Doing Technology (and Democracy) the Pack-Donkey's Way: The TechnomorphicApproach to ICT Policy

Tilbake til Makt- og demokratiutredningens startside


Makt- og demokratiutredningens rapportserie, ISSN 1501-3065

Rapport 9, desember 1999, ISBN 82-92028-09-9

Tommy Tranvik, Michael Thompson and Per Selle


The eye cannot sum up this complex at one view; it is necessary to go around it on all sides". This was the verdict on the new organisation of space represented by the Bauhaus’ Dessau building, just outside Berlin (Geidion 1982: 497). The Bauhaus building (1926) is a complex of cubes, differing in size, material and location, and so arranged that they "interpenetrate each other so subtly and intimately that the boundaries of the various volumes cannot be sharply picked out. The views from the air show how thorougly each is blended into a unified composition" (ibid: 497). This architectural account is interesting because it casts a shadow over technology analysis: social scientists have not been able to study technical structures with the same eye for nuances that some students of architecture have brought to bear on housing. There may, however, be a way to remedy this shortcoming.

We propose an anti-reductionist appreciation of technology (and democracy) by constructing the technomorphic model: a model based on insights derived from geomorphology – the study of landscape and landscape-shaping processes – which gives us the opportunity to analyse our technological environment as a "second nature". The technomorphic model avoids the single standpoint views promoted by technological determinism ("technology shapes society") and social constructionism ("society shapes technology") by setting out a coherent way of integrating these two approaches, showing that they are not as mutually contradictory as much of the literature on technology and social choice has led us to believe. The technomorphic model give rise to "Technology and Policy Characterisation": a method for mapping the democratic properties of technology and technological policy. This method is then applied in evaluating modern information- and communications technology (notably the Internet) and the Norwegian ICT-policy.


Introduction *

Impressionism and Expressionism: Strengths and Weaknesses *
Expressionism revisited: Cultural Theory *
From Geomorphology to Technomorphology *
Timberrr!: The ICT Policy is Here *
Doing ICT-Policy The Pack-Donkey’s Way *
How The Pack-Donkey’s Way Becomes A Straight Line *
The Technomorphic Approach: What’s Hot (And What’s Not)? *
References *
Endnotes *



Just as the famous building in Dessau is a complex of cubes that must be viewed from different sides and from above to get a full and clear understanding of its architectonic design, so we need to analyse the mesh of technology and society. We need, somehow, to view the juxtaposed cubes that organise the space of modern everyday life from different sides and from above (and from below, Geidion forgot that!), because the technical and the social interpenetrate each other so subtly and so intimately that the boundaries are hard to discern. Hence, one view of technology and society – a technological determinist view ("technology shapes society"), for example, or a social constructionist one ("society shapes technology") – does not suffice to grasp the political relevance of technology. We need to analyse the blending of technology and society from more than one perspective; only then can we gain a more complete understanding of "the unified composition" than is presented by any of the traditional theories on technology and society: theories that have, for too long now, been engaged in an ontological tug-o-war: "What is technology – a social or a technical construct?" (ending, of course, with a draw, so that every theory, in a slightly haphazard and ad hoc manner, adds its bit of what was lacking before, while, at the same time denying the validity of the bits that are added by competing theories). This means, to continue the artistic analogy (except that we do not think it is just an analogy), that we must try to integrate an impressionistic and expressionistic interpretation of technology.


