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date: 01 April 2020

The challenges of ICTs

Abstract and Keywords

Many scholars have documented the way information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been entwined with major changes in society since the invention of electrical telegraphy in the 1830s. For some, the early ICTs, as well as those stemming from the invention of the microprocessor in the late 1960s, are best characterized as being revolutionary. This is because of the cascade of opportunities they created for new forms of media and information and communication services and for new ways of organizing society. The book is organized around four themes covering topics that policy makers and those in other settings where ICTs are encountered will find informative: the knowledge economy; organizational dynamics, strategy, and design; governance and democracy; and culture, community, and new media literacies.

Keywords: ICTs, media services, information and communication services, knowledge economy, organizational dynamics, strategy, media literacies

1 Introduction

Many scholars have documented the way information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been entwined with major changes in society since the invention of electrical telegraphy in the 1830s.1 For some, the early ICTs, as well as those stemming from the invention of the microprocessor in the late 1960s, are best characterized as being revolutionary. This is because of the cascade of opportunities they created for new forms of media and information and communication services and for new ways of organizing society.

Enthusiasm for digital ICTs peaked towards the end of the twentieth century and began to subside with the economic downturn that occurred at the end of that century. The ‘irrational exuberance’ concerning the economic value of businesses in the ‘new’ economy began to dissipate. This made way for renewed reflection on the implications of the ways that ICT production and consumption have become embedded within societies—both historically and in the twenty‐first century. In this handbook our aim is to introduce readers to these theoretical and empirical (p. 2) reflections as they appear within research undertaken by academics across a range of social science disciplines.

Those who study the economy, organizations, or people's everyday lives, sometimes depict ICTs as calling into existence a new, inclusive, social and economic order. Others regard these technologies as dystopian determinants of social inequality. However, there are many strands of research within the social sciences that are yielding insights about the very complex ways in which ICTs are woven into the fabric of society. We invited contributions from researchers who are sensitive to the need to develop research which avoids the strongest forms of technological determinism and of its counterpart, social constructivism. ICTs are regarded by the contributors to this book as being neither transformational, nor entirely malleable by their users. Although ICTs feature prominently in this volume, the authors see these technologies as potential enablers, not as the determinants, of particular cultural, organizational, social, political, or economic outcomes.

The United Nations‐sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and its Action Plan2 created many forums for discussions about how to resolve the still intractable problem of enabling all people and organizations to use ICTs in ways that they are likely to find engaging and useful. As a result not only of the WSIS, but also of a surge of interest on the part of civil society and public and private organizations in the wake of growing concerns about security and safety, it is timely to reflect on the relationships between ICTs and human rights and responsibilities, the kinds of communicative relationships that ICTs are supporting, and whether these are contributing to well‐being in a globalizing world. We have organized the chapters of this handbook around four themes covering topics that we believe policy makers and those in other settings where ICTs are encountered will find informative. The four themes are:

  • The knowledge economy: This theme focuses on the economic and policy dimensions of the convergence of telephony, television, computing, and the Internet, and on the changing roles of national and international policy and regulation. This theme emphasizes the dynamics of the ‘new’ economy and the chapters include critical assessments of the extent to which ICTs are associated with far‐reaching paradigmatic change as well as with less radical changes in markets and institutions.

  • Organizational dynamics, strategy, and design: ICT system design and implementation involves processes of negotiation that often produce conflict within organizations. This theme focuses on the ways in which the introduction and use of ICT applications are negotiated by those involved and the potential of various strategies for achieving consensus about the needs of users and the design of technology.

  • Governance and democracy: The focus of this theme is a critical assessment of the way ICTs are related to power relationships with respect to institutions and (p. 3) individuals. ICTs are examined in terms of the extent to which they are being mobilized to enhance democratic participation and to support social movements. The approaches to governance that may be required to achieve justice and fairness in the face of surveillance practices and the potential for the invasion of privacy protection are also examined.

  • Culture, community, and new media literacies: The role of ICTs is examined within this theme in terms of their contribution to the communicative and other resources that are needed for finding and expressing cultural identity, for fostering new kinds of ‘community’ and for mediating experience in ways that foster new kinds of literacies. The approach is consistently to reaffirm the commitment to understanding the relationship between technology and social change as one of mutual determination and therefore one that is crucially dependent on the actions of individuals and institutions in the modern world.

2 Social science and ICTs

Many theoretical perspectives are available within the social sciences for the investigation of ICTs. Perhaps the most predominant approach in the literature concerning ICTs is diffusion theory, one of several approaches that have influenced the research agenda on ICTs.

Diffusion of innovations

The production and spread of ICTs in society are often examined through the lens of a diffusion model. In The Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers' (1962) aim was to explain how to inculcate awareness and enthusiasm for technical innovations such that even those most resistant to their adoption might do so. By 1995, when the fourth edition was published, he had modified his expression of the theory to account for many of the contextual factors that influence the diffusion of new technologies. Nevertheless, his central concern was to explain the rate and direction of adoption of new technologies such as ICTs.3 The work in the diffusion theory tradition is linked to the analysis of the technical and social networks that are involved in the diffusion process.4 In this substantial body of research, there is little critical reflection on the kinds of societal transformations or ethical issues that are raised by innovations in ICTs when they are taken up by their users. In order to encourage such reflection on these broader issues we have not used diffusion theory as a key organizing theme in this handbook. Several chapters draw upon (p. 4) this theory, but we have sought to include many complementary theoretical perspectives and models.

