Andreas Broeckmann on 8 Mar 2001 08:08:27 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] [RRE]New European Research on the Information Society

from: Red Rock Eater News Service (RRE)

New European Research on the Information Society

Phil Agre

Version of 6 March 2001.

This is a draft.  You are welcome to forward it, but please do not
quote from it or cite it.

3360 words

Research on the role of information and communications technologies
in social change has become a global industry.  As usual, we in the
United States assume that we lead the field.  Publications that have
appeared in the last year, however, make it clear that the leaders
are actually in Europe.  Below I've prepared an annotated bibliography
of recent European research, but first some rough generalizations.
Research on the "information society" in the United States and Europe
can be compared and contrasted in many ways:

 * Americans talk about "the Internet" but use the term broadly and
inconsistently; they like the term because it connotes revolution and
because, of course, we invented it.  Europeans talk about "information
and communications technologies" or "ICT's", a much broader and more
accurate term that includes areas like wireless where the Europeans
are ahead, but also one that connotes bureaucracy and does not provoke
the arthritic post-and-telecom (PTT) bureaucracies that continue to
oppress European telecommunications customers.

 * American research is organized largely through individual graduate
students' thesis projects, although large multi-site projects are
becoming more common; European research is organized largely through
collective research projects that are accountable to and closely
regulated by funding agencies.  This is one of many reasons why the
American university system works better than the European system, and
why European social research is better integrated with institutions
outside the university than American social research.

 * American research is divided between NSF, which allocates a few
crumbs to social research once the networks and databases get their
millions, and private foundations, which increasingly (though not
exclusively) do their own research, usually driven directly by their
policy agendas, rather than funding others.  In Europe, by contrast,
the European Union is deeply committed to research on social aspects
of computing, which is thoroughly integrated into its policy-making
process.  Remarkably, all of these funding agencies, American and
European alike, are run by intelligent people.

 * The American research is more creative; the European research is
better grounded in institutional reality.  The Americans are stronger
at hard economics, the Europeans at institutional economics.  The
Americans are stronger at engineering design, the Europeans at design
methods derived from the arts and from democratic theory.  American
research is stronger in organizational studies; European research is
stronger in studies of broad social trends.  American theory in this
area is more fashion-driven (again, as a broad average); European
theory is more traditional.  American research is preoccupied with
cyber hype -- propagating it or refuting it; European research is
preoccupied with the policy agenda of the European Union.

 * American research struggles endlessly to get free of technological
determinism, for example in phrases like "impacts of computing" and
"cyberspace" as a separate realm and a revolutionary break with the
past whose laws are dictated simply by the workings of the machinery.
Europeans have less of this problem.  They talk about an "information
society" that does not denote a discontinuous break.  They produce
vast, boring policy documents in which every issue gets its place.
Americans hate these documents, but in many ways American thinking,
for all its creativity, is fragmented as a result.

 * The Americans have a more evolved infrastructure, so they have more
complex technology-driven social practices to study.  This is largely
because the US scientific leadership, led by ARPA but including the
top ranks of NSF, the major supercomputer labs, and IBM, is extremely
intelligent and well-organized.  (Silicon Valley makes noise, but no
way does it set agendas for technological development.)  The Europeans
are better than the United States at setting standards.  They are
also better at industrial policy, for example supporting industrial
regions like the wireless industry in Scandinavia.  (Our industrial
policy is to hire big-shot professors and let them start companies.
Beyond that, however, lots of American jurisdictions have shallow
and wasteful ideas of what it would take to get themselves a Silicon
Valley of their own.)  So the European research is more driven by
industrial agendas.  In the United States you get digital library
research, which Silicon Valley has barely heard of even though it's
concentrated in California; and in Europe you get research on people
using wireless.  Wireless is changing the world now; digital libraries
will change the world in ten years; both require social research if
they're going to be done well.

 * The United States and Europe both have enormous public concern with
the impact of new technologies on social equality, but the Europeans
have a much stronger conceptualization of the issues.  The American
language of "information haves and have-nots" hardly names the problem,
much less pointing toward a solution.  The European (especially British)
language of "social inclusion and exclusion", while sounding much like
fingernails on a chalkboard to many people, names the problem in a way
that's actionable, and that places ICTs into a vastly broader context.
Europeans will no doubt lecture me on the inadequacy of the European
policy response to date, but my only point is the comparison to the US.