With impressionism, we point to our everyday perception and experience of technology: the way we go about using these artificial structures, and the way patterns of expectations, actions, power and control change in the process. Expressionism, on the other hand, points to the in-built forces – social as well as technical – that shape the properties of a technology during the innovation and design processes, and that are being represented (or expressed) by that technology. What we need, in other words, is to bend into shape the bridge between technological determinism and social constructionism, and between studies of the effects of a technology once it is here (i. e. impact studies) and the analysis of the conditions for a technology being here in the first place (i. e. design analysis). The way we propose to do this is by taking what we call a technomorphic approach. Students of technology, for all their differences, are largely agreed that technology is an artificial landscape, or a "second nature" – an environment that we both live in and alter – and they are certainly addicted to landscape metaphors (see, for instance, Ellul 1980; Hughes 1987; Rip 1998; Winner 1983; 1977). Our strategy in this paper is to take this technology-as-landscape idea even more seriously, and to reason that if technology really is a second nature we may have much to learn from the trials and tribulations of those who, for so many years, have struggled so valiantly to understand the natural landscape: the first nature. Geologists, geomorphologists, vulcanologists and other varieties of earth scientist, it is our hunch, are the best guides to the artificial landscape that, as far as determining human behaviour is concerned, is now largely taking over from its natural counterpart. It is by following them, we believe, that we can avoid the "single standpoint" and arrive at an anti-reductionist appreciation of the politics of nuts and bolts. In so doing, we can relate nuts and bolts to democracy – a relationship largely ignored by mainstream political science. Democracy, we argue, should encompass technology because technical structures shape the conditions for social life, and, since democracy is about giving the people that are doing the living the means by which they can decide how this living should be done, this principle must also apply to technology. Democracy-enabling technologies, as opposed to democracy-restricting ones (technologies that are not compatible with the values underpinning democracy), must therefore hold the ability to fulfil the conflicting social and political ambitions entertained by different segments of society. This is, of course, a rather elusive approach to democracy since we do not commit ourselves to one specific model of democracy. Troublesome as this may be, it nevertheless enables us to achieve our aim: to establish an analytical framework for reflecting on the democracy-technology relationship by focusing on some fundamental features shared by all the theoretical and real-life models of democracy.


Rather than speaking of the artificial landscape and its democratic qualities (or lack thereof) in general terms, we will focus on the most high-profile technology policy field of recent years – new information and communications technologies (ICTs) and particularly the Internet – in order to illustrate the usefulness of the technomorphic approach. It is increasingly important to get an anti-reductionist grip on the ICT policy processes because new ICTs – especially, the Internet – have a peculiar technical structure that is not amenable to conventional technology policy. The traditional organisation of industrial and technological policy, so characteristic of the post-1945 era – top-down, centralised and comprehensive programmes – we argue, is in dire straits because digital networks have a bottom-up configuration that is ill-suited to management from the top. Thus, we are going to analyse the policy impact of modern ICTs, leaving the study of the design process itself pretty much untouched. Our modest aim is to tease out the restraints that the Internet, as currently designed, puts on the ICT policy process. To do this we will bring together two theories of technology: one (Cultural Theory) which is a social constructionist theory, the other (technological determinism) which is usually seen as vehemently rejecting constructionism. These theories, we will show, far from being mutually contradictory, are united in their rejection of unconstrained relativism (typified by postmodern constructionism that insists that technology is what we make of it) and their combination gives us our technomorphic model. It also gives us something else: Technology and Policy Characterisation, which is the method we propose for mapping technologies and public policies in order to study the democratic quality of both. Here we will use this method to take a closer look at the Norwegian ICT experience. Those who are expecting a comprehensive treatment of Norwegian ICT policy, however, will be disappointed. Our aim is not to give a detailed account of this particular policy process but to analyse its broad ideological and technological framing: a framing that, in our opinion, is also relevant for understanding the ICT policies of other countries.


Our concern, then, is with how the Norwegian authorities are trying to unite technology with a particular vision of society and democracy, using ICT policy as the intermediary. There is, we will argue, a serious mismatch between the Internet technology and the ideology that currently underpins Norwegian ICT policy: a mismatch that makes that policy neither particularly feasible nor very democratic.

Impressionism and Expressionism: Strengths and Weaknesses

Schwarz and Thompson (1990: 149) speaks of a "triangular interplay" between patterns of people (the different ways in which social relations can be arranged – e.g. hierarchies, ego-focused networks, excluded margins and so on), patterns of ideas (the different sets of socially shaped certainties – e.g. that nature is fragile, able to bounce back from everything we throw at it, stable within limits and so on – that differently organized people cleave to) and patterns of things (configurations of hardware – e.g. television sets, windmills, nuclear reactors and so on – that work, thanks to the physical properties of the components not being too far out of line with the convictions held by those who have created them and now operate them). In an anti-reductionist theory of technology, each of the three apices makes its distinctive and essential contribution. Like the chicken and the egg in the simpler "two-apex" case, each does something vital that could never be done by the others, singly or in combination. The causal arrows, in other words, point both ways, along each of the three sides of the interplay.