Mapping and measuring ICTs

As ICTs have become more varied and pervasive in the post‐World War II period, substantial effort has been devoted to mapping and measuring the extent of the information society or the knowledge economy. This work is represented by the early contributions of Daniel Bell, Fritz Machlup, Marc Porat and Youichi Ito,5 who sought to document the growing contribution of information (or communication) services to economic activity and the growing share of information‐related occupations in the workforce. Research in this tradition continues through the development of indicators and surveys that enable comparison or benchmarking of country or regional performance in terms of investment and use of ICTs.6 Several contributors to this handbook comment on this research area.

Information economics and political economy

Another major strand of research is concerned with the role of ICTs in the market exchange of information. Some analysts are enthusiastic about the enormous growth of markets for information. Researchers often emphasize issues of intellectual property rights (IPR) protection and its role in stimulating economic growth and scientific endeavour.7 Others argue that concerns about the market exchange of information need to be complemented by attention to the benefits and costs of information exchange which is less encumbered by the costs of negotiating property rights.8 Still others direct their attention to the consequences of economic power and domination that are present in media and communication markets,9 notwithstanding the Internet and opportunities for self‐publishing. These areas of research inform several of the contributions to this handbook.

Network societies

Research, represented by the work of Manuel Castells on the relationships between networks, information flows, and time/space reconfigurations, and by the work of others such as Jan van Dijk and James Slevin who focus on ‘network’ or ‘Internet’ societies, has proliferated particularly since the mid‐1990s.10 This work is undertaken from many different perspectives. Research in this area has (p. 5) shown the importance of accounting for the interplay between online and offline activities if we are to comprehend the implications of the Internet and the spread of an enormous range of ICT applications that offer new means of creating and interacting with digital information. Other analysts have been very interested in ICTs and their association with ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’ societies, but those such as Nicholas Garnham and Frank Webster are sceptical of claims that these societies are radically altered by ICTs.11 In this handbook, many of the contributors offer critical assessments of some of the myths associated with network societies and their implications for political, social, economic, and organizational change.

ICTs, mediation, and power

Much of the research on ICTs is either under‐or over‐theorized in the sense intended by Mark Granovetter.12 It is under‐theorized in so far as it is often based on the assumed autonomy of individual actors. In other cases, it is over‐theorized, for example, in attempting to account for the relationships between ICTs and the meanings embedded in communicative relationships. In these cases, there is a tendency to neglect power relationships. As Armand Mattelart suggests, in the highly situated accounts that emphasize mediations and interactions, there is a tendency to overlook those aspects of ICT production within a given system that are ‘marked by the inequality of exchanges’.13 Alternatively, research on ICTs that privileges the analysis of political and economic power tends to neglect the agency of individuals. Our aim in this handbook has been to include research that provides insights into the embeddedness of ICTs in different contexts to show how mediation processes are influenced by ICTs, but also to include research that acknowledges power as a major factor in all socially and technologically mediated relationships.

The production and appropriation of ICTs are marked by inequalities because they mirror or reflect the inequalities of the societies that produce and use them. Inequalities are visible in the ways that ICTs enable changing social practices, provide new methods of communication and of information sharing, encourage network forms of organization, and give rise to new learning dynamics and commercial practices in the economy. The chapters in this handbook highlight research programmes that would help to improve understanding of these developments and provide a basis for assessing the desirability of encouraging innovation and experimentation in the use of ICTs.

A concise review of highlights from each of the four themes that provide the organizing framework for this book follows as an introduction to the arguments and evidence in subsequent chapters.

(p. 6) 3 The knowledge economy and ICTs

By the beginning of the twenty‐first century, expenditure on research and development (R&D), education, and software, which is treated as an indicator of investment in knowledge in studies of the economy, had reached about 9 per cent of GDP in the OECD countries.14 The production of ICTs is a very dynamic component of physical capital investment and had grown to about 4 per cent of GDP in some of the OECD countries by this time. Software investment had also been increasing at a very rapid rate. By the middle of the first decade of this century, the rate of participation on the Internet exceeded 50 per cent of the population in more than half of these countries. Mobile telephone use had expanded rapidly, in some countries overtaking the penetration of fixed telephone service. Network interactivity had become a ‘routine’ facet of social and economic life in the wealthy economies of the world.

Most industrial sectors of these economies had become dependent on the use of ICTs although there were large variations in the rate of investment in ICTs by sector. The Internet and the World Wide Web had created the possibility of producing and consuming information and media inside and outside the confines of formal institutions. There were still gaps or digital divides within the wealthy countries and the production and use of ICTs in developing countries continued, in many cases, to lag far behind the industrialized countries. There was also increasing evidence that the way that the Internet and other ICTs are introduced or localized in different regions of the world varies considerably.15

The ‘knowledge economy’ is a static concept that shifts each time a map of the economy is redefined and when boundaries change through time. This concept also suggests that an invasive and transformational process is underway that alters the rationale for, and outcomes of, economic relationships. The rapid decline in the cost of ICTs and their growing use in the acquisition, storage, and processing of information link them to the knowledge economy. This is because of the way these technologies influence the creation and use of knowledge in the economy and the exchange of information. Knowledge is essential to organizations that exist to coordinate the actions of individuals and to maintain continuity to some degree in their various purposes. For individuals, their knowledge is a basic component of their ‘human capital’ and this strongly influences their wage and employment opportunities. As a result, we cannot ignore the significance of ICTs if we are concerned about economic growth, even if we may choose to critique the terminology that is used.16

By the end of the twentieth century, these developments had become associated with labels such as the ‘knowledge economy’, the ‘new economy’, the ‘weightless economy’, and the ‘information society’.17 The growing emphasis of economic activity on the circulation of information has led to questions about the extent to which investment in ICTs and in human capital are major contributors to economic growth and to gains in productivity. There is a substantial body of (p. 7) research on the relationship between investment in ICTs and the relative performance of national economies as well as on the relationship between ICT investment and the competitiveness of firms. One conclusion about which there is little argument is that ‘ICT seems to offer the greatest benefits when ICT investment is combined with other organizational assets, such as new strategies, new business processes, new organizational structures and better worker skills’.18 The contributors to this theme examine the features of the knowledge economy from different standpoints employing the tools of economic analysis, and all of them find lacunae in our ability to fully understand the contribution of ICTs to the economy. Several important features of their arguments stand out.

