Sunday, February 10, 2013

Leah A. Lievrouw, "New Media Design and Development"

Before I begin with my summary analysis, allow me to offer a list of acronyms I wish I’d had available before reading this article:

SST (social shaping of technology),
ICT (information and communication technologies),
SSK (sociology of scientific knowledge),
SCOT (social construction of technology),
ANT (actor-network theory).

In her chapter “New Media Design and Development: Diffusion of Innovations v. Social Shaping of Technology” in Handbook of New Media (2006), Lievrouw uses two case studies, e-mail and videotex, to demonstrate the theories of diffusion of innovations theory and social shaping of technology (SST). In addition to applying these two theories to the spread and stagnation of e-mail and videotex, respectively, she also makes a larger argument that “the development and use of new media technologies [is] a process that involves a constant tension between determination and contingency, that is, between the imposition of order and uncertainty.”  
           Diffusion of innovations--diffusion, for short--is a theory that models how people adopt technologies. Perhaps the most famous representation of this model is Everett Rogers’ bell curve.
Adoption is based on the influence or social status of innovators and early adopters. Another way to think about it is through network externalities or snowball effect. Technology adoption, amongst other things, spreads via networks of people. As more people adopt a technology, the adoption rate goes up exponentially.
            The criticisms of these ideas are that they are “deterministic” and “unitary.” They assume that adoption is linear, when in fact a technology can undergo developments mid-diffusion. An evolutionary model like punctuated equilibrium is much more probable than a nice and orderly teleological explanation of technology adoption.
            Social shaping of technology (SST) “emphasizes the importance of human choices and action.” In much the same way that Pawley argues for reading as a social act, technology (and knowledge in general) is also social. Different groups of people might use technologies in differing ways. Adopting a technology could become a symbol and denote one’s self as belonging to a certain group. These kinds of analyses and understandings of technology do not fit within diffusion theory.
            After applying these theories to the adoption of e-mail and videotex, Lievrouw explains how these ideas and examples demonstrate the tension between determination and contingency in adoption. We can think of determination as an outside push to adopt, while contingency is an internal pull or desire to adopt. The videotex is an example of an outside agency pushing people to adopt a new technology. E-mail is an example of people wanting a technology and finding a way to pull it to them. Usually there is a give and take between determination and contingency when it comes to technology adoption, which is why scholars still need both diffusion and SST theories.

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