globalization... [and] form an essential element of the reflexivity of modernity and of the discontinuities which have torn the modern away from the traditional" (Giddens, 1990, p. 77).

To these factors of local-global and reflexive interactions, I would add an additional entwinement of communications modes with social change: the rising importance of differential effects in accounting for the consequences of communication technology in modernity. To an extent this latter factor signals a shift in the social scientific understanding of media, away from content control approaches to media technologies and their products in favour of meaning-constructing ones.

Other contemporary theorists have addressed the role of media in relation to modern experience. Thanks in part to constructivist thematics in works as diverse as those of Jürgen Habermas and Richard Rorty, we now have some greater appreciation among scholars of the role of mass circulation media, past and present, as part of the reproductive apparatus of society. The capacity of mass circulation media to pool, channel, and redistribute our information and communication places the media as institution closer to the centre of the project of modernity (Habermas, 1987; Rorty, 1989).

One of the features of modernity that has helped secure a knowledge base around media, allowing a field to develop around stable curricula and focused research agendas, has been the development and persistence of successive central media, national organizations for their distribution, and regulatory régimes in control of those media throughout much of the twentieth century. As national media distribution systems developed in scope and scale with other mass-production and consumption organizations, this stable core of central media provided the grounds and rationale for new forms of professional knowledge and the opportunity for new professional communities to grow up around these institutions. Among these new professional communities, we can point to the growth of applied professions around telegraphy and telephony in the latter part of the last century. Proactive uses of professional knowledge emerged strongly in the twentieth century, helping shape early public policy on film in relationship to children. Paul Lazarsfeld's mid-century entrepreneurial demonstrations that the audiences of radio listeners and later television viewers could be tracked by statistical sampling established controversial linkages between media producers and the research community (Lazarsfeld, 1948). By the 1950s, communication scholars were advisers to international development forums, promoting indexical standards for measuring the diffusion of media vehicles (newspapers, radio receivers, and television sets), and drawing mechanical, if nonetheless influential, connections between media diffusion and the rise of modern values. These exemplary gambits--and the subsequent questioning of them in the critical reactions that followed in the 1970s and 1980s--all have rested on the stable core of central media (Marvin, 1987; Carey, 1989; Tunstall, 1987).

Today, the current forms of central media face formidable challenges. Recorded music, radio broadcasts, and television (broadcast, cable, or video cassettes) serve a more complexly segmented public. At the same time, a new generation of media researchers stressing alternative approaches--from audience ethnography and feminist readings to discursive and critical analyses of media texts--are creating new forms of professional knowledge and divergent conceptions of what audiences are up to. These developments have widened the perspective of the field of studies well beyond the central media themselves.

At the same time, developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) are reconfiguring our material modes and means of symbolic interaction. The computer is a conspicuous tool of this refiguring. Electronic publishing and online interaction are already testing the limits of previous systems of circulation and expression. This portends trouble in turn for regulatory régimes and their toolkits of standards, patents, and copyright. For most of this century these agencies and their devices have succeeded in separating content from carriers, keeping broadcasters, phone companies, and publishers off each other's turf. In so doing they have created and maintained electronic proxies of national borders. And they have justified their activism by making the media serve more or less convincing notions of the public interest. Today these aims and enterprises appear less stable as well.

It is particularly the public interest challenge that inspires controversy around new media and new systems for accessing media products. Convergence is already a watch word of this shifting turf war in which broadcasters, phone companies, cable operators, and production houses position themselves in contingent alliances with one another in the face of new technological actors with the capacity to by-pass or otherwise negate previously effective systems of control. This expanding universe of opportunities and the weakening of once dominant central media naturally raises questions about what such broadly based changes portend for the future organization of research in the field. Although developments and alternatives in the field are nothing if not various these days, two complementary perspectives steadily gained momentum in the 1980s. Both bear directly on both the social and technological dimensions of change, and together they provide some of the scope and scale that seems necessary to meet the new challenges of research. The first is an approach to the role of print and print culture that provides a basis for studying the continuing changes in mass-circulation print media. The second approach arises out of an expanding scholarship about technology and society, and provides an important linkage with the development and deployment of the new information and communication technologies themselves, including the computer.

These two currents, which are explored in the essays in this issue, provide a vantage point for considering how the widening array of information and communication technologies are refiguring the mediation of expression and experience in the period of late modernity.