General purpose technologies and the ICT paradigm

For analytical purposes, ICTs are treated by economists as ‘general purpose technologies’ (GPTs).19 Because of their enormous adaptability and their ubiquity they are expected to play a major role in the economy. In his chapter, however, Freeman points out that despite characteristics that make ICTs subject to increasing rates of return in use, there are many social and institutional factors that create resistance to their smooth take‐up. There is a substantial body of research that aims to measure the uneven economic gains from ICTs, which result from differences in the rate and direction of processes of adjustment to ICTs, as discussed by Draca, Sadun, and Van Reenen. One of these processes is the standardization process, which smooths adjustment to ICTs, creating platforms upon which applications can be built, as shown by Steinmueller. An important concept which informs the work of economists who study ICTs is the notion of paradigmatic change.20 Freeman claims that the remarkable features of ICTs have led some enthusiasts of the ICT paradigm to adopt ‘missionary zeal’ in advancing the diffusion of these technologies and to exaggerate the ‘exemplary’ aspects of the paradigm. He argues that it is necessary to distinguish clearly between the way the knowledge economy might be expected to develop and its real expansions and contractions, which produce uneven development, an argument that is further developed by Melody. The malleability or adaptability of ICTs also provides the starting point for Greenstein and Prince's examination of the diffusion of the Internet. They show, as do the other contributors to this theme, that institutions of various kinds are essential if economic value is to be created through the application of ICTs.

Productivity and ICTs

Economic theory suggests that a shift toward the predominance of the ICT paradigm should result in productivity gains and provide a stimulus for economic (p. 8) growth. In their chapter, Draca, Sadun and Van Reenen use growth accounting and econometric methods to examine productivity gains and learning effects that may be attributable to the widespread use of ICTs. They review the literature on the ‘Solow Paradox’ (computers everywhere except in the productivity statistics), and consider possible explanations for the greater acceleration of productivity in the US compared to Europe in the 1990s. One explanation may be differences in the way that US and other multinational firms have introduced organizational changes alongside their investments in ICTs. The contribution of ICTs to major changes in the banking and finance sector is examined by Melody who also discusses the public sector's lagging take‐up of ICTs and the difficulties of assessing efficiency gains in this area.21

ICTs and human capital

Investment in human capital is essential to foster ICT innovations at the technological frontier and to build demand for these technologies and related services. Freeman and Melody both highlight the fact that such investment currently reaches a relatively small proportion of the global population. They argue that the rate of investment is not fast enough to avert inequality within knowledge economies or to eliminate digital divides. There is a need for a much better understanding of ‘organizational capital’, as Draca, Sadun, and Van Reenen suggest, if we are to explain differences in productivity performance between firms, industries, and countries. Some developing countries have prioritized investment in human capital to promote their capacity for ICT production. This is especially the case in the East Asian countries, which have used different combinations of development, and national innovation and education strategies, alongside the investment and the employment strategies of multinationals, to reverse the ‘brain drain’ to higher wage countries and to become world leaders in semiconductor production, as outlined by Lazonick.

ICTs and information

The claim that ICTs are GPTs is evocative of the breadth of their application, but the economic factors underpinning their influence hinges upon the unique properties of information as an economic commodity. Expansibility, that is, the ability to instantly and costlessly reproduce information, and its implication that the use of information may be non‐rival, challenge the scarcity foundations upon which economic theories of value and price are constructed. Institutional arrangements for governing scarcity, such as the assignment of property rights, should not obscure the augmentation of productive resources enabled by this property. As Steinmueller explains, ICTs not only offer new ‘shovels’ that may be reproduced at (p. 9) will and at no cost, but also may provide the means for replacing those who are currently doing the shovelling. Melody, in his chapter, considers the conflicts between the goal of maximizing profits in quasi‐monopoly information markets (where markets are created by strong IPR protection) and of maximizing the societal distribution of information. Like David and Steinmueller in their contributions, he argues that these conflicts are major issues that need to be addressed through changes in governance systems and new means of regulation.

ICT infrastructure and the state

State institutions have an important role in shaping knowledge economies. Regulatory agencies, standards‐setting institutions, and public sector investment in ICTs and in the workforce influence the ICT industry structure and, as Melody argues, contribute to the emergence of highly concentrated oligopolistic markets. Freeman observes that there are few signs that the network features of ICTs are leading to the demise of the state or the firm, a myth that became prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s. Regulation by the state has played a central role in the rate of expansion of telecommunication infrastructures, including the spread of the Internet and broadband capacity. In the case of the Internet, David shows that innovation is strongly influenced by interdependencies between technology and policy. He highlights the implications of the concentration of market power among a small number of Internet Service Providers for the continued development of global networks, whereas Greenstein and Prince focus on the economics of Internet developments in the US to explain the factors contributing to its uneven geographic development. Like David, they highlight the importance of examining whether changes in the design of the Internet, new services such as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), and new wireless networks will slow innovation or alter the geographic distribution of digital divides.