Delete one or more of these causal arrowheads and you have introduced reductionism, and it is by running through the various ways in which you can do this (there are six in all) that we can map the different "single standpoint" theories of technology and, more importantly, rid them of their mutual contradictions by purging them of the particular invalid reductionisms that each is built upon. Here we will do this with just three of them (the most influential three): marxism, technological determinism and social constructionism.


  • n marxist theory it is the interplay of things (material) and social relations (the class-based structure of society) that moulds culture (ideas) so as to sustain a particular organisation of social, political and economic life. Technology, marxist theorists tell us, is social relations (in the same way that the chicken is the egg) and the third apex – ideas – is merely a "superstructure" that obligingly positions itself so as to justify and render "natural" the current state of the class-based struggle for control over the means of production. Ideology, in consequence, is an instrument for the alienation and de-skilling of workers, who then become automata in a mechanised production process that is geared to the protection of the interests of the owners of the means of production (Braverman 1974).
  • Where marxism deletes just one of the causal arrowheads, so as to explain what is going on at one apex (ideas) in terms of what is happening at and between the other two apices (things and people), technological determinism is doubly deterministic. Technological determinism explains what is happening at two apices (people and ideas) in terms of what is going on at the third (things). Technology, it is argued, produces needs and wants where none existed before, creating a culture of mass consumption, and human relations are then rearranged so as to facilitate the cost-effective utilization of that technology (Ellul 1964; 1980; Mumford 1971; Winner 1977). These effects of technology are not primarily a result of our conscious application of technical artifacts, it is reasoned, but are spin-offs of technological path-dependencies. Path-dependence, according to technological determinists, is a process where the initial choice to use a technology requires the subsequent commitment of massive technical, economic and organisational resources in order to build, operate and maintain that technology. As this process of technology implementation gains momentum it becomes irreversible, due to the sheer quantity of resources that have been committed to it, and entrenchment is the end-result: the technology has become an indispensable part of society and we cannot imagine life without it (let alone how life was before we made ourselves dependent on it being here). In short, technology has dug itself in in the midst of society (which takes the wind out of the sails of neo-classical economics: the view that a free market does not allow the choice of technology to be restrained by entrenched socio-technical habits). Entrenched technology (the things apex) thus defines the framework within which politics (the other two apices) take place by shaping and reshaping social life according to its needs. If, for example, nuclear power plants are the main suppliers of energy then the society is deeply committed to nuclear technology in its core functions, and other energy sources that may be more politically desirable are likely to be regarded as non-options because of the amount of re-engineering it would take to effect the switch. Technocrats, in consequence, are at the helm of modern society, because the entrenched nature of technology requires them to be there. High technology, to which we are committed whether we like it or not, simply cannot work properly without competent, centralised steering. The unfortunate result, technological determinism insists, is that technocratic technologies exert an ideological force, impairing citizens’, politicians’ and technical experts’ abilities to envision technological alternatives.
  • Social constructionism (see MacKenzie & Wajcman 1987; Bijker, Hughes & Pinch 1987; Jasanoff et. al. 1995) is almost the reverse of technological determinism, in that it explains what is happening at the things apex in terms of what is going on at and between the other two apices (people and ideas). In this theory, hardware is constructed on the basis of culture and social relations (even if, as many an engineer has complained, that basis requires that the moon is made of green cheese). Influenced both by the "strong programme" in the sociology of science (see, for instance, Barnes, Bloor and Henry 1996) and the postmodernist insistence that "there are no metanarratives" (Lyotard 1979), social constructionists reject the claim (central to both marxist and technological determinist theories) that technology has a substantive factual and technical core. The analytical distinction between technology and society is thus replaced by the notion of a "seamless web", with the borders between the technical and the social being seen as fluid and everywhere subject to interpretation. While marxism and technological determinism are largely focused on the macro-level – the analysis of the role of technology in society – social constructionism is more preoccupied with micro-level analysis: with what is going on in the design of a specific technology. The technology – its nuts and bolts – is then explained in terms of the configuration of actors and interests that take part in (and, in some instances, find themselves excluded from) the design process: interpretive flexibility.