The development of two areas of scholarship beyond the older confines of communication studies marks an interesting engagement with wider questions of media in society. Both projects take up aspects of the social and cultural dimensions of technology that previously had been theorized only by Innis and subsequent followers; and both projects are oriented to history and anchored by constructivist assumptions. The question is: do such commonalities form a meaningful convergence; or put more provocatively, can these recent approaches to the social and cultural history of communication by print and the social history of technological systems offer us an outline for dealing with the newest information and communication technologies as well?

Neither of these areas is particularly new. In one form or another each has been around since the 1950s. Moreover, each bears significant comparison with the approach to media and technology studies that, following Innis, developed at the University of Toronto in the the 1960s, notably around the work of Marshall McLuhan, Jack Goody, Eric Havelock, and Natalie Zemon Davis (McLuhan, 1963; Goody, 1986; Havelock, 1963; Davis, 1975). Their work began a process of theorizing the effect and consequence of media for the mediation of human experience and expression. Subsequent scholars have expanded the project so that, taken together, we have in the Toronto approach the outline of a theory of historical change in personal, social, and institutional spheres and in which communication media form a central dynamic in the development of the modern. Writing before the advent of the computer as a conventional tool of communication, these scholars focused on print as the defining technology of the modern period. In drawing upon the disciplinary areas of literary studies, anthropology, classical studies, and history, they set in place a disciplinary mix that has re-emerged around the study of the social and cultural dimensions of the computer (Heyer & Crowley, 1991).

The History of the Book

The History of the Book has followed a comparable trajectory, which includes a focus on the printed book, as well as an effort to theorize a number of issues in relation to media. Contemporary scholarship on book history finds its origins in continental Europe, most obviously to the marking out of the territory in Lucien Febvre & Henri-Jean Martin's L'Apparition du livre (Febvre & Martin, 1958). In the 1960s, book historians widened the territory historically and geographically, mandating the subject matter to move from the élite texts of the Enlightenment to include more and more forms of everyday printed material, literacy at all levels and varieties, and perhaps most important from the point of view of communication studies, not just authors and readers but all those, from booksellers to border smugglers to censors, who have built livelihoods and leisure around the printed page. In the 1970s, in Germany, reader-response studies and Alltagsgeschichte (history of daily life) deepened appreciation of the role of printed materials in popular culture. In England, the work of Margaret Spufford provided a sense of just how much learning went on outside formal schooling, in the efforts of labourers to acquire the ability to read and even to write books (Spufford, 1979). In America, Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change demonstrated how the printed book transformed literature, establishing the narrative devices by which authors and readers anonymously sought each other out (Eisenstein, 1978). And in Italy, Carlos Ginzberg showed how a semi-literate, sixteenth-century peasant from the Friuli could tease a world-view from a few books with sufficient complexity to befuddle church authorities, including the Inquisition (Ginzberg, 1980).

The diversity of efforts and the inclusiveness in the project of the history of the book--an interactive universe of writers and readers, promoters and police, literacy and orality--has come to look, as Robert Darnton only half mockingly put it, "less like a field than a tropical rain forest" (Darnton, 1990, p. 110). Darnton has provided some distance from the "interdisciplinary muddle" created by all this activity by proposing a generalized model for analyzing the process through which books are produced and disseminated in society. His model describes a communication circuit, moving from author through publisher, printer, shipper, booksellers and other forms of dissemination, to readers. Readers complete the circuit, because authors are themselves readers and, through reading and interacting with other readers and authors, form guiding notions of narrative style, fashion, and interests. Through interaction with secondary circuits authors also encounter other stakeholders--reviewers, editors, censors--and may in subsequent writing respond to them as well. Following the trajectory of the circuit, dipping into segments of it in detail, the history of the book has set out to construct a system around the circulation of printed material, at all its relevant phases, respecting its variance over time and space, and in its relation to other systematic processes of economy, politics, and culture in the surrounding society. With modification, book historians claim the model has general application to all periods of printed materials and, by virtue of its phase-analytic approach, allows us to sort out those inner workings that bear directly on the construction of texts and their circulation in society.

In building up the contingencies of authoring alongside the heterogeneity of readers, this approach attempts to strike a balance between the ways in which "texts constrain readers as well as the ways that readers take liberties with texts" (Darnton, 1990, p. 132). The duality of contingent authoring and heterogeneous reading gives us a model with interesting implications for the continuing transitions in authoring and reading arguably brought about by the computer, as we shall see.