Diffusion and ICTs

The diffusion model, as highlighted earlier in this chapter, has dominated studies of the demand side of the ICT industry for decades. Economists have few means of examining the organizational changes that affect the diffusion process and as a result they often examine labour skills, as does Lazonick, or undertake surveys at the firm level, as recommended by Draca, Sadun and Van Reenan, in order to provide an empirical basis for examining the organizational changes that occur with investment in ICTs. The need for more systematic data to understand how ICTs are used by organizations, and in the economy as a whole, gives rise to studies that endeavour to ‘map and measure’ the knowledge economy, as noted by (p. 10) Steinmueller. Despite the inadequacies of the indicators that are used, these efforts provide data for econometric research on the dynamics of knowledge economies and help to explain differences in the diffusion of ICTs between the rich and the poor, and between urban and rural areas, an issue that is discussed by Freeman, Greenstein and Prince, and Melody in their respective chapters.

4 Organizational dynamics, strategy, design, and ICTs

Ever since the first uses of computers in business organizations the development of ICT‐based information systems has been inseparable from the dynamics of organizational change.22 Some 30 years of information systems research have highlighted multiple crucial aspects of this complex socio‐technical process. A great deal of early research focused on the construction of technology applications. Such research has been driven not only by the principle that it is the designer's duty to achieve a good fit of new information processing artefacts in existing organizational structures and practices, but also by the expectation that the organizations implementing the new ICTs will adjust themselves to more efficient and effective technology‐mediated practices and structures.23 Other research streams, though, have sought to shift the starting point and the overall orientation of the ICT innovation process in organizations from designing innovative technologies for existing organizational settings to anchoring innovation in business strategy and organizational reform interventions. But whether the primary research emphasis has been on the construction and implementation of new technologies, the perceived imperatives of organizational change for business survival, or the interaction between them, it has become increasingly clear that ICT innovation and organizational change are not contained in good design practices—for technology or organizations. Instead, they are more accurately understood as a continuous sense‐making and negotiation process among multiple parties and as Claudio Ciborra argued, involve care and cultivation of new, emerging, socio‐technical, organizational conditions.24

The role of management

One persistent research theme in information systems research concerns the capabilities for the managerial direction of ICT innovation towards desirable business ends. There have been numerous management principles and ‘best practice’ prescriptions for exploiting ICTs. These provide guides for identifying (p. 11) the strategic and operational value to be gained from new technology information systems, objectives that should be targeted, organizational models that should be followed, and systematic activities through which all of these might be achieved. A great deal of such knowledge has been ephemeral, or of dubious empirical validity, but as Galliers shows in his critique of three major themes in information systems research—alignment, competitive advantage, and knowledge management—decades of empirical research and critical scrutiny have developed valuable knowledge of effective technical/rational action beyond the faddish prescriptions. Moreover, we have now a better understanding of the nature of the process of strategic management of ICT innovation.

Similarly, the review by Willcocks, Lacity and Cullen of more than 15 years of research on experiences of outsourcing shows the gradual development of knowledge for managing organizations' relations with the ICT services vendors that they rely heavily on. One lesson is clear from their review: ‘outsourcing cannot be contracted for and then not managed’. Large organizations are pursuing continuous ICT innovation involving partnerships and contractual arrangements with multiple ICT service providers across continents. Offshore outsourcing is an increasingly visible phenomenon, with opportunities and risks that require management at both government policy and business management levels, as the chapter by Willcocks, Lacity, and Cullen shows.25 The challenges of steering such across‐the‐globe, organizational, business arrangements in developing and sustaining information system resources should not be underestimated; but, as the chapters by Galliers and Willcocks, Lacity, and Cullen suggest, a core of valuable lessons for practice is being produced from longitudinal empirical research.

ICT and new organizational forms

Many predictions of changes in the structure of organizations have been associated with ICTs. Some of them, such as the flattening of the hierarchical organizational pyramid that has been prevalent in the industrial era, have been confirmed by empirical evidence. Others, such as the formation of new structures—for example, the ‘matrix’ or ‘platform’ organization—have been demonstrated in particular cases, but have not become widespread.26 Nevertheless, with the spread of intranets and the Internet the hierarchical organization seems to have been eroded, both through internal restructuring of the organization of work, and through business processes crossing organizational boundaries in the outsourcing arrangements and industrial partnerships of producer firms with suppliers and customers.

The network form has been heralded as the emerging dominant organizational form. Yet Kallinikos in his chapter suggests the need for caution in making predictions about the transition to the network organization as the dominant feature of the information society. He points out that such a transformation is (p. 12) not just a matter of technology‐induced design of organizational structures and practices; it involves fundamental institutional changes. The spreading of network organizational arrangements is confronted by existing institutions and will not go very far unless the institutional contexts also change. Analyses of the merits of network organizational arrangements, in terms of business gains, effective management, and market reach, need to be complemented by studies of changes occurring in the broader institutional context of modernity, such as the legal frameworks governing labour markets, property rights, and social welfare, nation‐state bound societies, and cultural patterns.

Knowledge and information in organizations

ICTs are closely linked with issues of knowledge in organizations. Galliers critiques the stream of research on ‘knowledge management’ and proposes a way of considering knowledge issues strategically without oversimplifying them. Kallinikos puts forward a different critique, on the basis of an analysis of ICTs as means of representation and processing of information, as well as of codifying and formalizing knowledge produced in the course of an organization's activities. Thus, ICTs may empower or constrain action on the basis of tacit knowledge, facilitate or inhibit new ideas and creativity, and alter power/knowledge dynamics in an organizational context.

Moreover, Kallinikos draws attention to the phenomenon of information growth, which is to a large extent facilitated by ICTs. Against the euphoria surrounding the Internet as providing almost unlimited access to information and knowledge repositories, Kallinikos detects a self‐referential generation of information, which poses a challenge to the existing cognitive capabilities of organizations. So far there is limited understanding of the way the unprecedented circulation of information, disembedded from the context that gave rise to it, affects knowledge formation in organizations.

