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Book Review: Sketching Tomorrow - The Social Dynamics of Information and Communication Technology

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Emma Tonkin takes a look at an ambitious work on the relationship of modern society to information and communication technologies and observes more sins of omission than commission.

The Social Dynamics of Information and Communication Technology

The Social Dynamics of Information and Communication Technology. Edited by Eugene Loos, Enid Mante-Meijer and Leslie Haddon, Ashgate Publishing, 2008, ISBN 978-0754670827, 176 pages.

In the introduction to this 227-page work [1], editors Eugene Loos, Enid Mante-Meijer and Leslie Haddon provide a concise history of the organisation underlying the research area - the social dynamics of information and communication technology, or ICT to those on first-name terms - and the political stance that called it into being. The European Commission and national governments, it seems, are of the opinion that information and communication technologies as a whole can be seen as enablers for the furtherance of democratic society.

Viewpoint of the Editors

The editors see it as a social-constructivist viewpoint; the user, the citizen, every stakeholder, represents a co-constructor of an emergent society. Technology, they note, cannot produce an ideal society. People do that. Technology is the enabler, or maybe the catalyst.

To study this area, interdisciplinary groups of reseachers and consultants set up a series of conferences and activities via the European COST (Cooperation in Science and Technology) intergovernmental framework, which was designed to allow the coordination of nationally funded research on a European level [2]. This book is a series of selected papers, further developed, from the 2003 COST 269 conference, which was broadly subtitled 'The Good, the Bad and the Irrelevant: The user and the future of information and communication technologies.' Formally, the preoccupying questions underlying this book are given ([1], p.2) as:

  1. In which ways may ICTs serve as tools in the reshaping of everyday life?
  2. What social dynamics are involved in the adoption and rejection of ICTs on personal and organisational levels?

The editors describe adoption and domestication of ICT (an oddly evocative term, the formal definition for which sadly has escaped the notice of the book's indexer) as taking technology home as a pet and making it yours [3] and a 'profoundly social phenomenon driven by the ways in which people make sense of their environment', quoting Weick's statement [4] that 'Rather than talking about adapting to an external environment, it may be more correct to argue that organizing consists of adapting to an enacted environment [ ...] constituted by the actions of interdependent human actors. The phrase "enacted environment" preserves the crucial distinction that we wish to make, the most important being that the human creates the environment to which the system then adapts.'

To put it another way, to the extent that ICT is predictable or capable of evaluation by the user, then ICT is what you think it is - and hence, what you make of it. Designing ICTs, then, implies a good understanding of the context - including social aspects of that context - of use. And as regards the prediction of social consequence: to understand how ICT will affect the ever-present evolution of society presupposes an understanding of its undercurrents and pressures, on macroclimate and local levels, and the ability to model and to predict in a manner that begins to approach one of the science-fiction author Asimov's inventions, psychohistory [5]. However, that an endeavour appears forbiddingly difficult to achieve does not mean that time spent in mapping the edges of that territory should be seen as wasted, and the time spent observing the area of the map with the caption 'Here be Dragons' has not been wasted.

Contents

The papers are quite short; around sixteen pages per paper should not seem short, but with such a large canvas on which to draw, it suddenly represents a cramped space in which to introduce an area and manner of investigation, a topic, a scene, and to provide both results and conclusion.

Formally, the book is separated into five sections, within which each paper represents a chapter. The headings are reproduced below:

Part 1: Disciplinary Insights into the Social Dynamics of Innovation and Domestication
1. Computer Anxiety in Daily Life: Old History?
2. ICTs and the Human Body: An Empirical Study in Five Countries
3. The Adoption of Terrestrial Digital TV: Technology Push, Political Will or Users' Choice
4. The Flexible Room: Technology for Communication and Personalisation
Part 2: The Internet as a tool to enable users to organise everyday life
5. Users of the Family Internet Sites: A Virtual Community between Intimate Space and Public Apace
6. Legal Self-Help and the Internet
7. On Older People, Internet Access and Electronic Service Delivery: a Study of Sheltered Homes
Part 3: ICTs in Organisational Settings: A Tool or a Curse?
8. Resistance to Innovation: a Case Study
9. Using ICT in Human Service Organisations: An Enabling Constraint? Social Workers, New Technology and their Organisation
10. The Impact of ICT Implementations on Social Interaction in Work Communities
Part 4: The Future: The Boundaries Between Work and Non-Work Life
11. There is no Business like Small Business: The Use and Meaning of ICTs for Micro-Enterprises.
12. Teleworking Behind the Front Door: The Patterns and Meaning of Telework in the Everyday Lives of Workers
Part 5: Future Developments
13: Enabling Humans to Control the Ethical Behaviour of Persuasive Agents
14. Challenging Sensory Impairments

The topics covered in the book seem to represent a random walk over a broad selection of topics from many disciplines. Like any other random walk it spends time caught in some topics, and others appear rather as an afterthought. Taking the core topic of 'society', we wander through the downsides of technologies, from the increasingly strict requirement to operate computers rather than interacting with humans in daily activities such as driving, commerce and consultation, to the cross-generationally present fear that makes this unpleasant for users, computer anxiety, and the resistance to this aspect of computerisation. We consider the enabling aspects of ICT through silver surfers and legal self-help (especially useful for the more vulnerable) via the Internet. Along the way, social interaction and virtual community are examined, and we stumble, rather dazedly by this point, into a discussion of ethics and computerised agents.