The Social Construction of Technology

If printing was an essential influence in the rise of early modern societies, electronic communication marks an equivalent influence on the modern project that followed. Electronic communication, beginning with the telegraph and the telephone, complemented print, expanding the sources of information and communication available to print media and shrinking the time frames involved in accessing and reporting on distant events. In this sense the subsequent arrival of the broadcast represented not a discontinuity with print but a further integration into the household of a message system that had been successfully built up around books, newspapers, and magazines.

The study of the linkage between domestic technologies and the systems that surround these technologies has seen a renaissance of research in recent years. Those studies have been driven, not by studies of media, but by a focus on washing machines, stoves, refrigerators, and so on. Scholars have used these mundane artifacts to explore the complex system that surrounds them, in the process helping to draw attention to media artifacts--the television, the radio, and the telephone--and the systems that surround them. These studies of domestic technology likewise invite comparisons with the role of book history in contextualizing the broader set of relations in the production and consumption circuits.

Like histories of the book, social technology studies are not new. Behind the current cross-disciplinary activity, the emphasis on domestic technologies reaches back at least to the 1950s and the work of William Ogburn at the University of Chicago (Ogburn, 1955). It is from Ogburn that contemporary technological impact studies mark their beginning. During the following decades new research strains developed at diverse sites, culminating in the 1980s in well-recognized research programs in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, and the United States. As is the case for the history of the book, research activity regarding the social construction of technology takes place in numerous fields--in sociology of science and technology, policy studies, interdisciplinary graduate programs, as well as in societies devoted to philosophical and social historical scholarship on everything from the origins of auto tourism to the development of modern superships. For students of media, perhaps the most interesting theme to emerge from this mix is the emphasis on the development of domestic spaces and the constituencies built up around successive and overlapping forms of electronic communication that connect these domestic sites to wider social worlds--telegraphy, telephony, broadcasting, and now computing. These studies pay particular attention to the inner workings of technologies--case-specific histories, the role of technical knowledge and new professions, and above all the social actors who organized themselves and otherwise gathered around technical knowledge and its artifacts.

Emblematic of this new research on the social dimensions of electric technology is the work of Carolyn Marvin and Thomas Hughes on the development of electrical systems; Claude Fischer on the social development of the telephone; and Ruth Cowan on gender and household technologies (Marvin, 1987; Hughes, 1983; Fischer, 1992; Cowan, 1983). These works differ from other studies of communication technology in their explicit concerns for the uses people make of communication technologies and in their attention to the relationship between producers and consumers. Their work contrasts with the Toronto circle in the greater emphasis placed on contingency and the role of organizations.

One of the Europeans identified with this work, Wiebe Bijker, has proposed a model of sociotechnical ensembles (Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1987; Bijker & Law, 1992). Bijker uses the concept of relevant social groups to demonstrate how technologies become sites where constituencies negotiate the meaning attributed to a particular artifact. The relative success of a new technology, he argues, results from the negotiations of these relevant social groups, rather than from the design features of the technological artifact itself. Bijker's model of what he calls sociotechnical ensembles invites comparison with Darnton's communication circuit. Each of the models proposed by these authors attempts to identify the complex interactions through which new technological artifacts are socially constructed. The models focus on the contingent gathering of organizations, groups, and individuals around particular artifacts, whether books or other technological devices, where the interests in the opportunities opened up by these artifacts overcome otherwise divergent agendas. Like Darnton's model, the strength of Bijker's approach lies in its ability to dig into the inner workings of a developing process, sorting out those considerations that bear directly on the creation of the artifact from those contextual or outside elements that vary widely in their consequence. Both approaches take us deeper into the empirics of the complex interactions of production and consumption. Modelling action in the way they propose, sociotechnical ensembles and communication circuits help to resist the dichotomous and often arbitrary distinction that research tends to make between technological factors and social factors.

The newer sociologists and historians of technology also make a valuable distinction between developmental phases and diffusion phases. Whereas the development phase identifies a rapidly changing and narrowly applied artifact, in the diffusion phase we find the artifact spreading more rapidly, its form changing slowly if at all, coming into routine use, and embedded in a social matrix. While this distinction is largely lost on earlier generations of diffusionist researchers, who tended to be more sociological than historical, the recent social historians use this phase shift to show how relevant stakeholders and social groups shift at the same time. Those who have the power to effect changes in developmental phases are not the same individuals, groups, and organizations who have influence in the diffusion phases (Cowan, 1992).