As we can see, these three broad theory traditions are reductionist but, at the same time, each is managing to capture some important aspects of technology that is missed by the others. It would therefore be a great step forward if we could avoid having to choose between them, and this, in effect, is what an anti-reductionist theory of technology enables us to do. It tells us that we will have the "multiple standpoint" understanding – impressionism and expressionism – once we have a triangular framework within which none of the causal arrowheads has been deleted, and this we can do by combining the two theories –technological determinism and social constructionism – that, as we have seen, are virtually the opposites of each other.

In fact, we will be using one particular constructionist theory – Cultural Theory – because it, unlike any of the others, specifies how many viable patterns of ideas and of people there are (and, without that, we would have an unconstrained relativism which, as we have already argued, would contradict technological determinism). But why choose this particular combination of theories out of the three that are possible?


Since combining marxism and technological determinism leaves us with two missing arrowheads (ideas to people and ideas to things) and combining marxism and social constructionism gives us all the arrowheads but with two of them (people to things and people to ideas) doubled-up, we have selected the combination that gives us precisely what we are looking for: each arrowhead, once! And, of course, combining all three theories, which is the fourth option, give us redundancy, duplication and overlap way beyond what we need. We should stress that, in not choosing marxism as one of the theories in our combination, we are not ignoring it. All the arrowheads that constitute the marxist scheme are present in our anti-reductionist framework; so we have ended up with it (among the other theories) even though we did not start off from it (and, of course, we have not even mentioned the other three reductionist theories that are implicit in our anti-reductionist framework). In some ways, this round-the-corner way of incorporating the marxist theory of technology is all to the good, because the development of ICTs (especially the Internet), and the way "information workers" are becoming independent agents with ever weaker ties to the businesses that hire them, do not, on the face of it, fit well with the traditional alienation and de-skilling hypothesis. On the other hand, marxists are right in bringing to our attention the social and geographical inequalities in the spread of new ICTs (in Norway, for example, there are at present as many Internet connected people as in India – about 2 million) but tend to entertain a deterministic view on the possibilities of bridging these gaps that may not stand up to scrutiny. Nevertheless, the marxist heritage is valuable because it has provided the first theory that, in any systematic fashion, analyses the inherently political properties of steel and concrete, nuts and bolts. Now, as we move from the "industrial revolution" into the "information revolution", this heritage is being carried further, in more appropriate forms, by technological determinism and social constructionism. What, then, are the strengths that they add to those provided by this marxist heritage?


The strength of technological determinism is that it focuses on impact analysis: on how a technical environment is lived by those who find themselves on the receiving end of technological developments. To understand how technology interferes with society, determinists argue, we must study how "real people", as they go about their business, are framed by a technology and how this framing gives rise to entrenched social practices that can be traced back to a technology’s inherent properties, whether these properties are socially constructed or not. What technological determinism is saying, then, is that we cannot make sense of technology just by "sterile" theorising (Winner 1991). We also have to dip our toes into the water of real, everyday experiences, trying our best not to have them bitten off by the complex patterns of technology-mediated social practices. The determinist argument, in a sense, is parallel to what the "new institutionalists" are saying (see, for instance, March & Olsen 1989) because entrenched technology emerges as one important type of institution that imposes a social and political order relatively independent of the explicit intentions of calculating actors. But determinists are unwilling to allow that some aspects of technological institutionalism, as experienced at its receiving end, may have been deliberately planned by those who designed the gismos.


Social constructionism, on the other hand, concentrates on design studies. The ambition is to open up the "black box" of technical innovation and take a look at what is going on inside. Once inside, the determinists’ claim – that all the contents are purely technical – is discredited. It is very much a question of social interests (see Latour & Woolgar 1986). Technologists, it is argued, do not search for "the one best technical solution", but struggle to get their socially biased interpretations of what a technology should do to stick with that technology. Conflicts can either be settled through reasoned negotiations (which leads to a mutual understanding of technological designs) or one interest (or alliance of interests) is powerful enough to overrun the opposition. Either way, the impacts of technology on society are decided long before those impacts are experienced and lived by everyday people. In consequence, the constructionists argue, the phenomenological methodology of technological determinism (i. e. the study of how concrete technical designs structure peoples’ social experiences and habits) is flawed, since it simply is not possible to pinpoint the exact cause of what is being observed. The determinist thinks it has something to do with the configuration of the technology, but the root-cause is the pattern of social interests that make a particular technical configuration possible in the first place.


