Points of Consensus in the Optimist/Pessimist Debate

“Far from the public eye, a battle is raging over abstractions.” So begins a recent post by Douglas Schuler, a faculty member at Evergreen State College. Though the post’s focus is cyber-meliorism – the idea that the Internet can be a tool in the human effort to make world a better place – the post also reveals areas of consensus in the optimist/pessimist debate. Schuler proposes that we are no longer arguing the point of optimism/pessimism as technological determinists who believe that “historical momentum makes human effort unnecessary”. We have moved on to a period of social construction – a belief that patterns of use determine the value and meaning of technology. This was not always the case.

[At one time] the Internet inspired the optimists to some of the greatest rhetorical heights of all times. The optimists convinced many people that a Golden Age was imminent. The governed would achieve parity with the governors. Knowledge would flow equally to all and education would be transformed. The wisdom of crowds would rule the land. And censorship was impossible because information wants to be free.

On the other hand, cynical utopia deniers — dour pessimists — continued to assert that things will always be unequal, the Internet will change nothing at all, and that the human race will never develop the civic intelligence that it needs, Internet or no Internet.

But little-by-little, people are breaking free of the optimism/pessimism trap. They are realizing the Internet is not magic after all…. Both views imply an inevitability that is, not only inaccurate, but paralyzing.

Although Schuler’s post is a polemic, I believe it reflects an area of consensus: the Internet matters and can be used for good or ill according to human agency. Techno-determinist arguments on either the optimist or pessimist side are now straw men, which both practitioners and scholars have abandoned.

The argument that the Internet matter for the social good is a natural extension of David Weinberger’s idea of “Internet exceptionalism“. It also echoes the spirit of the recent paper “Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics” (PDF), which states:

To this point, little research has sought to estimate the causal effects of new media in a methodologically rigorous fashion, or to gather the rich data needed to establish causal influence. Without rigorous research designs or rich data, partisans of all viewpoints turn to anecdotal evidence and intuition.

[Yet] it seems improbable that such a massive change in political communication would not matter, even if the data to demonstrate the effects are lacking and older forms of political communication and mass media continue to shape political outcomes.

Here, in my view, are the current points of consensus:

  • ICTs matter. Exceptionalism over dismissiveness on the question of whether ICTs in are worthy of practical use and scholarly attention.
  • Human action determines their effect. Social construction over technological determinism on the question of how ICTs affect various social goods.

The remaining points of contention are:

  • To what degree do ICTs matter? How much do ICTs change the status quo?
  • What is the net effect of ICTs? Does their use have a positive or negative net effect on various social goods?

Do you agree with this framing of the current debate on the social value of ICTs?

2 thoughts on “Points of Consensus in the Optimist/Pessimist Debate

  1. It’s good to see this debate moving beyond the rather cartoonish optimist/pessimist poles. However, I think it would be a shame to replace them with a new opposition between social construction and technological determinism. My own view is that the social and the technological influence each other in complex ways – neither fully determines the other, but each sets limits on the other’s possibilities. The internet can be used for good or ill, true, but that doesn’t mean it can be used however we like – there are technological limits on its social uses, and social values embedded in its technological structure. It makes some things easier than others; it’s a selective amplifier.

    I think it’s too simple to say that human action determines technology’s effect – human action selects among the effects that technology offers, which are, in turn, determined by previous human actions and technologies. After all, if ICTs matter, it’s because they shape what’s possible – because they amplify some forces and attenuate others – which means we can’t just say that human action determines their effect.

    Maybe we need to start viewing technologies the way we view institutions – as the embodiment of previous generations of social forces, with their own inertia and internal dynamics. But the paradox is that technological generations are shorter than human generations, so instead of the institutional inertia-of-the-past, technology has an inertia-of-the-future: whereas we often struggle to pull institutions forwards into the present, the stuggle with technology is to pull it backwards into the present. But if there’s one thing the Internet Freedom debate shows, it’s that we can’t afford to tie the two sets of reins together and stand back. šŸ˜‰

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

  2. Michael, I really enjoyed your comment. You’re right that social construction vs. technological determinism is yet another binary like optimist/pessimist and that the truth is in the continuum. I’ll try to remember that.

    I also really appreciated your insights about technological generations and the inertia of the future. Makes me think of Stuart Kauffman’s theory of the adjacent possible, that even in achieving great change, we can only move incrementally.

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