Several recent studies have made just this point in demonstrating how consequential the consumption dimensions are for understanding how a device--or one could argue a narrative account--is constructed or deconstructed by what people do with it. Ruth Cowan, for instance, has demonstrated this interpretive flexibility with respect to household technologies, such as stoves and refrigerators, arguing that their effects do not push in any single direction, but create differential effects. With the diffusion of new domestic technologies in the twentieth century, tasks that might previously have brought domestic workers into the household are in effect relegated to machines--and, as Cowan argues, to mothers. At the same time, around these domestic technologies we can see a whole new genus of workers emerging, servicing and repairing, packaging and marketing products for use with these new devices (Cowan, 1983).

In a similar vein, Carolyn Marvin and Claude Fischer have explored the telephone, stressing again the differential effects that arise from contexts of use. They both point to the telephone's role in refiguring intimacy, permitting new forms of unchaperoned communication, welcomed by some, unwelcomed by others. Even the telephone call in the middle of the night could have quite different effects, Fischer argues, disquieting in one instance, providing reassurance in another. Fischer makes the important point that social constructions of technology tend to reveal an altogether less homogeneous sense of effects and impacts than previous studies indicated. He suggests that the heterogeneous and contingent characteristics of the telephone should lead us to abandon the idea of "impacts" entirely (Marvin 1987; Fischer, 1992).

It is only a modest leap to see how this might apply to other, newer domestic technologies, such as video cassette recorders and portable video cameras, or telephone-caller identification, or computer networks, to cite only those devices dealt with in this volume. Again, the models should alert us to differences between the development stages and the diffusion stages, where the prevailing range of uses and expectations arising from a development process can be usefully compared to what Langdon Winner calls the "consequences of prevailing" (Winner, 1993, p. 368).

The models of communication circuits and sociotechnological ensembles are an antidote to the determinist stances often associated with technology studies. Technology studies predictably raise the spectre of technological determinism, and this spectre has had the further unpleasant consequence of driving some scholars to the defensive view that technologies can best be approached as neutral vessels or black boxes about which nothing of consequence can be learned by attending to their inner workings.

In fact determinism continues to find its way usefully into many contemporary discussions of technology's role in culture and society. The narratives that flourish around technological change present particularly compelling subject matter for technological cultures. Technology out of control, cut loose from the twin anchors of politics and tradition, is a recurrent theme, whether as a direct equation of technology and the exercise of power in the work of Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul, or the psycho-cultural transformations of the individual celebrated by Marshall McLuhan, or the endgame scenarios for Western civilizations envisaged in the simulacrum metaphor of Jean Beaudrillard (Mumford, 1952; Ellul, 1965; Poster, 1989; McLuhan, 1963a).

We are accustomed to acknowledging technology's influence upon us as a force and as a symptom. As a result we have become good at constructing two kinds of master narratives about technology: the one, a form of implemental logic, in which we are invited to reason from the properties of technological tools to their imputed effects and consequences. The other narrative presumes an underlying logic by means of which phenomena at the chaotic surface of social life yield to the determinations of deeper structures. While the latter narrative continues to animate wider debates about the character and value of postmodern (see, e.g., Poster, 1990), it is the former narrative that has informed much recent work on communication technologies.

Reasoning from properties to their imputed consequences is exemplified in the works of Marshall McLuhan. However, since the 1970s, others have added subtle dimensions, while reaching widely different conclusions with respect to the effects of different media on personal, social, and institutional spheres. McLuhan's exploration of the early modern embrace of print continues to be carefully reworked by Walter Ong. In studies of the nineteenth century, Daniel Czitrom has documented the reordering of public space resulting from the spread of telegraphy in North America; and Neil Postman has argued that the new visual media, beginning with the graphics revolution of the late nineteenth century, helped to undermine the "typographic culture" of print and with it the public politics and public culture associated with literacy itself. Stephen Kern has detailed the changes in action and expression at the turn of the century that altered our own twentieth-century experience of time and space in the Western world. Closer to the present, William Stott has looked at radio news in the 1930s and 1940s as portending new expectations for simultaneity and co-presence with distant events. And Joshua Meyrowitz has analyzed television, in somewhat the same spirit, as a key factor in re-valencing social roles and public attitudes toward authority in the latter part of the twentieth century (McLuhan, 1963b; Ong, 1977; Czitrom, 1982; Postman, 1985; Kern, 1986; Stott, 1973; Meyrowitz, 1985).