 * Reports on the American research are hard to get hold of because so
many are published in new journals that many research libraries don't
carry; reports on the European research are hard to get hold of because
so many are written for granting agencies.

 * Final caveat: Just to be clear, I'm not saying that all European
research on the information society is valuable or that all American
research is bad.  To the contrary, the EU system produces a lot of
vacuous consultant reports along with the legitimate work, and this
list has already recommended piles of high-quality research being done
in the US.

With those rough generalizations out of the way, here is an annotated
bibliography of European research on the information society.  I have
focused on new books (rather than older works, journal articles, or
book chapters), with a couple of exceptions.  This list is by no means
complete, and I am sure that it could be doubled.  Some of the entries
have already been recommended on this mailing list; others have not.

Cristiano Antonelli, New information technology and the evolution of
the industrial organisation of the production of knowledge, in Stuart
Macdonald and John Nightingale, eds, Information and Organization: A
Tribute to the Work of Don Lamberton, Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1999.
This is a frighteningly sophisticated theoretical account of the
role of networked information services in the evolution of industry
structure.  It emerges from a large community of people with economics
training working in management schools who study the interaction
between technical architecture and industry structure.  This is
an area where good work is being done in the United States as well,
though on this specific topic Antonelli's article in a class by itself.

Joan Bliss, Roger Saljo, and Paul Light, eds, Learning Sites: Social
and Technological Resources for Learning, Oxford: Pergamon, 1999.
This is an interesting collection of work about learning technology
based on the educational theories of the Russian psychologist L. S.
Vygotsky.  (Good research on educational technology in this tradition
is also happening in the US as well, for example at UC San Diego.)
Lengthy excerpt from this book can be found in the RRE advertisement:

Susanne Bodker, Morten Kyng, and Kjeld Schmidt, eds, Proceedings of
the Sixth European Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work,
Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1999.  Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW),
as it name implies, is the field that develops technical tools to
support cooperative work.  It turns out that so-called groupware
tools fail ignominiously without a strong understanding of the social
processes of group work, and so CSCW research must integrate its
technical and social sides to a greater degree than perhaps any other
field.  This is very hard because technologists and social scientists
live on entirely different planets.  This can make for conferences
with the two sides standing at opposite sides of the room, wondering
how to interact.  Both the Americans and the Europeans try hard to
overcome the differences, but the Europeans have had more success.

Gro Bjerknes, Pelle Ehn, and Morten Kyng, eds, Computers and
Democracy: A Scandinavian Challenge, Aldershot, UK: Avebury, 1987.
I'm including this book even though it's old by now.  It is one of
the first manifestos of the participatory design movement that got
started in Norway in the 1970's, and that has subsequently become
institutionalized throughout Scandinavia.  It began with projects
to include labor unions in the design of workplace technologies,
and it has generalized into a whole culture of design for involving
users in the design process.  This means contending with the problem
that "users don't know what they want", and with the consequences
of bringing the inevitably political nature of design to the surface
in formal democratic design processes.  I'm not clear why there have
been so few edited volumes or major theoretical works on participatory
design in the last few years.  Research in the field is hardly dead,
as the proceedings of the Participatory Design Conference makes clear.
It's more that the Scandinavians take participatory design for granted
and move forward from there.

Hans-Joachim Braczyk, Gerhard Fuchs, and Hans-Georg Wolf, eds,
Multimedia and Regional Economic Restructuring, London: Routledge,
1999.  This is perhaps the strongest collection of studies of the
impact of information technology on economic geography.

Mark Casson, Information and Organization: A New Perspective on the
Theory of the Firm, Clarendon Press, 1997.  This is a very original
theoretical analysis of the place of information in industrial
organization.  Economics worldwide is dominated by the neoclassical
school, which tends to assume away most problems of information.
But the UK is home to a number of interesting heterodox economists,
and Casson is particularly interesting because he moves easily between
the neoclassical and institutional camps.  In this book his starting
point is the observation that every organization is an intermediary
between individual workers and individual consumers.  So in a sense
every organization's existence needs to be justified, and one way
to justify an intermediary is in terms of its role in gathering and
processing information.  A few simple observations along these lines
generate a tremendous variety of interesting consequences, or at least
interesting hypotheses.