Multiple perspectives in the study of ICT and organizational and social change

Research aiming at understanding the role of ICTs in organizational change has addressed a range of fundamental conceptual questions regarding the relationship between technology and society. At the very least, such research has enriched the language we use to present and discuss information systems phenomena, to justify and explain expectations and consequences associated with ICT innovation, and to chart courses of action to that end. For example, sensitized by theoretical critiques of deterministic perspectives of technology, information systems researchers and their practice avoid assumptions of cause and effect relationships between (p. 13) particular technology properties and the direction of organizational change. Instead, they have developed accounts of complex processes of change that complement technological potential with consideration of intentions, interests, cognitive and emotional dispositions of multiple agents, and power relations unfolding in the organizational context.

Moreover, as Jones and Orlikowski demonstrate in their chapter, specific theoretical perspectives shed light on particular facets of the complex relationships between ICT innovation and organizations or society at large. There is ongoing debate on the validity and explanatory merits of specific perspectives, but few scholars see progress in this research field as a matter of establishing the superiority of one particular theoretical perspective over others, thus resulting in a ‘correct’ general theory of ICTs, organizations, and society. This line of argument is clearly followed by Introna, who presents and discusses three distinct theoretical approaches for understanding ethical issues raised by new ICTs in organizations and society. There is much to be gained in terms of in‐depth understanding of new ICT associated phenomena from pursuing research through multiple theoretical perspectives, with analytical consistency within each of them and critical awareness of alternatives.

5 Governance, democracy, and ICTs

The growing use of ICTs has generated considerable discussion of how this may influence the institutions and processes of governance and democracy. In whatever form they are conceived, democratic processes and regimes of governance at all levels of society are likely to be profoundly influenced by the use of these technologies. This is because of how they offer opportunities for the production and circulation of information in new ways, and how they support new communicative relationships. At least theoretically, this provides a new foundation for citizens' participation in democratic processes and for their numerous interactions with services provided by the state.

The Internet, in particular, has provided new virtual spaces for public discussion and deliberation and the expansion in the use of the World Wide Web by governments is supporting a host of e‐services. However, as the contributors to this theme emphasize, before conclusions are drawn about the implications of ICTs, analysis of the potentially disruptive implications of ICTs for democratic practices and for governance systems needs to be undertaken in relation to the specific nature of the technologies and the particular contexts in which they are used. The digital technologies that are encountered within this theme include public and private (p. 14) networks based on the Internet Protocol (IP) as well as networks that support conventional telephony. They include e‐government services at all levels developed for citizens' use, as well as large‐scale information technology systems involving databases for internal use of public sector employees. They include web‐based e‐voting systems and ‘social software’ such as blogs, wikis, email, and privacy enhancing technologies, as well as closed circuit television cameras, and embedded technologies such as radio frequency identification (RFID) tags used for monitoring the movement of goods and people. ICTs are also associated with growth in the collection, retention, and analysis of data generated by computerized commercial and non‐commercial transactions.27 In many instances, what distinguishes advanced ICTs from earlier generations of technology is their use to support global networks and the consequences of these networks for governance systems and democratic processes that are bounded by nation states.28 The following are some of the topical insights that come to light under this theme.

Questioning determinism

In their respective chapters, all the contributors to this handbook illustrate the importance of avoiding deterministic claims about the impact of ICTs on governance and democracy. Simplistic assumptions about the ‘transformative’ nature of ICTs are challenged in the light of empirical observations indicating that the political and social relationships engendered by the spread of ICTs are inevitably complex. In some cases, these relationships give rise to new social movements and greater interaction between governments and citizens, but in others, the transparency of governance and the effectiveness of governance systems may be reduced, and power hierarchies reinforced.

Sassen draws attention to the complex ways in which the design of ICTs and social processes interact, a theme that is addressed in studies of ICTs informed by social science theories concerning power and its embeddedness in both technological and social systems. This demonstrates how the technical design of the Internet as an open, non‐hierarchical network can be associated with more distributed power relationships, as in the case of some social movements, or with the greater coalescence of power, as in the case of the financial services industry. As Sassen puts it, the outcomes associated with global networks are ‘mixed, contradictory, and lumpy’. It is crucial to examine empirically how and by whom ICTs are used, before reaching conclusions about whether they are associated with greater empowerment for citizens or better governance practices.

Technological convergence has given rise to many new ICT platforms and to greater capabilities for large‐scale processing of personal and transaction‐related information. The use of these ICTs has the potential to alter the relationships between those invested with the power to govern and those who are governed, with (p. 15) major, albeit uncertain, implications for democratic freedoms and responsibilities.29 In the light of these developments, Couldry draws attention to the need to consider the communicative resources that are necessary to enable citizens to participate effectively in democratic processes, while Coleman emphasizes the need to challenge claims that e‐democracy leads to greater direct communication between politicians and citizens. Similarly, Dunleavy's account of the way e‐government services have been introduced questions the notion that investment in ICTs automatically leads to improved service provision or to more effective means of managing information within public sector organizations. Both Raab and Lyon show that ICTs can be used in ways that are inconsistent with particular values associated with democracy. It is clear from the research traditions included under this theme that ICTs do not transform relationships of power in society in predictable ways.

Resources for empowerment

The unequal distribution of the communicative and information resources that may be deemed essential to underpin democratic processes is a central issue in many of the chapters. Coleman argues that asymmetries in information resources can lead to the suppression of public engagement with the political processes that are essential to democracy. He questions the assumption that individuals will gain in social capital simply as a result of their interactions within online communities. The promise of e‐democracy is often said to be related to the fact that new ICTs can support a two‐way dialogue between citizens and their government, but since the early 1970s there have been fervent debates about whether the majority of citizens will want to access online forums and about whether politicians will have an inclination to listen.30 Online voting and blogging during elections are just two of the many developments that continue to fuel debates about whether the use of ICTs creates new possibilities for a public sphere in which rational debate can occur.31 Couldry emphasizes that the distribution of communicative and information resources is central to achieving social justice.