All of this work has focused on the media as change agents, stressing the roles that the technological systems of communication have played in the mediation of experience and expression in the modern period. As an indirect result, the more mechanical notions of technological determinism have been transformed in these works into a more salient appreciation of the differential effects that individual media have--and on the consequences of our reflexive engagements with them.

In comparison with the history of the book and the history of technology, we can also recognize the extent to which the latter has made explicit not only the differential effects of media but has provided a more radical account of differential effects with respect to groups, individuals, and organizations. Among the contributors to the present volume, Phil Vitone, Leslie Shade, Jesse Hunter, and Robin Mansell explicitly adopt important parts of the constructivist approach in moving away from deterministic models. The other contributors reflect additional aspects of social and technological contingency. Rojan Samarajiva's contribution explores the reversals and unintended consequences that can follow from diffusion of a technology, when, for instance, telephone-caller identification devices are taken up by groups other than the private individuals they were initially designed to protect. David Mitchell makes a related point about the play of factors that enter into the adoption of acceptable common standards for the electronic circulation of professional knowledge. The focus on policy-oriented themes in Mitchell and Samarajiva's contributions helps clarify the status of contingency in all these works. In stressing indeterminacy, they are making a point about method, not theory. Methodologically, all the contributors recognize that studying technology requires attending to what people actually do with the technology, how they organize themselves around it and who are the insiders and the outsiders to the decision-making. It also entails vigilance for the reversals and unintended consequences that arise from ongoing practices.

While emphasizing what people do with technologies, this stance also implies a certain reluctance to cast accounts within a socially deterministic framework. In varying degrees the contributors support the idea of differential effects. Technology is not the same experience for everyone; nor, as the development-diffusion distinction shows, are the same groups relevant to understanding technology at different phases of its life-cycle. This variability arguably holds not only for technical devices and for practices, but also for content of any media, which, similarly, must follow development and diffusion phases. As researchers and critics of media artifacts we must normally employ some rather arbitrary distinctions between the production and consumption of media artifacts. All the contributors call this into question, much as the arbitrariness of the distinction between the social and the technical is questioned by constructivists.

Several aspects of the new approach to technology and society recounted above can be found in Robin Mansell's account of the development of information and communication technology research in the United Kingdom in the 1980s. Mansell notes that the U.K. research she identifies points beyond the "impacts" focus of much previous research, marking a wider engagement with "how electronic modes of information processing and communication are mediating various aspects of social, political, cultural, and economic life" (Mansell, 1994, p. 32). She discusses the efforts of PICT (the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies) to refocus research questions to significantly include actors, agency, and the context of decision-making, challenging the impacts perspective not by avoiding it but by moving more complexly through it.

Mansell quotes Bloomfield, who echoes many others in noting that the conventional discourse on technology has tended to exhibit a dualism in which we ascribe explanation for the impacts and consequences of technology either to the technology itself or to social factors. To move away from this, as Mansell argues, requires the supplanting of the dualism of technological and social determinations with an emphasis that constitutes itself as duality of these two aspects of structure.

Authorship and the Circulation of Knowledge

Mansell's documenting of her work with ICT research in the United Kingdom helps to pose the question of what happens to older communication technologies as new ones develop and diffuse. The original members of the Toronto circle proposed that new media not infrequently begin by reaching back to older media for both their content and their role. Thus early printed books mimicked the uses and reproduced the content of the scroll, the codex, and the manuscript, much as broadcast television originally based itself on transferring the programming content and staging techniques from radio to its new televisual spaces.

By contrast, the underlying role of the computer in the newest information and communication technologies has been more difficult to grasp in these terms. In fact, after more than four decades it appears that several factors in the inner workings of computer development and diffusion have worked to keep its role obscured.

Electronic Books

As long as computers played an intermediate role in the production and circulation of print media--for such functions as page composition and typesetting and for control systems of production and marketing--the relationship of authors and readers to print was largely unaffected. However, once subsequent developments in computing widened the process of substitution, making the typewriter into an historical artifact and turning the reference work increasingly into something likely to be encountered on a video monitor, we can begin to see and use the tools and techniques within an altered circumstance.

