Info cliches suit the Euro funders

January 22, 1999

Users of new technologies, rather than visionary glibness, will define the cultural results of information technology, Jon Agar argues

Flagship technologies always repay close reading: they tell us much about the political hopes of the communities that pay for them. For the past decade there has been a tangible rift between the utopian visions of Europe and the United States. Whereas the US invoked the speed and movement of superhighways, Europe wanted a seemingly more cosy project: an inclusive "information society". The European Union would be knitted together by copper wire and optical cable.

Three days before Christmas, the Council of Ministers agreed the Fifth Framework Programme for Research and Development which sets out the research priorities for the European Union for the period 1999 to 2002. Of four themes, the big winner was the User Friendly Information Society, which received a massive boost: q3.6 billion out of nearly q15 billion (Pounds 11 billion). But what is it that is being so lavishly supported? What is an information society? Should users be cautious in their choice of friends?

It is too late to argue that there is not and never will be such a thing as an information society. Quite simply, the emperor who gives away several billion euros can wear as little as he likes. Since the 1950s a small academic industry has grown up surrounding proclamations of radical transformations of existing society, often tied to the spread of information technologies. Historian James Beniger neatly underlined this trend when he listed 75 new societies, ages and millennia announced before 1985. The list is a monument to hubris: from hardy perennials ("computer revolution" 1962, "postindustrial society" 1971, "age of information" 1971) to the briefly fashionable ("global village" 1964, "micro millennium" 1979, "third wave" 1980). A much smaller group have appraised such claims critically. They tend to make less of a splash. After all, "No Societal Transformation Today" is not a headline. Their arguments, which help us think again about the Council of Ministers' Christmas present, fall into six identifiable types.

The first, that there is nothing at all interesting in the concept of an information society, is rarely expressed, not because it is an implausible position, but because those who adhere to it would rather argue about something else. Some commentators duck the real question: it is much more significant, they say, that some people merely believe that an information society is upon us.

The other arguments are more helpful: there has been an information revolution but it happened years ago (the contenders at the moment are either early modern or, my favourite, the late 19th century), or, in a variant form, there has been a transformation of society but its present manifestation is an outgrowth of an older one. For example, the feverish construction and spread of information technologies are merely part of the aftershock of industrialisation - just as the telegraph prevented railway accidents, so computers are the control devices in an ever more complex economy.

The fourth type of argument borrows directly from the revisionist history of the industrial revolution: eschewing simple stories it stresses the patchiness of change: while some jobs, such as typesetting or call centres, are unrecognisable from a few decades ago, this is not the case for many others. This is an unremarkable claim - the converse would be unprecedented and truly surprising - but wins academic brownie points.

Finally, the information society may turn out to be entirely different from what the paymasters are hoping for. The history of technology is littered with users who radically reinterpret technologies for, literally, their own devices.

Early cartoons envisaged the telephone as a one-way means of communication, a telegraph for the voice. It was the ordinary users who found that the phone was a tool for gossiping rather than ordering. Likewise email was far from the intentions of the American military when the first computer networks were laid.

This fact makes critical and empirical studies such as the Economic and Social Research Council's year-old "Virtual Society?" programme vital. For example, anthropologists Penny Harvey and Sarah Green have been closely following a state-of-the-art Infocities project in Manchester, which involves the kind of technology that might be funded on a much larger scale under the Fifth Framework. They have uncovered signs of an everyday use of information technologies distant from "information society" expectations. Even the cutting-edge organisations that might be supposed to be disembodied and virtual - the web page designers, the innovative museums - are blithely resistant to cyber-hype, and recast the technologies to fit their own agendas. Information kiosks in supermarkets were being used - but mainly as handy tables in busy environments.

Other Virtual Society research makes equally interesting reading. Call centres, for example, are far less common than might be supposed. The issues of social exclusion and privacy do not play out as predicted by theory. Perhaps the main difference between hype and common experience is that technology often fails. Rhetorically, the coming of the true information society is always in the future, always a day deferred. In the first Virtual Society Annual Public Lecture last April at Brunel University, Bruno Latour referred to this phenomenon as the "strange way we have of talking about all this technology as if it has no defect, as if it was not slow, as if it was easy and user friendly, and we always do the opposite".

My prediction, then, is that a European information society will be not so much user-friendly as user-defined and user-led, probably in directions which are entirely unanticipated. "User-friendly", which seems to have been also approved in Germany (Benutzerfreundliche) and echoed in Italy (facile uso) is, after all, a faintly patronising term. Hope instead rests with the French who have plumped for an alternative straight out of Ivan Illich: a conviviale information society. The old radical chose the term in the 1970s as part of his critique of tech- nological society: convivial tools are tools that users actively master and employ for their own purposes.

Jon Agar is lecturer, centre for the history of science, technology and medicine, University of Manchester.

More information at www.brunel.ac.uk/research/virtsoc

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