We recognise the importance of the constructionist argument: we do need to understand how a technology is designed. Nonetheless, constructionists tend to overfocus on contested issues – usually the parts of a technology where uncertainty rules – while little is said about non-decisions (the parts that are not socially contested). In this way, they create an image of innovation processes as ground-breaking and isolated acts of socio-technical ingenuity. However, innovation processes do not somehow unfold within an uncontaminated bubble; they are, to a considerable extent, determined by pre-existing techno-scientific knowledge; by what is technically possible and by what are widely held to be the appropriate ways of dealing with a problem (Cole 1992; Kuhn 1970). These factors often force technological developments down trajectories (or chreods [meaning "necessary paths"], as they are sometimes called [Waddington 1957]), which means that a technology evolves into entrenched shapes and forms: forms that are palpably "there", and not easily moved somewhere else. Even if some constructionist theories (the SCOT [social construction of technology] perspective [see Bijker 1995] and actor-network theory [see Callon 1987], for example) do recognise these objections, they pay little attention to the ramifications. Entrenchment, which constructionists tend to overlook (Woolgar 1991), exposes the shallowness of the interpretive flexibility argument because technology has the ability to structure behaviour and social relations, sometimes in unanticipated ways, that often become permanent features of social life, resulting, of course, in interpretive inflexibility: technology is not always what we planned it to be and there is not a damn lot we can do about it. Consequently, the most intriguing aspects of a technology are not settled in the laboratory among groups of technologists (or other interested parties) who are supposed to carefully plan its future social effects (this would need a sensationally accurate piece of social forecasting, rendering the social scientist, who is scarcely able to track a technology’s effects long after they have happened, obsolete) but by the way technology re-arranges the social conditions for its successful use.


In social constructionism, therefore, technology is largely conceptualised as a non-institutional phenomenon, and a normative social actor vision is promoted (sometimes characterised as "the postmodern condition" [Turkle 1995]), and our criticism of the unbound post-modern constructivism is parallel to March and Olsen’s (1989) critique of mainstream non-institutional political theory. Post-modern constructivism is therefore characterised by: (1) radical contextualism: "the seamless web" – technology mirrors its social context; class, culture, economic conditions, ideology and religion all affect technology but are not themselves significantly affected by it, (2) reductionism: technology is the aggregated consequences of social actor behaviour, and the possibility that technology in itself defines structures and rules for appropriate behaviour is not entertained or, at best, poorly elaborated, (3) utilitarianism: the view that technology stems from calculated self-interest, and the unwillingness to see action as a response to technology-imposed obligations and duties that severely limit the free play of social actor will and calculation, (4) instrumentalism: technological decision-making as a means of allocating social or cultural resources is the central concern (e.g. material artifacts as passive "texts" whose meanings are "prescribed" by social "narratives"), and scant attention is paid to technologies as "metanarratives"; the way technology-imposed symbols and rituals create meaning which social life is organised around, and (5) functionalism: technology as an efficient mechanism for reaching a state of social equilibrium; a view that denies the possibilities of maladaption and sudden sociotechnical change.


What we must do, if we are to build an anti-reductionist theory of technology, is retain technological determinism‘s analysis of technologies as institutions that interlock inherent technical properties and social processes. But technological determinism, on its own, is too one-sided, because there are social actors and interests involved in technological processes that may bend the development of a technology in certain directions and not in others. So we also need to understand the social forces that are at work, and how these forces are related to socio-technical institutions. To what extent, we should ask, are material structures deliberately designed to realise institutionalised visions of what a technology should do? It is for these reasons that we turn to Cultural Theory. Cultural Theory brings in what determinism cannot give us: an institutional understanding of plural rationalities that explains why people prefer different types of technological designs and why people think differently about the same technology.