Jay David Bolter has pointed out that as long as the uses of personal computers were constrained by pragmatic communication (business correspondence, report writing, technical data and storage, stocks, and other trading data), the book remained unchallenged as the dominant form of "lasting text." However, the process by which a new communication technology predictably begins--mimicking or facilitating what was done by previous technologies--is rapidly giving way in the case of personal computers to experimental and commercial examples of how this new tool is challenging the conventional unity of the book (Bolter, 1991). Bolter and other classics scholars, such as James O'Donnell and Willard McCarty, have been among the early leaders in the humanities in exploring and theorizing the computer's implications for writing and reading (see, e.g., O'Donnell, 1993; McCarty, 1993). Much as Walter Ong did in dealing with early printing, these classicists focus on several generic aspects of the reorganization of mediated experience. One is the role of computer monitors in creating an altered surface on which we now normally write. Jesse Hunter explores this further in his essay.

A second aspect of experience mediated by the computer implicates the manner in which we read. Eric Havelock's exploration of the transition in classical Greece from oral to literate forms of expression, with their differing resonances, carries equivalent implications today as we make the passage from paper-based text to videotext. Much as the typewriter has given way to the word processor as the preferred tool of writers, the reference work and the teaching textbook now appear to be endangered forms as well. As new readers gather around electronic alternatives, we can already see emerging new forms of what Havelock, referring to classical Greece, called proto-literacies. These are most apparent in electronic hypertexts, such as the CD-ROM version of the new Oxford English Dictionary on Compact Disk, whose program architecture was designed at the University of Waterloo. With computer-aided instruction (CAI), after years of clumsy experimentation, there are now rising expectations as the first generation of multimedia yields to a richer combination of engineers and educationists. And of course for anyone visiting a major (or often a minor) library today, online access to library holdings is fast replacing older referencing systems; not just site-specific holdings but access to library holdings on a national and international basis--of which Archie, developed at McGill, is an exemplary prototype.

Already in these examples, and without needing to comment on the relative success or failure of the specific programs and applications, it is possible to see a rough outline of the sites at which stakeholders will continue to gather. As Innis noted for earlier periods, new communication technology garners support by by-passing the perceived barriers of older technologies. These barriers may be the result of skills deficits, physical barriers, the availability of resources, real or perceived discrimination; but they all have the effect of establishing a constituency for alternatives. Thus, the word processor and its allied programs may have provided a partial by-pass of the publishing industry, permitting especially small organizations and individuals to seek direct routes to putting their materials into circulation. Authoring also has been reorganized, as writers of many persuasions have taken to the computer with startling enthusiasm; notably, it would seem, to critique the very technology they are using. At the other end of the circuit, readers change too, as dynamically organized text, first through CAI, but increasingly in terms of multimedia, address readers with new and different expectations of books. The familiarity generated by our experience with books and their settled unities of form and style seem increasingly contested today, even as the computer engineer labours to replicate the book and where experimental alternatives appear to some as little more than electronic equivalents of incunabula.

Electronic Text and Talk

Computers networked through the telephone infrastructure have created other possibilities for mediated experiences and expression that are unavailable through conventional forms of print media and broadcasting. As these practices move from experimental phases into more settled forms suitable for general use, many of them still appear more like proxies for older media than instruments fundamentally reinvented. In fact, online services for printed materials, such as On-Line Book Store and Electronic Newstand, seem more like sales tools for promoting the real things than efforts to establish an alternative medium of delivery.

Yet, even complementary activity like this, in which a newer medium is used to promote the products of an older one, widens the perceived use of these electronic spaces. The rising popularity of electronic reading, for instance, now includes many forms of self-organizing online groups. Online conferencing grew from limited exchanges on academic and professional subject matters to involve other more social activities. These include groups addressing social and political issues; people engaging in self-help and other therapeutic encounters; and social role-playing in the electronic equivalent of cafés, cliques or simply pen-pal correspondence. All this may now have less to do with reading than with a new form of talking.

Willard McCarty, who conceived and managed an academic online conference, Humanist, is convinced that electronic talk raises serious questions for the future organization and expression of scholarly communities themselves (McCarty, 1991). What happens, for instance, when the capacity to conference without the need to physically move around begins to establish significant interest groups and stakeholders in the academy? The elderly, the disabled, and the entire cohort of "sixties" professors who face retiring in the 1990s--for whom physical mobility may be compensated by virtual presence--may be a constituency in waiting for re-examining many of the conventional assumptions about how education is organized and reproduced. We know from the history of the book and the social constructivists that groups can make common cause around technologies without necessarily sharing beliefs or objectives.

