New European Research on the Information Society

Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520

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 You are welcome to forward it, but please do not quote from it or cite it.

Version of 2 February 2002.
3300 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. First, however, let me offer 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; we like the term because it connotes revolution and because 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 post-and-telecom bureaucracies.

* 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 closely regulated by funding agencies. This is one of many reasons why the American university system works better than the European systems, 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 committed to research on social aspects of computing, which is thoroughly integrated into its policy-making process. Remarkably, all of the major 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. Americans are stronger at ethnography; Europeans are stronger at studies of industrial regions. Americans are stronger at organizational studies; Europeans are stronger at studies of broad social trends. American theory is more fashion-driven; 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 the concept of "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", which is still somewhat deterministic but does not denote a discontinuous break. The Europeans 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.

* 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 it does not 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 professors and let them start companies. This works. But otherwise, lots of American jurisdictions have shallow and wasteful ideas about how to get 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 great public concern with the impact of new technologies on social equality, but the Europeans have a stronger conceptualization of the issues. The American language of a "digital divide" and "information haves and have-nots" hardly names the problem, much less pointing toward a solution. The European language of "social inclusion and exclusion", while sounding like fingernails on a chalkboard to many people, at least names the problem in an actionable way and places ICTs into a 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 few libraries 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 much high-quality research is being done in the US. I am also glossing over cases that don't fit into my Europe-versus-America framework: transatlantic collaborations, globalized technology companies, Americans working in Europe and vice versa, conferences such as Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) that exist in communicating American and European versions, and so on.

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 few exceptions. This list is by no means complete, and it could surely be doubled.

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.)

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 the name implies, is the field that develops technical tools to support cooperative work. It turns out that so-called groupware tools fail 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 hard because technologists and social scientists live on different planets. It can make for conferences where the two sides stand at opposite sides of the room, wondering how to interact. Both the Americans and the Europeans try 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 especially 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 people.

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 mostly written by Bill, the book includes brief sections contributed by people involved in the project.

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, unfortunately, 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 about 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 constitutional 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 much the daring of their theories but the 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 self-indulgence. If I were running a class and wanted to get beyond the tedious arguments between enthusiasts and skeptics, I would consider assigning this as a text.