The use of ICTs also is giving rise to new and unequal distributions of risk as demonstrated by Lyon in his discussion of surveillance societies and by Raab in his observations about the problems created by the unequal incidence of privacy intrusions and distribution of privacy protection. There are many unanswered questions about the nature of the resources that are needed to enable individuals to protect themselves from such risks and about the role that the state should play in protecting citizens' interests. The issue of resources is raised in a different context by Dunleavy in connection with the unequal resources available at different levels of government for investment in e‐government services and the implications of this for the way these services are designed and implemented.

(p. 16) Digital divides, democratic participation, and governance

There is no shortage of controversy over what has come to be known as the ‘digital divide’.32 There are those who treat the uneven spread of ICTs and the capabilities to use them as a reflection of a relatively early phase in a diffusion process within the ICT paradigm. In their view, market forces will ensure that these technologies are available and affordable for all.33 The alternative view is that the concept of the digital divide is misleading because it calls too much attention to the technology rather than to whether the distribution of ICTs is a reflection of inequalities that have their origins in society.34 Inasmuch as ICTs can play a role in enabling new forms of participatory democracy it is important to reflect on what ‘participation’ means and whether citizens should be entitled to acquire capabilities that would enable them ‘to be informed and to be heard’, as Couldry suggests. The decisions about what specific resources citizens should be entitled to, and the practicalities of who should provide them, are issues for continuing research and debate. Central research topics in this area include whether ICT networks give rise to new patterns of political power, to the need to develop more effective means of political communication, and to the need for a ‘civic commons in cyberspace’.

The contributors to this theme challenge the idea that the availability of ICTs necessarily overcomes various forms of social exclusion. Sassen shows, for example, that the use of these technologies by civil society activists is not inclusive in any straightforward way, a finding that is in line with other research findings on how social movements have been making use of ICTs to support their activities.35 The reproduction of pre‐existing social inequalities and the potential for exclusion is emphasized also in the context of Raab's discussion of the social distribution of privacy protection where differences in the protection of individuals' personal information can influence their access to social services and health care. Similarly, as Lyon indicates, ‘social sorting’ can lead to discrimination or divides between social groups that have been characterized, for whatever reason, as ‘desirable’ or ‘undesirable’. Dunleavy's research on e‐government services illustrates that the design and organization of such services also produces new forms of exclusion, in this case, in the form of problems of access to relevant information by those who provide services or by those who are intended to benefit from them.

Regimes of power

Effective governance and participatory democracy are predicated on the notion that citizens' views will be taken into account by those who are deemed to be accountable. The changing regimes of power that are emerging with globalization and the spread of digital networks give rise to the need to reassess the roles of dominant actors and to consider the need for a new ‘politics of information’. Sassen (p. 17) emphasizes the power of global flows of financial capital beyond the control of the states. Dunleavy highlights the power of the large ICT companies that design and manage information systems and e‐government services for the public sector. Differences in regimes of power are also visible in the authority accorded to ICT professionals in different countries which leads to different outcomes in the way e‐government and e‐democracy services are developed. Coleman's analysis of e‐democracy services indicates that, while their use may make elections more transparent and alter the relations of power between political parties and citizens, their use does not overcome differences in citizens' abilities to discriminate between sources of information, nor does it indicate whether the use of ICTs will lead to new regimes or ‘manifestations of political power’.

Legitimacy, enforcement, and freedoms

The legitimacy accorded to legislative and regulatory measures as forms of governance has a major bearing on a variety of rights and freedoms normally associated with democracy. Questions about the legitimacy of authority and political representation are raised by Coleman in terms of the public's confidence in political actors. Couldry raises issues concerning the role that governments can legitimately play in ensuring that citizens are able to acquire communicative resources for democratic participation. Dunleavy's discussion of public sector information management practices raises questions about the legitimacy of the norms governing decisions about how information is controlled and who has the authority to decide what information should be processed and shared inside and outside government.

Both Lyon and Raab raise issues concerning the public acceptance of safety measures in the cases of surveillance and privacy protection, especially in the light of variations in the capacity to enforce legislation and regulations in a ‘boundaryless’ world. Couldry regards individual agency or freedom as a social commitment to ensure that goods and resources are distributed fairly, and Lyon raises ethical issues concerning citizens' expectations about freedom from surveillance as a result of data processing. Raab questions whether it is reasonable to retain existing standards of privacy protection in a globalizing world. The protection of individual privacy is far more difficult in the face of government measures aimed at enhancing the ‘safety state’, and the emergence of ‘surveillance societies’ is a response to concerns about the threat of attacks of various kinds.

The research agendas set out by the contributors to this theme provide clear evidence of the need to assess changes in political power relations in the light of ethical considerations, aspirations for human welfare, and the rights and freedoms that we wish to sustain, rather than mainly in terms of what a given technology might enable.

(p. 18) 6 Culture, community, and new media literacies

The final theme in this handbook addresses the relationship between technological change, and the social and cultural, where the social and cultural can be considered as both context for, and consequence of, the logic of innovation. We have framed it as a whole in these terms, and in some ways it could be argued that this part of the book, rather than coming at the end, should have been placed at the beginning. This is because it is clear that there is no possibility of disentangling technology either from the structures of symbolic and material power—the power of institutions, the power of traditions—or from its embedding in the conflicts and continuities of experience—the experience of producers, users, and consumers in their everyday interactions both with each other and with the technologies and services on which they have become so dependent.