As it stands, smaller graduate programs and sub-specialties within the academy are currently disadvantaged in terms of teaching resources and support for developing their ideas and reporting on their research. Electronic publishing, perhaps electronic seminars and tutorials, are not unrealistic alternatives in such circumstances. However, as David Mitchell demonstrates in his essay, even the distribution of bibliographic information electronically depends upon considerable efforts to build standards and establish norms and responsibilities. These all require agreement--or at least limited closure--which can be as much the negotiated consequence of satisfying diverse interests, desires, and needs as the logical extension of designing a technically "clean" system.

The dynamics of planning, promoting, and policing these new online environments provides additional weight to the argument increasingly heard in universities these days that the academy and its constituencies may be another important site for information and communication technologies, alongside the lab, the firm, the policy forum, and the household.

Electronic Networks

One site that deserves special mention, just because it sits at this moment uneasily near the centre of so many competing claims and interests, is the electronic network of networks, collectively known as the Internet. Originally developed in the 1960s in the United States as a research network joining university, industrial, governmental, and military research units together, in the last decade the Internet has become something quite different. As the New York Times effervesced recently: "It has become the postal service, telephone system and research library of the electronic age, allowing millions of people to exchange information virtually anywhere in the world and at any time, usually in a matter of minutes, using commonly available technology" (Lewis, 1993, p. F7).

How essentially contested a site the Internet has become is evident in the gathering of groups, individuals, and organizations around proposals for a second-generation infrastructure in which the Internet and other functions of electronic social networking will be housed. In her essay, Leslie Shade documents some of these inner workings, in which technical, political, and social issues--and their constituencies--gather to construct and deconstruct the developmental phase of the National Research and Education Network (NREN) in the United States and CANARIE in Canada.

Even without the new infrastructure debates, recent events have begun to challenge the character of the Internet. The Internet now accommodates 15 million users globally and copes with 150,000 new users each month. These new users, most coming from outside the academy and research communities, constitute a challenge to the communal notions of management that accompanied the Internet's early development. As commercial services demand access, pressures to see the network become more like a utility, stressing services and standards, may well increase. Controversies intrude as well. The capacity of electronic networks to by-pass conventional media and to effortlessly evade the policing of content demonstrates that the point-to-multipoint pattern of interactions may require considerable redrafting of all manner of communication codes and standards. All this suggests that the Internet, as a maturing sociotechnology, can be fruitfully observed in the coming years in terms of the phase shift from a development reality to a diffusion one.

The Consequences of Communication

Electronic networks, like the other electronic tools associated with the computer, connect public and private spaces in new ways. These new or altered pathways will become more apparent the more able we are as researchers to engage with the actual things people do with these tools and opportunities. At the same time, like the book and the broadcast, these new electronic spaces for authoring and reading also exhibit commonalities characteristic of other forms of mediated experience in the contemporary world. Two in particular can be pointed to, inasmuch as they are matters referenced elsewhere in this volume.

First, the new information and communication technologies appear to intensify the mediation of social worlds, increasing the points of access to public events, professional knowledge, and encounters with strangers. Such mediated access points are double-edged. They can be sources of information and interaction. They can also be sources of risk and vulnerability when, as Rojan Samarajiva has documented, individual transactions with a credit or debit card are used to track an individual's behaviour, in turn serving to generate second-order information about an individual's needs and preferences.

Access points between public and private spheres can also be important sources for building up aspects of trust or confidence in particular circuits of communication. Samarajiva's contribution is particularly good at alerting us to the reciprocal character of many new information and communication technologies. The use of telephone-caller identification devices to shield oneself from unwanted intrusions into one's private or domestic space, as Samarajiva shows, can also run the other way. Our phone calls to others, especially to those in the public sphere--to request information, order goods and services, or to solicit advice and counsel--can be used in turn to generate other profiles on our behaviour, drawing us unintentionally into a wider web of interactions. Samarajiva ascribes this double-edged character and condition of communication technology to the role of surveillance in modern democratic societies, placing surveillance closer to the centre of concerns for public politics in the 1990s.

In a related essay, Phil Vitone points to how another domestic technology, the home video camera, has reciprocally functioned as a powerful means for private surveillance of the public sphere. Vitone looks at the Rodney King incident and subsequent events, including the trials in which jurors reached startingly different verdicts, in light of the capacity of the home video camera to provide alternative sites and opportunities for the social surveillance of authority. Vitone's reflection on surveillance wryly alerts us to the double-edged potentials in minimalist applications of generic media technologies. Vitone's point--and it is an important point for students of media--is that information and communication technologies continue to be significantly constructed in the broader arena of surveillance itself.

