Determination and Contingency in New Media Development

Handbook of New Media (2002) Lievrouw, co-editor of the Handbook of New Media (2002), provides an excellent qualitative overview of the seminal ideas behind the sociotechnical phenomenon encapsulated in the Diffusion of Innovations theory as well as the Social Shaping Technology perspective. Starting off with why there had always been interest in this field, she then explained the origins of both competing theories and later produced a framework in which we could compare the two perspectives, by using case studies on E-mail and Videotex. In this framework, she likened Diffusion of Innovations theory as being Deterministic while the perspective of Social Shaping of Technology as leaning more towards Contingency. By using a comparative table (p. 193), she clearly illustrates her comparison of the two concepts based on ???moments???, which were what she called the ???critical points??? in technological development (e.g. origin, actors, choices).

While the origins of both theories stem from the same concepts and methods from the Chicago School of Sociology, they provide different, even opposing, windows in which to view the sociotechnical phenomena. However, other than viewing the differences between the two theories, I found the idea of how unintended adoption and uses of technology most true yet intriguing. As mentioned earlier, information and communication technology may have been designed and intended for specific purposes, but there has been open and unanticipated uses or consequences of it as well. While some are prematurely entrenched (e.g. typewriter QWERTY layout), some good inventions never succeed (e.g. VHS vs. Sony Betamax format).

Lievrouw quoted relevant cases where E-mail was unexpectedly born out of the creation of ARPANET which was originally intended for computer resource sharing (i.e. load balancing of data computing). She also mentioned Videotex being popular in other countries, but when introduced to the United States, it bombed. Why it worked elsewhere except the U.S. was a mystery. Several researchers believed it could be due to many factors including how Videotex came during a time of the new vision and rhetoric heralding the emerging ???information society???. This could have unrealistic or premature expectations among key players behind Videotex in America, which may account for the downfall (i.e. think dot com boom). Other factors might include how other countries had government interventions to promote its use as well as how Personal Computers were becoming popular during the Videotex introduction phase in America.

I feel that not only is this article relevant to our times, it is also well planned and comprehensive. The methodology and concepts were clear and this would be a great read for anyone interested in the field of technology and its impact on society. You can download my full integrative report on this chapter of the Handbook of New Media (2002) as hndbk183-200_review.pdf