In Habermassian terms ICTs are clearly part of both system and life world, and indeed crucially can be seen in many, if not most, respects to be articulating the relationship between the two. Economy, polity, and organizational life are all products of this interaction, and the dialectic between all their elements—structure, action, organization, machine, intention, value—increasingly depends on what we do, and on how we live with these technologies and the resources they release.

From this perspective there are as many questions to ask about technological change as there are questions to be asked about the social world as a whole. And an understanding of the place of ICTs in that world requires the deployment of theoretical approaches and empirical research which is not hide‐bound to a single discipline or to a mechanical, more or less positivist, methodology. The contributors to this theme reflect on this complexity.

The contributors approach this complexity from a number of different perspectives and with a number of different foci. The discussion here is framed through five key windows. The first is literacy, the second the interdependence of online and offline communication, the third the political appropriation of the affordances of ICT, the fourth the role of ICTs in the formation and functioning of community, and the fifth their equivalent role in relation to identity.

ICTs and literacy

Thinking about the social dimensions of ICT as an issue of literacy directs attention to them as being constituted through social practice and, in their turn, requiring or perhaps more accurately inviting, the development of particular skills to engage with them at all, but more importantly to engage with them in socially and culturally coherent and productive ways. Each moment in the evolution of (p. 19) both communication and information technologies, since the age of writing, has offered new and different possibilities for communication,36 and challenged cultures and societies to respond in creative and ultimately non‐exclusive ways. Literacy, democracy, and economy went hand in hand in the nineteenth century. The question, ultimately posed in the first two chapters within this theme, is the extent to which they might still be intimately connected in the twenty‐first century. Some of these issues have been discussed under the third theme of this handbook.

Literacy, media literacy, new media literacy, or information literacy (the terms are necessarily imprecise and fluid) involves more than merely a set of practical skills. Engaging in the products of a complexly mediated world, and one indeed of information overload, is not just a matter of knowing one's way around and having a certain degree of competence in what might once have been called reading. It involves much more than that, as Graham and Goodrum, and Livingstone, in their different ways argue. What is involved is the opportunity and the capacity meaningfully to engage in a discourse which is public, highly mediated, technologically sophisticated, and symbolically powerful. Literacy is a matter of making sense, of constructing and communicating understandings in a world of great dissonance and great ambiguity, one which ICTs both create as well as help to resolve. But literacy is also a matter of participation and protection, as individuals confronted with the bewildering and otherwise indecipherable presence of the social, need the skills to find, absorb, and use the resources that in one way or another are a precondition for citizenship, a satisfactory level of economic and financial activity and sustainability, and the overall quality of their everyday life.

ICTs, culture, and participation

New ICTs offer quite new possibilities. The capacity for interaction, the blurring of the boundaries between production and consumption, together and convergently, enable the a priori possibility for greater participation in what might be seen as the blurred world of public/private communication that is the web and, increasingly, mobile telephony. There are primary concerns of inclusion and exclusion here, and a sufficient degree of media and information literacy is a precondition, at the very least, for the former.

There are two issues involved. The first is the relationship between the offline and the online world. And the second is the politics of it all.

It has been customary, indeed it was once deemed almost self‐evident, to find in the Internet the basis for a self‐contained specific realm—it was called cyberspace—which worked according to its own patterns, and which in its (p. 20) seductiveness, encompassed a world that was sui generis. Research then began to question this, and offered an account of the relationship between online and offline communication (and culture) as being determined not by the technology but by the actions of those in the real world (most notably, but by no means exclusively, by Daniel Miller and Don Slater).37 One determinism replaced another, and actually neither was, nor is, sustainable.

As Shani Orgad argues in those significant realms of personal or institutional action that involve communication, negotiation, and organization online, there is nevertheless a much more complex set of interactions to be understood. These involve a degree of substantial interdependence within what takes place in both domains; that both domains, the online and the offline, exercise a materiality in relation to the other, and that this needs to be addressed both methodologically and substantively.

Individuals may meet and fall in love online, but they still have to meet in some real setting if they are to marry or procreate. Likewise, the realities of social and political action in the real world increasingly, and in certain increasingly vivid settings, can be enhanced and even directed by the communications that take place exclusively online or on‐mobile. The two domains nevertheless are neither substitutable nor separable.

Politics, community, and identity

The political realities of online interaction and communication both reflect and engage with the politics of the world. Political movements, political mobilizations, alternative accounts of political realities, are believed to be significantly the stuff of online interaction, for all the obvious reasons: the weakness or lack of state regulation, the low cost of entry, and the ease of global communication. However, as Downing and Brooten also suggest, what seems uniquely possible online is also available, and continues to be significant, across many media, both old and new. Media are essential to the conduct of politics of all kinds in the modern world. And of course the new digital environment has spawned a range of technologies that can be, and often are being, used to sustain a range of alternative activities from the support of local communities to the coordination of information and political action across continents.

Indeed the nature of online community and its relationship to place‐based communities have been the focus of continuous and contentious concern in the literature on ICTs. Online interaction has been seen as facilitative, and it has also been seen as destructive, of the kinds of otherwise unmediated interactions that in their continuity and intensity have the capacity to create a sense of meaningful, place‐based belonging. Research has tended to show that effective networking online emerges from, and to a degree depends on, pre‐existent live (p. 21) communities, but it has also indicated the profound a‐social potential in online interaction,38 both from the point of view of the seduction of its users into an electronic realm, and in terms of the ephemerality and invasive dangers of such communication.

It is clear, however, as Jung, Ball‐Rokeach, Kim, and Matei argue in their chapter, that such communicative spaces are as complex and problematic as those in real space, where communities are just as fractured and difficult. They also suggest that where and when such ‘real’ communities do work, they have the capacity to mobilize the potential of online communication and information access in creative and supportive ways. This goes both for the local and the more or less sedentary, as much as it does for the migrant and the displaced, though in the case of the latter, the capacity of ICTs meaningfully to provide a framework for social interaction is dependent very much on the prior circumstances, both the resources and the literacies, of the group concerned.

