Book Review: Computerization Movements and Technology Diffusion
Computerization Movements and Technology Diffusion: From Mainframes to Ubiquitous Computing. By Margaret S. Elliott and Kenneth L. Kraemer, Information Today, 2008, ISBN 978-1573873116, 581 pages.
This book is all about computerisation movements – CMs, for short. CMs are social, professional, intellectual and/or scientific movements , collective movements fuelled by a group of people who share a vision of the way that things should be, and are ready to promote that vision. For some readers, this may sound a little abstract, so I will begin with a little descriptive preamble, which others are welcome to skip.
The worlds of computer science and information technology are, whilst in many ways disjoint, brought together by a shared love of the elevator pitch. If you can explain your idea in thirty seconds or less – say, when you have succeeded in trapping your prospective venture capitalist into a trip up to the twenty-fifth floor with you – and have it understood and appreciated, then this will simplify many things for you and your business. To do that means that you must anchor your idea as seamlessly as possible to ideas that are well-known and widely shared, because as little of that time as possible should be taken up in describing necessary background. It is easy to design a back-of-the-envelope model for the subset of all elevator pitches that are likely to be successful, like so:
- Full space of possible elevator pitches.
- Areas of knowledge shared by you and the auditor
- Space of plausible ideas
- Probability of acceptance
Naturally, there are some ideas that (as plausible or eventually important as they may turn out to be) aren't easy to get across. And there are others that, although less plausible to the 20-20 vision provided by hindsight, are more likely to succeed in the elevator-pitch test. These same communicative mechanisms are at play in business, research and indeed any other field of human endeavour, although various details must differ – the length of attention you get, the number and variety of prospective funders, the motivating factors, and so forth.
Elliott and Kraemer's book is about drawing out the social, cultural and political landscape behind the process of deciding which of the really big ideas get time, effort, promotion and encouragement, and what ideas are to be quietly ignored – why, how and when organisations adopt and promote computing technologies.
This book contains twenty chapters, research papers on the topic of CMs that, as the Acknowledgements state, further the work of the late professor Rob Kling, who died in May 2003. A foreword by Susan Iacono sketches out the material, and the context in which it was written. Chapter 1 of this volume provides an introduction and sketches out the structure for the succeeding nineteen chapters which are as follows:
Part I: Introduction
1. Computerization Movements and the Diffusion of Technological Innovations
2. Reprints of Seminal Research Papers on Computerization Movements:
Paper 1: Computerization Movements and the Mobilization of Support for Computerization
Paper 2: Computerization Movements: The Rise of the Internet and Distant Forms of Work
Part II: Productivity
3. The Computerization Movement in the U.S. Home Mortgage Industry: Automated Underwriting from 1980 to 2004
4. Visions of the Next Big Thing: Computerization Movements and the Mobilization of Support for New Technologies
5. Framing the Photographs: Understanding Digital Photography as a Computerization Movement
Part III: Democratization
6. From the Computerization Movement to Computerization: Communication Networks in a High-Tech Organization
7. Internetworking in the Small
8. Online Communities: Infrastructure, Relational Cohesion, and Sustainability
Part IV: Death of Distance
9. Virtual Teams: High-Tech Rhetoric and Low-Tech Experience
10. Large-Scale Distributed Collaboration: Tension in a New Interaction Order
11. Examining the Proliferation of Intranets
Part V: Freedom and Information Rights
12. Information/ Communications Rights as a New Environmentalism? Core Environmental Concepts for Linking Rights-Oriented Computerization Movements
13. Examining the Success of Computerization Movements in the Ubiquitous Computing Era: Free and Open Source Software Movements
14. Emerging Patterns of Intersection and Segmentation When Computerization Movements Interact
15. Seeking Reliability in Freedom: The Case of F/OSS
16. Movement Ideology vs. User Pragmatism in the Organizational Adoption of Open Source Software
Part VI: Ubiquitous Computing
17. The Professional's Everyday Struggle with Ubiquitous Computing
18. Politics of Design: Next-Generation Computational Environments
19. Social Movements Shaping the Internet: The Outcome of an Ecology of Games
Part VII Conclusion
20: Comparative Perspective on Computerization Movements: Implications for Ubiquitous Computing.
In Chapter 1, the CM is defined as 'a broad environmental dynamic of interacting organizations and institutions that shape utopian visions of what technology should do and how it should be used' (p.3). Iacono's preface points to five basic assumptions of computerisation movements' ideologies, the belief structure that underlies the promotion of information systems:
- Computer-based technologies are central for a reformed world
- Improved computer-based technologies can further reform society
- More computing is better than less, and there are no conceptual limits to the scope of appropriate computerisation
- No one loses from computerisation
- Uncooperative people are the main barriers to social reform though computing
Here, already, we see what becomes increasingly evident throughout this book; far from being as dry a topic as the politely worded back cover would state, research into CMs is mercilessly realist. The actual state of clothing of the Emperor is a factor in the way that rhetoric – 'discourse aimed at an audience to gain either intellectual or active adherence'  – shifts over time, but a critical point here is that a computerisation movement can exist no matter what the actual state of the Emperor's underwear drawer may happen to be – a continuing gap is observed 'between CM visions and the reality of technology use in organisations and society' (p. xviii). In other words, new technologies are described via utopian visions, and as a result of all this rhetoric, it is not unusual for technology to be adopted, but to identify the real-world technology as a manifestation of that vision may be no easy feat. Rhetoric, we are told, is used to convince stakeholders that a new IT concept is the next big thing, that it is not the next big thing, and what should be learnt from the preceding experiences .