From there, the book takes us to Gladstone's poignant and fascinating final diversion into the topic of sensory impairment, retention and translation into accessible forms of data, and an unflinchingly honest evaluation: 'The narrow view of information has meant that many proposed solutions fail to address users' needs sufficiently to be technically worthwhile [ ...] technology increasingly represents a solution that is looking for a problem.'[6] He quotes 'the elderly lady who said to an evaluator, "I am sure that all that technology is very useful but my problem is that I won't live to see my granddaughter grow up"'. It is a sobering way to bring the star-struck reader back to earth.

Conclusion

The book may meander, directed by the interests of its authors - the editors' conclusion ([1], pp. 217-221) itself remarks on the diversity of the content - but the conclusion given by Gladstone says it all: 'The tendency to replace human-based services by technical systems in the name of independence for the user and economy for the supplier addresses neither the real implications for the user nor the complexity of the world in which people live. The human element in collection, presentation and delivery of ICT services is, and remains, vital.' [6]

It is said that when all you have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail. The editors' conclusion states that the principle underlying the conference and the collection of papers into a book was 'that we benefit from looking beyond our own specialism to appreciate the contributions that different disciplines, themselves containing multiple approaches, have to make' (quotation (in [1], p.217) from Haddon [7]). The more tools that are available for the interdisciplinary research community to wield, the better the resulting model.

When I read this book my first reaction was disappointment, not at the content of the book (which is of a generally high quality and mentions many interesting case studies) but because of the content that seemed to me to be missing. In a world in which the Spanish could organise 2004 'flash mob' demonstrations through a form of SMS 'Chinese Whispers' [8], where the news reports in the spring of 2009 focused on the use of Twitter to organise protests in Moldova [9], where in this book is the political side of ICT to be found? However, the fact that the book does not provide detailed discussion of all aspects of the subject could imply, as the editors state, that the topic is simply too large to give more than the briefest of overviews of subject areas in a single collection of research.

References

  1. The Social Dynamics of Information and Communication Technology. Eds. Eugène Loos, Enid Mante-Meijer and Leslie Hadden. Ashgate. ISBN 978 0 7546 7082 7
  2. COST: European Cooperation in Science and Technology. Retrieved 15 March, 2009
    http://www.cost.esf.org/about_cost
  3. One formal definition for 'domestication' in ICT is given by Anderson [10]. The term indeed draws the analogy with 'the domestication of animals as an aid in human activities.[...] Over time familiarisation, experience, training and (perhaps most importantly) experimentation lead to a domestication cycle.[...] The end result is a domesticated animal whose place in peoples' lives becomes familiar to the extent that it "disappears" as a technology in everyday language..[...] This is most easily seen in the recent domestication of the mobile telephone which has become a tool of business, of safety and security, an item of fashion, of convenience and, most dramatically, of young people's fervid social communication.'
  4. Weick, K. E. (1969). The Social Psychology of Organizing. (Reading: Blackwell)
  5. Asimov, I. Foundation. Gnome Press, 1951.
  6. Gladstone, K. (2008). Challenging Sensory Impairment. In: The Social Dynamics of Information and Communication Technology. Eds. Loos et al., pp 207.
  7. Haddon, L. Mante, E. A., Sapio, B., Kommonen, K.-H., Fortunati, L. and Kant, A. (eds) (2005), Everyday Innovators: Researching the Role of Users in Shaping ICTs (Dordrecht: Springer).
  8. Flashmobs with a Purpose:Protests in Madrid organized by SMS, chatrooms. Posting on Boing Boing, 13 March 2004.
    http://www.boingboing.net/2004/03/13/flashmobs-with-a-pur.html
  9. Student protests are turning into a Twitter revolution in Moldova
    http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/04/07/student-protests-are-turning-into-a-twitter-revolution-in-moldova/
  10. Anderson, Ben (2003). The domestication of information and communication technologies. Retrieved 15 March 2009
    http://www.essex.ac.uk/chimera/content/Pubs/wps/CWP-2002-03-Domestication-of-ICTs.pdf

Author Details

Emma Tonkin
Research Officer
UKOLN
University of Bath

Email: e.tonkin@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/

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Date published: 
30 April 2009

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How to cite this article

Emma Tonkin. "Book Review: Sketching Tomorrow - The Social Dynamics of Information and Communication Technology". April 2009, Ariadne Issue 59 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue59/tonkin-rvw/


article | by Dr. Radut