E-volution, not revolution

May 12, 2000

The first signs are emerging that people are moving away from using the internet -so have universities over-reacted to the e-commerce frenzy? Harriet Swain reports.

Dot-coms, e-commerce and web-based discussion groups have slipped into university jargon, online research is taken for granted, and email is so common that last year's industrial action by the Association of University Teachers involved not using it.

For university administrators there is no doubt about the revolutionary impact of technology. Over the past couple of years, they have had to make decisions about updating libraries, the feasibility of online degrees and how to police student web enthusiasts with a particular interest in pornography.

But the effect of the "internet revolution" on the content of research and teaching, rather than the way it is carried out, has been harder to quantify. While study of new technologies can no longer be relegated to departments of engineering and computer studies, some disciplines, departments and academics have taken it on board more enthusiastically than others.

The next couple of months sees the culmination of a major Economic and Social Research Council project, "The Virtual Society?: The Social Science of Electronic Technologies". Over the past two and a half years, this has been considering whether fundamental shifts have taken place in how people behave and interact as a result of electronic technologies. The 22 projects under the programme include work on how new technology can help provide social support, contribute to social inclusion and involve the public in decision-making.

Last week, academics from around the world will met in Hertfordshire to reflect on the research so far, and in June there be a second conference in London, attended by sociologist Manuel Castells, author of The Information Age, to which politicians have also been invited.

Steve Woolgar, a professor of sociology at Brunel University and director of the ESRC programme, says: "The idea is to have academic research tied into the making of government policy. It is crucial because (prime minister) Tony Blair has promised that everyone should have access to the internet in five years time but it is apparent that no one knows what having access actually means.

"The internet has become a cultural object even though a relatively small proportion of society is involved in it," Woolgar says. Many people are not only unclear about whether it has actually arrived but about whether it ever will. "New technologies are not expanding at the rate people assumed, nor having the impact that people thought they would have," warns Woolgar. "Teenagers in particular are moving away from using the internet."

Philip Powell, editor of The Information Systems Journal, also counsels caution. While he is confident that every business school in the country will have taken on board the impact of electronic commerce with new courses or course options, he is not sure about the idea, being considered by at least one leading university, of a chair specifically in e-commerce. "While this is not a fad, one suspects that five years down the line people will not be talking about e-commerce," he says. "It will be an established part of business, but it will not change the fundamentals of marketing, good products and contact with customers."

Philip Schlesinger, professor in the media research institute at Stirling University and chair of the media studies panel of the next research assessment exercise, makes a similar point about the growth of websites and online media. "It is a new area, but we are facing similar problems to those we faced previously - questions of intellectual property, of the independence of states in relation to a global media," he says. "We aren't in a completely transformed world."

Ironically, it is not media or business studies but the academic subjects that are less usually associated with technological change that could be the ones most fundamentally altered by new technology.

Psychologists, for instance, are looking into the questions raised by the fact that people appear to feel more comfortable using new technology when they experience fewer human prompts.

And Jonathan Ree, lecturer in philosophy at Middlesex and a speaker at next month's conference, says new technology could prove a valuable way of exploring key philosophical questions to do with concepts of individual existence and identity. "Many issues philosophers are trying to explore in theory, we can explore in practice through email," he says. "The internet enables a kind of sociability to exist that proves a point that philosophers have been dealing with in various ways for 2,000 years - that it is a mistake to think we are ever alone."

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