International Information Infrastructure: social and policy considerations

By David Hakken

Politics and information infrastructure
The social construction of technology
Shaping the NII: The CPSR perspective
Analysis of the CPSR intervention
International information infrastructure
It is reasonable to assume that readers of Telektronikk are familiar with the possibilities for communication inherent in wide-band, wide-area telecommunication systems which integrate advanced forms of information technology. You are also likely to be familiar with at least some of the technical challenges which must be met if access to such 'information infrastructures' is to become general, and you have no doubt thought about at least some of the social issues raised by the existence of such info-telematic systems. While the journal has done much to increase awareness of the technical issues, however, one can wonder if it has been as successful in regard to the social issues. My purpose here is to stimulate a more developed discussion of these social issues.

Despite years of technical and commercial interest, information infrastructures remain essentially embryonic. Recently, however, they have again drawn the interest of more general publics. I shall therefore begin by drawing attention to some recent events which help explain why. These recent events have taken place primarily in the United States, but they are therefore, perhaps unfortunately, of necessary interest to the rest of the world.

Second, I shall locate concern with these systems in relation to recent IT research and practices, particularly work which attempts to place technical issues in social context. Such contextualising, I believe, is essential if the opportunities to bring information infrastructures more fully to life - which are implicit in the recent events - are to be effectively grasped.

Third, I shall describe certain responses to the events which have been generated within the computing community, focusing again primarily on a US organisation, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. CPSR has mobilised its membership to intervene collectively in the US discussion of information infrastructure. I am largely in sympathy with the organisation's intervention, although there may be some issues with regard to which the intervention could be more developed. To highlight these issues, I shall examine the CPSR positions in relation to the information praxis referred to above. I conclude with a discussion of the national/international dimensions of information infrastructures, an issue of concern to me in my current comparative study of the social construction of computing in Norway and Sweden. The internationalisation of information technology, a matter recently alluded to by Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jørgen Holst as one of several factors weakening the sovereignty of independent national states, especially small ones, is an issue raised but not developed adequately by CPSR.

Politics and information infrastructure

Perhaps the events which have contributed most to public interest in information infrastructures are those involving Bill Clinton. In his campaign for the US presidency, Clinton promised to reverse the relative 'benign neglect' of the US economy of the Reagan/Bush years by pursuing an activist economic policy. Once in office, Clinton has spoken frequently of the need for a national industrial policy. A component of this policy, perhaps the one most frequently discussed especially by vice-president Al Gore, has been the promise to develop a national 'information highway,' or National Information Infrastructure (NII). Not only is the NII a reversal of policy; it will have the impact of diverting federal funds from other science/technology activities (superonducting supercollider? defence? medicine?). This means it is likely to encounter stiff opposition. Yet its centrality to the Clinton presidency ('It's the economy, stupid') is even greater given Clinton's inability in early 1993 to get even his modest stimulus policy through Congress.

While federal resources will continue to flow to other IT and telecom activities, the NII will clearly become the centrepiece. To be able to either anticipate its consequences or to assess its chances, it is essential to grasp that this is a policy to reach economic goals through supporting technological development, because it is believed that such development will service the private sector. In this regard, the data superhighway concept is not dissimilar from previous Norwegian IT plans. This means of course that it is subject to similar difficulties - e.g., it is hard enough to achieve technological success on its own, let alone economic success as well.

The second recent event to which I wish to draw attention is even more directly economic. As CPSR staffers Gary Chapman and Marc Rotenberg point out, the NII in the US is

The stakes for the US economy have been ratcheted up by the recently proposed merger between Bell Atlantic (one of the 'baby Bells' created by the break-up of American Telephone and Telegraph, an event which more or less created the academic discipline of telecommunications in the US) and Tele-Communications, Inc., the nation's largest cable TV company. If similar mergers were to take place throughout the country, it would mean in essence that both the organisational form and a physical means for a much broader band info-telematic network, one capable of reaching 95 % of US homes, would already be in place.