Claudio U. Ciborra, ed, From Control to Drift: The Dynamics of
Corporate Information Infrastructures, Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2000.  This is a project from Oslo about the organizational
realities of information technology standards.  They draw on network
economics and actor-network theory in some extended case studies of
frustrated standardization projects in various European companies.
Any large organization will have a legacy of heterogeneous systems,
and transitions to new standards such as the Internet are inevitably
political and logistical messes.

Sally Criddle, Lorcan Dempsey, and Richard Heseltine, eds, Information
Landscapes for a Learning Society, London: Library Association, 1999.
The British are leaders in rethinking information services in the
new digital world, for example by integrating library services with
instructional media services and the like in the university context.
This book gathers reports on initiatives from (mostly) British library

Ken Ducatel, Juliet Webster, and Werner Herrmann, eds, The Information
Society in Europe: Work and Life in an Age of Globalization, Rowman
and Littlefield, 2000.  This volume is a good sample of the sort of
critically minded research on the information society that happens
under the umbrella of the European Union without being by any means
dictated in its substance by the bureaucracy.  It has many outstanding
qualities, starting with its clear grasp of the many-dimensional
concrete reality of a functioning information society on planet Earth.
Topics include regional development, new organizational forms, the
labor market, and ICT applications in health, education and politics.

Anthony Dunne, Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic
Experience and Critical Design, Art Books, 2000.  This book comes
from a thesis at the Royal College of Art in London, which is
one of the most interesting sources of artistically minded design
of digital products.  It indulges more in fashion-theory than I
probably would; it takes Baudrillard seriously in a way that I can't.
It is challenging and often confounding.  But it is also a serious
and sustained inquiry into the meanings of digital products, and
particularly the strange problem of the meaning of an object that
gives physical form to information.

William H. Dutton, Society on the Line: Information Politics in the
Digital Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.  The author is
American, but the book is a summary and synthesis of research done
in the UK under the sponsorship of the Economic and Social Research
Council (ESRC), which has sponsored a great deal of high-quality
work, most recently the Virtual Society? project led by Steve Woolgar
(see <>).  (I hear that another,
similar large-group ESRC project is in the works.)  Its unifying theme
is what Dutton calls tele-access: the socially constructed conditions
under which people get access to technology and information of various
sorts.  This includes privacy and data protection, free speech issues,
equity issues of access to technology, and so on.  Although pretty
much written by Bill, the book includes brief sections contributed
by people involved in the project.  You can find the RRE advertisement
for the book here: <>.

Richard Hawkins, Robin Mansell, and Jim Skea, eds, Standards,
Innovation and Competitiveness: The Politics and Economics of
Standards in Natural and Technical Environments, Aldershot, UK: Elgar,
1995.  This book on standards dynamics is one of several books on the
list from SPRU <>, a research center at the
University of Sussex which gained fame as the Science Policy Research
Unit but is now called Science and Technology Policy Research.  Like
much SPRU work, this book is based on case studies without presenting
case-study material at great length.

Jens Hoff, Ivan Horrocks, and Pieter Tops, eds, Democratic Governance
and New Technology: Technologically Mediated Innovations in Political
Practice in Western Europe, London: Routledge, 2000.  This is, to my
knowledge, the best book about information technology and democracy.
Although it is an edited book, the chapters result from an integrated
project and the book unfolds more or less linearly.  The strength of
this book, as with much European work about technology and democracy,
is its grounding both in democratic theory and in the practice of
public administration (as opposed to the electoral and legislative
systems).  The first couple of chapters, which are short and dense,
are the best outline of the relationship between various visions of
Internet democracy and the historical philosophies of democracy such
as corporatism and republicanism.  The book is, unforunately, too
trapped by the cyberspace / virtual-reality theory of politics to
develop a strong alternative theory.  Nonetheless, all paths forward
lead through close study of this book.

The November/December 1999 issue of the ACM Magazine "Interactions",
which is a special issue about an EU research project called Maypole
on family snapshots and their migration to digital media.  The EU
has gone to great lengths to organize international research programs,
and this magazine issue reflects the coordinated nature of the project
in its unified graphic design.  This kind of advanced culture of
collaboration means that the project crosses disciplinary boundaries
in a productive way, for example mixing ethnographic studies of family
snapshots with industrial design studies of products and services that
the families might find useful.  Some details can be found on the Web:
I particularly recommend Dick Rijken's article, "Information in space:
Explorations in media and architecture".

