The Information Society


Letter from the Editor-in-Chief Rob Kling
12(1) 1996

The Information Society (TIS) 12(1), includes articles that focus on diverse aspects of emerging National Information Infrastructures. The issue open with three articles that examine the promise and complexities of international computer networks to support the distribution of information and the formation of convivial social groups. 

In "Internet: Which Future for Organized Knowledge" philosopher Luciano Floridi argues that "the global network is only a stage in the endless self-regulating process through which the human encyclopedia constantly strives to respond to its own growth." He identifies three processes that enable the Internet to make possible "a management of knowledge that is faster, wider in scope, more complete in terms of types of information and easier to exercise than ever before." He also shows how "the network has already given rise to unprecedented innovations and to new fundamental problems, some of which are especially relevant to the future of scholarship and organized knowledge." He also examines how vast distributed information spaces, like the Internet, raise deep problems, such as fragmenting knowledge, and making access to knowledge problematic for people with varied resources. 

In "Informational Imperatives and Socially Mediated Relationships" Roberta Lamb examines how a focus on the contents computerized sources of information can lead analysts to substantially overestimate the extent to which professionals will actually value and use on-line information services. She examines how studies of the usage of on-line information services find that people's use of on-line information services cannot be strongly predicted by the kinds of information available and the information processing features of the information service. In contrast, she identifies the importance of "informational contexts" in which people value information and information resources based, in part, on the way they relate to the social world in which they work and live. She examines the social and organizational processes that direct IT use, and concludes that economic potential will remain high even if we alter information infrastructure policies to acknowledge and accomodate those processes that enhance expertise and foster socially mediated relationships. In "Defending Deterritorialized Space, David Phillips examines the social history of a specific Usenet news group that was organized to discuss a relatively taboo topic -- gay an d lesbian lifestyles. Phillips examines a particular period in the group's history when it was attacked by people who were hostile to the group's activity. Phillips shows how group participants tried to defend themselves from attack, but had trouble in doing so because Usenet groups do not have an authority structure than effectively blocks hostile outsiders from reading partcipants postings or acting in diverse hostile ways. Usenet's newsgroups easy access and openness, often considered as virtues, make them specially vulnerable to attack. Phillips study helps us understand how the authority structure of electronic forums can serve as an important resource. 

The next set of articles in this issue are organized in the Forum -- a new section of TIS devoted to position statements and debates. Most of the article in this issues' Forum come from the 1995 Conference on Society and the Future of Computing that was held in Durango Colorado in June 1995 (See for a description of the 1996 conference). 

The Forum opens with an expanded form of political philosopher Langdon Winner's keynote talk: "Who Will We Be in Cyberspace?" Winner argues that: 

His article raises important questions about the kinds of social and political life that people will desire in a highly computerized society. With a vivid metaphor, he notes that  His paper raises profound questions about the character of the social lives that are humanly desirable in computerized societies. During his talk, Langdon Winner suggested that conference participants might develop a "Durango Declaration" to articlulate a prosocial approach to developing advanced computer and communications technologies. 

Winner's challenge was promptly taken up by the conference participants, and three statements resulted from the susbsequent discussions ( These statements are the the subject of a Forum on the Durango Declarations organized by Ben Gross and Francois Harvey, two of the doctoral "student fellows" at the conference. This Forum on the Durango Declarations includes the full text of the Durango Declaration that computer scientist Ben Shneiderman developed in concert with many conference participants, a statement that was developed by a group of graduate student fellows, and a set of 10 Durango Imperatives by communications theorist Phil Agre (who also served as program Chair for the conference). These statements differ in important ways. But as a collection, they serve as a basis for discussing the character of a "civicly-oriented information and computer science." They provide answers to some of the questions raised by Winner and to the question, "What principles can information and computer scientists who are interested in having information technologies serve to vitalize civic life stand for"? Most information an scientists would endorse hygienic qualities for new technologies -- that the should be safe, reliable, cost-effective, easy to use, not compromise personal privacy, and so on. The framers of these Durango statements go farther and express additional ways that civicly oriented information and computer scientists should be cognizant of the social repercussions of the technologies that they help to develop. These statements help open a national discussion about the character of a civicly oriented information and computer science. To help advance this discussion, Gross and Harvey collected commentaries from four conference participants about the character and usefulness of these three statements: Langdon Winner, Charles Brownstein, Ben Shneiderman, and Marsha Woodbury. 

In the next Forum article, conference participant Patricia Radin responds to issues raised by Winner with a discussion of the possibility of using the World Wide Web as a medium for increasing laypeople's knowledge of and participation in science policymaking. She asks, "How can this this new online medium, however helpful, actually promote meaningful public participation when computer use seems intrinsically to lead in the other direction, to isolation?" And she argues that " Web sites can easily provide a feature -- "mobilizing information" -- that is, details on how to take action, such as the time and place of an activity, a phone number, a map. She focusses on the specific example of the Washington Biotechnology Action Council (WashBAC), a grassroots coalition founded in Seattle (See WashBAC's web site offers public access to descriptions of biotechnology and reports for non-specialists about biotech topics such as the Humane Genome project, DNA testing, and transgenic plants, as well as information about specific actions that readers can take. 

In the last Forum article, "Dystopia on the Health Superhighway," Simon Davies argues against the establishment of national health data networks in Great Britain and Australia. He notes that "every member of the population will have a unique number. This number, together with personal details such as name, age and address, will be recorded in one of a series of linked administrative registers.... The confidentiality and privacy issues in the health superhighway are a ticking time bomb. Countering any potential benefit of computerization is the risk that the network could all but destroy medical confidentiality." Davies did not write his article in the context of the Durango Declarations. But he speaks to them by suggesting that a "civicly-oriented information and computer science" cannot be effectively defined simply by focussing on allegedly benign application areas, such as a focus on health care instead of weapons systems. 

This issue of TIS concludes with reviews of four books: Fatal Defect: Chasing Killer Computer Bugs by Ivors Peterson; Computer-Related Risks by Peter G. Neumann; Safeware: System Safety and Computers by Nancy G. Leveson; and Does Technology Drive History?: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism edited by Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx.

The next TIS issue, 12(2), will include and article about National Information Infrastructure developments in Taiwan. The Forum is a continuing feature of TIS. Professor James Thomas has organized a forum of social scientists (Storm King, Dennis Waskul, Sharon Boehlefeld, Susan Herring, Elizabeth Reid and Christina Allen) who discuss the ethical issues of collecting data in electronic forums (such as newsgroups and LISTSERVs). To what extent are conversations in these electronic spaces akin to private conversations in a restaurant or self-help groups rather than open pronouncements in a park? What should be the requirements for informed consent in studies based on communications from electronic forums. The papers examine these issues from the perspectives of clinical psychology, sociology, communications, and other disciplines. 

TIS 12(3) will include articles about National Information Infrastructure developments in Japan and an article about the conditions under which people choose to have unlisted telephone numbers. Associate Editor Mark Poster has organized a Forum of analysts who examine the controversial position paper, "Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age" by Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth, and Alvin Toffler. 

A description of the next issue will be posted on TIS' web page as it jells (see 

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