Finally--and by way of conclusion--the issues raised by surveillance help to underscore the ways in which new information and communication technologies are as much the expression of the complex mediations of modernity as they are the instruments of it. In this at least, ICTs are much like those other sociotechnologies of modernity, the book, the newspaper, and the broadcast.


I am indebted to Claude Fischer (1992) for background here and in the following treatment of determinism.


Bijker, W., Hughes, T., & Pinch, T. (1987). The social construction of technological systems. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bijker, W., & Law, J. (1992). Shaping technology/building society. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bolter, J. D. (1991). Writing space: The computer, hypertext, and the history of writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum.

Carey, J. (1989). Communication as culture. New York: Unwin Hyman.

Cowan, R. S. (1983). More work for mother: The ironies of household technologies from the open hearth to the microwave. New York: Basic Books.

Cowan, R. S. (1992). Genetic technology and reproductive choice: An ethics for autonomy. In D. J. Kevles & L. Hood, The code of codes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Czitrom, D. (1982). Media and the American mind: From Morse to McLuhan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Darnton, R. (1984). The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history. New York: Pantheon.

Darnton, R. (1990). The kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in cultural history. New York: Norton.

Davis, N. Z. (1975). Society and culture in early modern France. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Eisenstein, E. (1978). The printing press as an agent of change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellul, J. (1965). The technological society. London: Cape.

Febvre, L., & Martin, H.-J. (1958). L'Apparition du livre. Paris: Gaumond.

Fischer, C. (1992). America calling: A social history of the telephone to 1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Giddens, A. (1990). The consequences of modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ginzberg, C. (1980). The cheese and the worms: The cosmos of a sixteenth century miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Goody, J. (1986). The logic of writing and the organization of society. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Habermas, J. (1987). The theory of communicative action. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Havelock, E. (1963). Preface to Plato. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Heyer, P., & Crowley, D. (1991). Introduction. In Harold Adams Innis, The bias of communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hughes, T. (1983). Networks of power: Electrification in Western society, 1880-1930. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kern, S. (1986). The culture of time and space. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1948). Radio listening in America: The people look at radio again. New York: Columbia University and Bureau of Applied Social Research.

Lewis, P. (1993, December 12). A growing internet is trying to take care of business. New York Times, p. F7.

Mansell, R. (1994). Information and communication technology policy research in the United Kingdom: A perspective. Canadian Journal of Communication, 19(1) [this volume]: 23-40.

Marvin, C. (1987). When old technologies were new. New York: Oxford University Press.

McCarty, W. (1991, January). Humanist: Lessons from a global electronic seminar. CHum Computers and the Humanities [Database]. [A publication].

McCarty, W. (1993). "A potency of life: Scholarship in an electronic age." In NASIG, Proceedings, Scholarly Communication and Networking Technologies. Haworth, CA: Haworth Press.

McLuhan, M. (1963a). Understanding media. New York: Signet Books.

McLuhan, M. (1963b). Gutenberg galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Meyrowitz, J. (1985). No sense of place: The impact of electronic media on social behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mumford, L. (1952). Art and technics. New York: Columbia University Press.

O'Donnell, J. (1993). St. Augustine to NREN: The tree of knowledge and how it grows. In NASIG, Proceedings, Scholarly Communication and Networking Technologies. Haworth, CA: Haworth Press.

Ogburn, W. (1955). Technology and the changing family. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Ong, W. (1977). Interfaces of the word. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Poster, M. (1989). Jean Beaudrillard. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Poster, M. (1990). The mode of information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Viking.

Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, irony, and solidarity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Spufford, M. (1979). First steps in literacy: The reading and writing experiences of the humblest seventeenth-century spiritual autobiographers. Social History, 4, 407-435.

Stott, W. (1973). Documentary expression in thirties America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, J. B. (1991). Ideology and modern culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Tunstall, J. (1977). The media are American. New York: Columbia University Press.

Winner, L. (1993). Upon opening the black box and finding it empty: Social constructivism and the philosophy of technology. Science, Technology and Human Values, 18(3), 362-378.

  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Thesis Abstracts
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.