Toru Ishida and Katherine Isbister, eds, Digital Cities: Technologies,
Experiences, and Future Perspectives, Berlin: Springer, 2000.  The
editors are Japanese and American, and the best chapter is a very
strong theoretical piece by Bill Mitchell (an Australian now teaching
at MIT), but the core of this book is the European civic networking
movement, which has gotten much more support from city governments and
social movements than the stalled community networking movement in the
United States.  Most of the chapters are straightforward descriptions
of the projects, some of which are more real than others.  Still the
overall effect is impressive.

Liberty, Liberating Cyberspace: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and
the Internet, London: Pluto, 1999.  This is a worthwhile book about,
as the title says, civil liberties and human rights issues relating
to the Internet.  The roster of issues will be familiar (copyright,
cryptography, content regulation, etc), and is not much different
in Europe than in the United States.  But the context of the European
and global human rights movement provides a different philosophical
and social grounding to the analysis than the Bill-of-Rights analysis
in the US.

Robin Mansell and Roger Silverstone, eds, Communication by Design: The
Politics of Information and Communication Technologies, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1996.  This is another very strong book from SPRU,
largely about the role of political and economic factors in the social
shaping of standards for things like electronic commerce.  What's most
impressive is not so mcuh the daring of their theories but the huge
amount of case study that the analysis is obviously based on.  Mansell
and Silverstone are both now at the London School of Economics.

Robin Mansell and W. Edward Steinmueller, Mobilizing the Information
Society: Strategies for Growth and Opportunity, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2000.  This tome sums up SPRU's EU-funded research
on information society topics for the last several years.  Although
it is consistently worthwhile, it is most interesting on the changing
role of intermediaries in an information-society industry structure.
Everybody knows that the simple story of disintermediation is not
right, and some American research has provided a theoretical basis
for the study of new patterns of intermediation, but it is SPRU
that has done the strongest and most sustained study of real cases.

Robin Mansell and Uta Wehn, eds, Knowledge Societies: Information
Technology for Sustainable Development, New York: Oxford University
Press, 1998.  This volume, yet another SPRU product, synthesizes a
large-scale collaborative project to provide advice on the role of
information technology in development in the third world.  There's
an immense demand for this information, and this volume gathers all
the weightiest research findings and best common sense in one place.

Roza Tsagarousianou, Damian Tambini, and Cathy Bryan, eds,
Cyberdemocracy: Technology, Cities and Civic Networks, London:
Routledge, 1998.  This is a more theoretically minded book from the
European civic networking movement, including chapters on projects
from the UK, Italy, Greece, Germany, and the Netherlands, together
with one project from the United States.  It is free of hype of both
the enthusiastic and skeptical sorts.

W. B. H. J. van de Donk, I. Th. M. Snellen, and P. W. Tops, eds,
Orwell in Athens: A Perspective on Informatization and Democracy,
Amsterdam: IOS Press, 1995.  This is a serious and thoughtful book
about ICT's in public administration.  Like the Hoff, Horrocks, and
Tops volume above (not coincidentally also led by a Dutch group),
it brings a deep and sensible knowledge of democratic theory to
bear on a wide range of practical problems of computing in public
administration, such as the involvement of ordinary citizens in
bureaucratic decision-making, access to public information, merger
of data from different sources, and community access to government
through computer networks.  (Wim van de Donk is also the coeditor
with Stephen Coleman and John Taylor of a book that I haven't managed
to get my hands on yet, Parliament in the Age of the Internet, Oxford
University Press, 1999; and the coeditor with Ig Snellen of another
book that has escaped me, Public Administration in an Information Age:
A Handbook, Amsterdam: IOS Press, 1998.)

Jan van Dijk, The Network Society: Social Aspects of New Media,
translated by Leontine Spoorenberg, London: Sage, 1999.  This is
one of the best all-around surveys of social issues raised by new
media.  It is thoughtful and clearly reasoned, and it is theoretical
without being caught up in self-indulgent fashion.  It will not be
news to people who follow these issues closely, but if I were running
a class and wanted to get beyond the tedious controversies between
enthusiasts and skeptics, I would consider assigning this as a text.


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