- Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies
Technological Visions originated as a series of projects at the Annenberg Schools for Communication at the University of Southern California and the University of Pennsylvania. Both the original projects and the material added for this volume were selected with the aim of presenting a range of perspectives on technological innovation and the strong emotions it engenders in American culture. This works well for the reader seeking a range of viewpoints, but makes it hard on a reviewer trying to tease out themes from among eighteen very different essays. Bearing in mind that any summary must leave out as much as it reveals, I will focus on three issues that come to the fore in many of the contributions: the shock of the new, virtual reality versus "real" reality, and the centrality of specific technologies to our overall vision of technology.
The shock that new technology has created and continues to create, despite its importance to American cultural self-definition, is the theme of essays by Langdon Winner and Lynn Speigel. Speigel's is titled "Portable TV: Studies in Domestic Space Travels." Winner's "Sow's Ears from Silk Purses" addresses the "visionary enthusiasm" (p. 34) that always accompanies new technologies in American culture. Such enthusiasm is aptly demonstrated in the case of Arthur Little, a chemical engineer, who showed that it is indeed possible to make a silk purse from a sow's ear. The futurist penchant of pundits is addressed in three contributions, David Nye's "Technological Prediction: A Promethean Problem," John Perry Barlow's "The Future of Prediction," and Wendy Grossman's "Penguins, Predictions, and Technological Optimism: A Skeptic's View." Nye provides a historical critique of futurism, while Grossman takes aim at the capacity of the Internet to generate predictions of its own glorious future. Barlow, in contrast, suggests that predictions of enormous changes wrought by technology have, in fact, come true. That the impact of new technologies continues to vary widely among different ethnic and economic groups is confirmed by Jennifer Gibbs and her coauthors in "The Globalization of Every Day Life," a study of differing concepts of globalization among seven Los Angeles communities.
A second theme in Technological Visions concerns virtual reality. Sherry Turkle's "Spinning Technology" explores the way in which children make sense of their computer experience by trying to relate it to the values and attitudes present in their upbringing. In "Science Fiction Film and the Technological Imagination," Vivian Sobchack argues that science fiction owes less to the "objectivity" of science and technology than to the "subjectivity" [End Page 625] of our imagination. The question of whether the Internet fosters any real sense of community is addressed in several of the essays: by Larry Gross in "Somewhere There's a Place for Us: Sexual Minorities and the Internet," by Sarah Banet-Weiser in "Surfin' the Net: Children, Parental Obsolescence, and Citizenship," by Katie Hafner in "When the Virtual Isn't Enough," and by Richard Chabrán and Romelia Salinas in "Place Matters." Each of these authors takes seriously the claims of the Internet to promote virtual communities, while reaching varying conclusions as to whether it has, in fact, made good on those claims.
The final broad theme concerns the importance of specific technologies to the values and attitudes we bring to our assessment of innovation. New technology is not just "another new thing" in American culture, on the order of new fashions, new art, or new wars; we react differently to new technology. Asa Briggs discusses the impact of communications technologies in "Man-Made Futures, Man-Made Pasts," and Peter Lyman examines the political and legal implications of information technologies in "Information Superhighways, Virtual Communities, and Digital Libraries." Throughout the book we are reminded that our "technological visions" are closely tied to specific technologies with which we interact in precisely documented ways. There is no one response to new technology as a monolithic entity...