The argument from the study of community, and indeed the argument we are at pains to articulate throughout this volume, that the relationship between technology and the society is one of mutual shaping, is sustainable too at the level of the individual. Again the literature is replete with both determinist and essentialist figures, most evidently in arguments about gender and especially the status of ICTs as, in one way or another, necessarily gendered. Such positions are not sustainable. And while it is the case that in many societies women are denied the possibility of equivalent access to the full range of literacies, which in turn enable participation in the ICT‐based culture and where indeed such exclusions are both the product of established patterns of disadvantage, and more or less motivated strategies in design. There is, as Wajcman points out, no immutable fixing of position or identity, and no singularity either, in the effects or consequences of engaging with ICTs.

7 Conclusion

This handbook cannot encompass all the research on the development and application of ICTs within the social sciences and it has been necessary to set some boundaries. We do not include lines of research that view these technologies as being linked to a smooth evolution of society towards a network arrangement that propagates itself throughout the world in a singular way. We also have not included detailed discussions of the technical characteristics of ICTs,39 research on ICTs and cognition, or on the legal frameworks for the management and control of the way ICTs are used.

(p. 22)

The research included here is limited by the fact that it highlights work by those who publish in the English language and who are based in universities in Australia, Canada, France, Japan the UK and the US. Although some of the contributors draw upon empirical research undertaken within or about developing countries, this handbook does not include research that is responsive to the ICT or communication ‘for development’ debates; although it does take account of research on the principles and practices that might guide discussions about digital divides.40

Research in the physical sciences, computer science, and engineering is devoted to promoting innovations in ICTs.41 For example, research on ubiquitous or ambient computing, applications of RFID technology, software automation, multimedia content, the Semantic Web, and Knowledge Management is receiving substantial financial support. Frequently, this work gives rise to calls for cross‐, inter‐or multidisciplinary research which embraces the social sciences as a means of addressing the uncertainties—ethical, social, economic or political—that research in the natural sciences and engineering field brings to light, but often fails to address.

This handbook provides a resource for those working in other traditions embracing research that is informed principally by the disciplines of anthropology, economics, philosophy, politics, and sociology.42 The contributors set out an intellectual agenda that encourages reflection on the implications of ICTs for individuals, organizations, democracy, and the economy. Many of the media accounts of ICTs present them as ‘new’ and appear to suggest that a wholly new way of thinking is required in order to understand their implications. The discussions in this handbook confirm our view that it is the continuous interpenetration of the old and new ICTs, older and new practices and meanings, and innovations in institutions and governance systems that need to be investigated to achieve a deeper understanding of the place and consequences of these technologies for society.



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(1.) Or even before as optical telegraphy had been in use since the 1790s. ICTs also may be taken to include mechanical devices in which case, movable type that was first used in China for printing in the eleventh century, could be included. For historical studies, see Braudel (1981), Castells (1996), Innis (1950, 1951), Freeman and Soete (1997), Marvin (1988), and Mattelart (1996/2000).

(2.) The WSIS was held in 2003 and 2005, see accessed 24 Mar. 2006.

(4.) See, for example, Monge and Contractor (2003).

(6.) For example, OECD (2005), and Room (2005).

(7.) For example, Lamberton (1971, 2006) on the variety of roles that information plays in the economy, Noam (2001) on the institutional rules governing the development of new markets, and Quah (2003) on the potential of ICTs for creating digital goods such as digital music and novel software algorithms.

(10.) See Castells (1996, 1997, 1998, 2001), van Dijk (2006), and Slevin (2002).

(11.) See Garnham (2000), Webster (2002), and Braman (1995) for a review of some of these works.

(14.) See Science, Technology, and Industry Scoreboard 2005: Towards a Knowledge‐based Economy, OECD,, accessed 18 Mar. 2006.

(15.) For example, see Kim (2005) and Adam (2005).

(16.) See May (2002) and Webster (2002) for critical appraisals of these labels.

(21.) Sassen examines the financial sector and Dunleavy discusses the public sector and ICTs in Pt III of this Handbook.

(23.) For example, research on systems development methodologies in the 1980s presented in Avison and Fitzerald (1996).

(25.) Lazonick also addresses outsourcing in Pt I of this Handbook.

(26.) For example, DeSanctis and Fulk (1999).

(28.) This volume does not contain a chapter on the governance of the Internet from a technical or regulatory perspective, although some aspects of Internet governance are discussed by David in Chapter 6 in terms of the need for social regulation of the Internet. See Stauffacher and Kleinwächter (2005), ITeM (2005), Milward‐Oliver (2005), and Raboy (2003) for discussions of Internet governance.

(29.) For access to literature on the role of the media in this context see, for instance, Axford and Huggins (2001), Bennett and Entman (2000), Dahlgren (2001), Kellner (1990), and Norris (2000).

(31.) For discussion of the nature of the public sphere, see Calhoun (1992), Habermas (1989/1962, 1989), and Keane (1995).

(32.) The digital divide generally refers to differences—socio‐economic or geographical—in access to ICTs and the Internet and to differences in people's capabilities to use ICTs. Inequality is said to have implications for the economy, and political and social processes.

(33.) This argument is made by some of the contributors to Compaine (2001).

(36.) See, e.g. Ong (1982).

(40.) ICTs are mentioned in the United Nations Millennium Goals and work in this area has been growing rapidly, often supported by development agencies and government departments. The web resources are too numerous to cite here, but readers might start with or See also Latham and Sassen (2005).

(42.) A complementary Handbook of New Media (Lievrouw and Livingstone 2002, 2006) focuses more directly on ‘new media’.