This possibility is perceived to have great potential for shaping information infrastructure world-wide. The British Guardian Weekly editorialises:

The Guardian goes on to suggest that, unless similar organisational development takes place there, Britain is in danger of falling behind in the information technology revolution, that such huge monopolies must be 'sternly regulated to protect the consumer', and that such regulation must be global, 'to undermine Murdoch's recent boast that, in the end, technology can get past the politicians and the regulators.'

The social construction of technology

One need not accept the Guardian analysis completely to acknowledge that these developments justify the public attention now directed to general information infrastructures. Moreover, the highly politicised character of this attention has made it somewhat easier than in other circumstances to direct attention to at least some of the social choices which are necessarily part of their creation.

As described below, it is the hope of CPSR to intervene in this process of social choice or social construction, so that the range of interests and opinions participating in the discourse of choice is as broad as that to be conveyed, hopefully, by the networks themselves. It is certainly one of my intentions to support such intervention, but I also wish to contribute to its effectiveness. I referred above to recent developments in information technology praxis - by which I mean the range of theoretically-informed practices, and practice-informed theorising - which I believe offer an improved way to understand how information systems develop and therefore how intervention can be most effective.

One such type of practice, developing within IT itself, is based on the growing realisation of the need for broadening the frame of discourse beyond the traditional technical perspective of the natural sciences and engineering, to take the social aspect seriously into account in the system development process. Among the manifestations of this realisation are the increased interest in Computer Supported Co-operative Work, Participatory Design, Prototyping & Iterative Design, and Open Architecture, and similar practices. Each of these is in its own way a manifestation of the search for a better standpoint from which to think about how to create both effective and humane systems; indeed, how these two criteria, far from being in opposition, are strongly interdependent.

There are innumerable sources of this awareness to which one could draw attention. A very good case can be made for its greater centrality to the history of informatics in the Nordic countries, both theoretically, as in the Object Orientation of, e.g., Kristen Nygaard and the Collective Research Approach of scholars like Pelle Ehn, and in the praxis of numerous action research projects aimed at user involvement in system development. However one might characterise the 'Scandinavian approach,' surely it includes awareness of the basic sociality of the development process and a desire to take this sociality into account systematically and at multiple points in the system development process.

Equally important to the emergence of attention to the social aspect is a reflexive literature among information practitioners. There is something of a strong connection between Weizenbaum's Computer power and human reason, Lucas' Why systems fail, and Yourdon's recent The decline and fall of the American programmer. I am most aware of the American tradition in this genre, much of which seems stimulated by Rob Kling. There are doubtless similar traditions in other nations (e.g., Vallee in France) to which attention could be drawn.

Also important, it seems to me, is a stimulus from the outside, among social scientists and humanists. While far too many of them have been willing to accept the rhetoric of IT marketing (e.g., computer revolution, a technology-imposed total social transformation, etc.) uncritically, a growing group of scholars have tried to study the relationship of computing and society seriously. Wastell, for example, provides a useful summary of work among psychologists which transcends the individualising, dehumanising limitations of early work on 'human factors.' Some of my colleagues in anthropology have taken up my challenge to develop a practice of 'culture-centred computing,' one aspect of which is attention to what happens when computing is developed in different national contexts; I return to this issue below when taking up the challenge of 'globalisation.' Within philosophy, communications, and literary theory, some scholars have chosen to move beyond seeing the conjunction of IT and social change as merely a terrain for humanistic speculation into serious study of, for example, the correlation between the spread of word processing or LANs and the shape of discourse patterns.