Most of the papers herein are based on a seminal paper by Kling and Iacono  (1988). This paper, The mobilization of support for computerization: the role of computerization movements, is reprinted in Chapter 2 of this volume. Chapter 2 also contains Computerization movements: the rise of the Internet and distant forms of work, by Iacono and Kling , a view of the assertions of social transformation that 'selectively frame' what the Internet should mean. The paper casts aside the question of the 'fidelity... to truth' of assertions such as "The Internet is the dawning of a new social epoch... distance will be overcome, a new social order will emerge, and lives will be transformed" and focuses on examining these assertions themselves, and the way in which the 'meaning of the Internet' is built up in macro-level discourses.
Further chapters cover application of the CM viewpoint to specific topics, via the case studies, empirical studies, theoretical analyses and field-based studies described on the book's cover matter. This includes discussion of the promises of increased productivity (Chapters 3-5), democratisation (Chapters 6-8), the 'death of distance' (Chapters 9-11), Freedom and Information Rights (Chapters 12-16), and the section of the book that is my personal favourite, Ubiquitous Computing (Chapters 17-19).
The Ubiquitous Computing section is particularly interesting because of the differences in language use between these chapters and those that appear previously. Rather than providing a dispassionate viewpoint, there are a few spirited swipes at the ideals that underlie the area – for example, Chapter 17 identifies Weiser as the most famous proponent of ubiquitous computing discourse; Weiser 'seeks to convince us that the miniaturization of computing equipment and sensor technology... will bring about a situation where not only are computers everywhere, but these computers will also disappear into the fabric of life and provide unnoticed advantages' (pp. 457). In discussing failed adoption of the PDA (pp. 459) the author adds that 'The PDA generally disappeared completely out of sight and into desk drawers'.
Chapter 18 juxtaposes the Semantic Web and pervasive computing. This must have been a somewhat difficult comparison to write, since SW components are very often proposed as middleware components for pervasive computing applications, so it is a little like comparing the rhetoric surrounding motorway design and that which motivates the design of touring coaches. The chapter is rendered livelier by an impression drawn largely from observation of word choice – that Ackerman writes as an embedded journalist, that is, from within one of the camps. Perhaps there is a clue in here as to the level of difficulty of writing in a dispassionate and distant manner about a topic that remains directly relevant. After all, to compare and contrast two present-day CMs is to contribute actively to an ongoing debate.
There are a few minor issues with the structure: for example, it would be useful to have a little more information about the provenance of each chapter such as any source material on which it is based, perhaps presented in a very brief foreword for each chapter complete with a little background and introductory information. However, this is a minor recommendation. The conclusion recaps the previous chapters in a sweeping manner, which gives rise to a small quibble – a couple more pages of discussion of specific highlights of the papers in preceding chapters would have been welcome. Conclusions are drawn, and five generalisations are drawn on the basis of the four eras of computerisation discussed throughout the book: Mainframe, PC, Internet and Ubiquitous Computing. These conclusions are (beginning p. 522) as follows:
- There is a continuing gap between CM visions and the reality of technology use in organisations and society
- CM rhetoric tends to shift from the utopian to the pragmatic with experience and contending discourse
- Technologies that require a support infrastructure to be built as part of their implementation take longer to diffuse than those that can use existing infrastructures, resulting in a lower probablity that a CM requiring a new infrastructure will lead to successful diffusion
- The realities of day-to-day use of a CM's promoted technology cannot be predicted precisely in advance, but informed technology assessments can be made by better understanding of similarities and differences of emerging and earlier technologies. Such assessments can improve the success of a CM.
- The social context shapes technology use as much if not more than the technology per se. New technology often reinforces existing organisational and social arrangements, rather than disrupting, changing or transforming them. CMs that leverage the technology-organisation linkage will be more successful than those that do not.
I suspect that some will look at the conclusions presented here and think that this book represents a set of well-chosen statements of the obvious, and in a certain sense this analysis would not be inaccurate. But the most important aspect of the book is not in its conclusions. Rather, it lies in the fact that the conclusions are constructed on the basis of over 500 pages of research.
The book is a delight, because it is rare for busy professional academics and researchers to have the time, the opportunity and the motivation to lay down their pen (or, as it may be, their Blackberry) and reflect deeply and thoughtfully on the equally deeply and sincerely held beliefs and assumptions that underlie their work. As a professional cynic I am aware that it is even rarer to be able to do so productively, thoughtfully and without cynicism.
The synopsis on the back cover finishes with the oblique comment that 'The empirical studies presented here show the need... to be aware that CM rhetoric can propose grand visions that never become part of a reality, and reinforce the need for critical and scholarly review of promising new technologies'. I would add that the tools offered here comprise a framework for analysis of computerisation movements; while the studies offered here represent a comprehensive set of examples of how these tools can be applied, and at the same time provide an illustration by example of the most productive attitude to take while doing so. There is therefore ample opportunity to step out of the embedded political discourse in which computing is mired and take the time to apply this analysis in other contexts, including sectors such as institutional repositories, registries and the many faces of social software.
- Kling Rob & Suzanne Iacono. 1988. The mobilization of support for computerization: The role of computerization movements. Social Problems 35(3)(June): 226-43.
- Perelman, Chaim. (1982). The realm of rhetoric (William Kluback, Trans.). Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press: pp.147.
- Allen, Jonathan P., "Visions of the Next Big Thing: Computerization Movements and the Mobilization of Support for New Technologies." Forthcoming in K. Kraemer and M. Elliott (eds.), Computerization Movements and Technology Diffusion: From Mainframes to Ubiquitous Computing. Information Today: p. 147.
- Iacono, S. and R. Kling (2001). In: Information Technology and Organizational Transformation: History, Rhetoric, and Practice, edited by J. Yates and J. Van Maanen. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, California.