Particular attention, it seems to me, needs to be given to developments within economics. Here, a commitment to 'opening the black box' of technology - that is, the tendency in neo-classical economics to treat technology as an exogenous variable in economic models - has become increasingly part of the work of institutional economists. In their search for theoretical stances which provide alternatives to the extremes of Friedmanite, supply-side total preoccupations with market mechanisms, many economists have found inspiration in Shumpeter's conception of economic cycles being tightly linked to technology change-induced periods of 'creative destruction.' Seeping somewhat easily into political rhetoric, since economists are among those social scientists whose concepts are more sensitive to public policy debate, the Shumpeterian view becomes the strategy, as in the Clinton plan. Here, the point is essentially to accelerate the marginalisation of old technology, not just previous generations of computers but Fordist production in general, in the belief that this will result in a new period of economic expansion, which in turn will solve the problems of 'the limits to growth.' No wonder that Al Gore, with his commitment to the politics of ecology, is so committed to the NII.

In short, one can identify scholarship both 'within' and 'without' IT supportive of an approach to IT praxis which is less bound to technical issues alone. My point here has not been to assess this scholarship. Instead, I have tried to indicate something of the depth and breadth of the information base available to those who choose to intervene more actively and broadly in the creation of large info-telematic networks. Indeed, I believe that some general propositions about the nature of information systems and their development can be derived from this scholarship. One is that social and organisational innovations are at least as important as technical ones if such systems are to be developed successfully. A second is that the main strategic difficulty in developing such systems is finding the proper way to balance the needs of individual work groups for autonomy and space for self- and group-definition with the need for standardisation, protocols, etc. A third is that successful systems tend to follow an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary or teleological, development course.

Perhaps the simplest way to summarise these principles is to say that information systems now have a history, and that this history has to be taken into account in a fairly deliberate fashion if successful innovation is to take place. Consider, for example, the Internet and its now twelve million users around the world. Surely the practices - both advantageous and limiting - which have agglutinated around the Internet will have to be taken into account in the creation of any global info-telematic network. Similarly, the creation of such a network in Norway will have to come to terms with the heritage of Norsk Data, both the information practices, especially in the public sector, built on ND machinery and architectures and the fact that veterans of the Norsk Data experience continue to play important roles in the reproduction of Norwegian IT practices.

Shaping the NII: The CPSR perspective

Thus far, I have attempted to establish the following points: that a discourse over a particular technology, a broad information infrastructure, has taken on central significance recently in the United States, and that were one to desire to intervene in this discourse, whether individually, collectively as an organisation, or corporately as a society, one could draw on a substantial knowledge base which indicates how thinking about IT can be contextualised socially. In what follows, I look at an intervention based on such principles, that of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in the US situation.

A formally international but overwhelmingly US-based organisation of primarily professional workers within the IT industry, a kind of insurgent professional society, CPSR has something of a record of intervention in national IT policy discussions, especially in the area of personal security. CPSR succeeded, for example, in convincing Lotus to withdraw from the market a mass data base product. The organisation had some effectiveness in raising strong cautions about how effectively Reagan's 'star wars' system could protect against software failure. More recently, CPSR intervention appears to have helped turn the tide of US public opinion against the desire of the US national security state to control all telecommunication encryption practices. CPSR is also active as a sponsor of professional conferences - e.g., Participatory Design, Directions in Advanced Computing, CSCW - often in conjunction with the Association for Computing Machinery and other 'mainstream' professional groups.

Perhaps the key document for anyone wishing to understand the CPSR intervention in discussions over NII is its major position paper, Serving the community: a public-interest vision of the National Information Infrastructure. The culmination of a year's work by a CPSR task group, the paper begins by affirming the great economic promise of NII and the belief that NII will transform society. The thrust of CPSR's intervention, is thus to broaden the criteria by which NII will be evaluated, arguing that its benefits should be seen not only in economic or functional terms, but socially, in relation to democratic political values.

CPSR also presumes that the public interest values which it endorses, those articulated by a coalition called the Public Interest Roundtable, are widely shared. It is how these goals are to be realised which remains unclear. In regard to the Clinton proposals, CPSR is concerned about:

It is evident that, with perhaps the exception of the last item, CPSR concerns are in the policy rather than the technical arena. In line with their policy concerns, CPSR makes the following general recommendations to the Information Infrastructure Task Force convened by the Clinton administration:

Nonetheless, CPSR is still a professional body. As such, it also addresses the system development process, suggesting adoption of the following design principles:

Analysis of the CPSR intervention

The CPSR position paper, Serving the community..., presents developed, nuanced arguments for each of the concerns, recommendations, and design principles articulated. Taken as a whole, these items constitute a good starting point for discussion of general information infrastructures in any national context in which a private market is presumed to be a major mediator of system development. CPSR is particularly to be commended for placing the Internet experience, notably its decentralised governance, as the historical core of an evolving set of NIIs. Can these perspectives be taken as constituting a sufficient guide to the development of information infrastructures?

To understand both the strengths and the limits of the CPSR intervention in the NII discussions, one must place it within the context of the organisation's more general program for a particular kind of professional intervention, one at the level of national policy, in the social construction of IT. This may well explain, for example, CPSR's willingness to accept the primarily economic orientation of the NII, to act as if there is general agreement as to the goals of the initiative, and that disagreement centres on means of implementation. Similarly, the particular importance given by CPSR to security issues also follows at least in part from its previous campaigns, and its attempt to publicise progressive design criteria follow from its membership development/conference programs.

In short, CPSR chooses to work within the boundaries of 'normal' professional association intervention in the US, albeit from a more general position than is normally the case. (Professional associations tend to be most agitated about the narrow self-interest of their members.) Suspicion of trade unionism, especially more activist and social-aware varieties, means that professional associations sometimes have more influence there than they do in more social democratic countries like Norway. By working within 'the system,' CPSR hopes to affect the NII from within. As 'experts,' professionals tend to carry more weight in public discussion, at least of more technical matters.

It seems likely, however, that without substantially more powerful allies, the CPSR intervention will have limited effect. As long as NII is seen as primarily an economic development, the call for having it equally controlled by 'democratic values' will sound weak. Creation of the truly general NII which would be necessary for the CPSR criteria to be fully met, would probably mean casting NII as a much broader social initiative than a primarily economic one. Moreover, casting the issue more broadly tends in the long run to undermine the 'expertise' on which the CPSR strategy depends.

It seems to me at least that another matter that CPSR takes for granted, that NIIs will transform society, is similarly questionable. The social science scholarship referred to above, as well as the reflexive literature within IT, both justify a somewhat sceptical attitude toward over-enthusiastic views of technological change, because, among other things, they tend to slide too easily into the promotional. The point is that NII may change society substantially, or it may not; it all depends upon how NII is implemented.

What I am suggesting is a somewhat broader, multidisciplinary perspective, one which draws IT practitioners and social scientists together into a more general critique of the things that are taken for granted in the US NII discourse. (I believe this would also come to include a critique of Shumpeterian economic, especially the necessity of 'creative destruction,' as well.) Such a broader critique would require a more extensive rapprochement between scholars from different professions, one which I would welcome.

International information infrastructure

In explaining its concern about NII from the point of view of globalism, the CPSR committee makes the following comment:

Here again CPSR is to be commended for recognising the enormous implications of NII for globalism. At the same time, the comment locates itself from within an argument for US self-interest and assumes a shared national interest, in this case between US IT professionals and private sector developers.

My experience here in Norway has convinced me that another, more global perspective is at least conceivable. Indeed, it may well be the case that such national boundaries are the major impediment to development of general information infrastructures, that we can't have NIIs without having International Information Infrastructures.

Reading it as constituting such a commitment to internationalism is another, more generous interpretation of the CPSR position. My intention has not been to demonstrate the limitations of the CPSR perspective so much as to indicate some ambiguities and associated areas for further development. My ultimate goal is that consideration of these issues will further an international discussion of information infrastructures, one capable of integrating a concern with both technical and social dimensions. Whatever their shortcomings, the CPSR perspectives constitute a strong starting point for such discussion.


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