Expressionism revisited: Cultural Theory

In Cultural Theory, technological design processes are explained in terms of institutions (or, to be rather more precise, in terms of social solidarities that, in varying strengths and patterns of interaction, constitute institutions). Cultural Theory argues that there are five (and only five) distinctive forms of social solidarity (forms of social solidarity are sometimes refered to as "ways of life" or, rather loosely, as "cultures" [Thompson 1996a]). Each form of social solidarity is characterized by a mutually supportive coming-together of a particular pattern of social relation and a particular cultural bias (or worldview). By binding yourself into one of these five social solidarities your cognitive properties (your way of assessing the physical and social environment) becomes subject to social construction – peoples‘ perceptions of what is real are filtered, this way or that, by their solidarities. Rationality, in consequence, becomes plural, because the sort of behaviour that will be viewed as sensible, and morally justifiable, will vary with the convictions as to how the world is and people are that are held by those who are doing the viewing. For example, the rationality of the autonomous, utility-maximising individual – the "economic man" model – far from fitting all humankind, is the rationality that accompanies just one of the solidarities: the individualist solidarity, in which ego-focused networks of relationships are supported by the convictions that nature will always bounce back and that humans are irreducibly self-seeking. But, if (to take the convictions that uphold the ranked groups that characterise the hierarchist solidarity) humans can be redeemed by firm and nurturing institutions, and nature is robust within certain limits, the individualist behaviour would be highly irrational (criminally irresponsible, even). And both the individualists’ behaviour and the hierarchists’ will be irrational to the upholders of the egalitarian solidarity (characterised by unranked groups) who are convinced that man is caring and sharing and that nature is so fragile as to allow no safe limits. All three of these ways of behaving, in their turn, will be irrational to those – the upholders of the fatalist solidarity (characterised by exclusion from all the other arrangements: ego-focused networks, bounded and ranked groups, unranked groups) – who know that there are no circumstances under which you can trust your fellow humans and that nature, for its part, operates with neither rhyme nor reason. The hermit – the upholder of the fifth, transaction-minimising solidarity – can discern the wrong-headedness of all the four desire-driven solidarities: essentially the stoking-up of ignorance when reason demands that we overcame it (for a full explanation of these solidarities, see Thompson, Ellis and Wildavsky 1990 and, more specifically, in relation to technology, Schwarz and Thompson 1990).


Each solidarity, moreover, needs the others to define itself against. Each is a way of organising and, at the same time, a way of disorganising all the others. In consequence, the distinct set of goals, values, and norms that defines each solidarity, and makes it particular, emerges and is stabilized in interaction with the other solidarities. Technological design processes therefore are played out in the crossroads where the solidarities meet and collide (four of them, that is; the hermit floats high above this ignorant fray). And because of this dynamic interplay each design process is unique, much like a classic football Derby: the teams are the same, the ground is the same, the rules are the same and the players may be the same, but no two matches are alike. If we place ourselves in the hermit’s position, so as to get a good view of this never-ending struggle (though not, of course, of the hermit’s part in it), we can distinguish three "active" contenders – the hierarchist, the individualist and the egalitarian solidarities – and one "passive" one – the fatalist solidarity – that seems to perform a sort of cannon-fodder role for the other three:


  • The hierarchists. Social relations here are structured by prescribed status differences (asymmetry) and by the requirement that those at the higher levels behave appropriately vis-à-vis those at the lower levels (accountability). The rule-obeying bureaucratic model is an example (though, of course, any real bureaucracy will not be fully consistent with this model). Ideally, the hierarchist is committed to large-scale and centralised technologies that are very much in need of expert guidance.
  • The individualists. Ego-focused personal networks (symmetry but no accountability) characterise social relations here. Personal achievement, not prescribed status differences, is the organising principle, and those on the losing end cannot expect to be looked after like the "deserving poor" in a hierarchical setting. On the other hand, they do not risk being stigmatized as "deviants" and are welcome to try again (equality of opportunity). The model here, of course, is the free market (and, again, the reality never quite conforms to this model). The individualist is committed to decentralised (preferably, but not necessarily) and profit-maximizing technologies that are likely to reward the best, brightest, and most daring.
  • The egalitarians. Equality, not of opportunity but of outcome, is the "bottom line" in this solidarity. Social relations are arranged so that everyone swaps seats with everyone else (symmetry) and those who begin to introduce inequalities (of status or of outcome) are brought back in line (accountability). Bottom-up grassroots is the model here (but in real life none of these outfits is as organisationally flat as it should be). Egalitarians, therefore, prefer small-scale and emancipating technologies: technologies that, so far as they can judge, are likely to equalise differences.
  • The fatalists. The members of this solidarity find themselves on the outside of the structured patterns of relationships that characterise the three "active" solidarities. They are on the sidelines of the classic football Derby: the place where they feel most comfortable. However, like compost in biological systems, this excluded solidarity plays an important role in social and technological processes precisely because it is passive. All three "active" solidarities compete to mobilise the fatalists in support of their preferred policies: a three-way tug-o-war that gives rise to inherently complex dynamics that are very different from those that are generated by a simple (i. e. two-component) system in which those who are recruited to one position are directly pitted against those who are recruited to the other. And, even when they are not swayed, the fatalists alert those who would mobilise them to the pointlessness of devoting resources to things about which nothing can be done, and technological development, according to the fatalists, is one example of something we cannot do much about.


The significance of technology, according to Cultural Theory, is clear-cut: since technology is so readily and so quickly entrenched, each of the three "active" solidarities, if it is to maintain and strengthen itself vis-à-vis the others, must somehow get its preferred design to stick with a new technology. The trick, therefore, is to get your social construction accepted by the other solidarities as the uncontested and substantive technical core. This trick, as a whole generation of policy analysts (and citizens) now know, can be pulled off by argumentation or arm-twisting or any of the other subtle techniques by which agendas are set, closures achieved and framings accepted. The trouble, of course, is that the trick only works, and only goes on working, if the technological design that the winning solidarity has locked us all into delivers on its promises: "Electricity too cheap to meter" in the case of nuclear power, for instance, "Homes fit for heroes" in the case of Britain’s high-rise, system-built housing, not forgetting Margaret Thatcher’s "great car culture".

"Marry a technology in haste; repent at leisure", all too often, is the lesson that is learnt by those who, during the whirlwind romance, had been cock-a-hoop at the trick they had pulled on the other solidarities. "If only we had had some way of knowing what it was that we were getting ourselves into", is the lament, and the penitents’ woe is only compounded by those who belong to the other solidarities pointing out that they had known, and had been telling them that from Day One, only to be met with the suggestion that they go away in jerky movements! Trial marriage, therefore, is the Cultural Theorist’s answer. If each solidarity, despite its subsequent lamentations, is still dead-set on tying the technological knot then the only way to prevent all these premature lock-ins – lock-ins that are increasingly resented by those solidarities whose technological preferences have been ignored (and, often enough, regretted by those who caused them as well) – is to somehow ensure that no one solidarity (or pair of solidarities) is ever able to dominate the decision process to the point where it excludes the others. Put another way, the solution is to ensure, through a continuous scrutiny of our democratic institutions, that there is never agreement on a value-free and substantive technical core: that the terrain is always contested (Schwarz and Thompson 1990 and, more explicitly, Thompson 1996b and Ney and Thompson 1999). Flexibility – a technology’s ability to satisfy several interpretations of how life in high-tech society should be lived (the Internet is a good example) – is thus the defining quality of a democratic and socially benign technology. But, and this is the whole justification for our technomorphic approach, it is not quite that simple.

Technological designs, Cultural Theory insists, are not just a question of social construction (and it is this insistance that sets it apart from other constructionist theories). A winning design must be physically and technically possible (which, of course, rules out perpetual motion machines for power generation, cold fusion, and moon-buggies with wheels that will give a marvellous purchase on green cheese) and it must prove itself in the functional sense of use (entrenchment).

Unfortunately, these crucial requirements – technical influences and entrenchment – though acknowledged, are not adequately accounted for in Cultural Theory. And this "unfinished business" also has implications for that theory’s normative prescriptions: if some social constructions are non-starters then, in the negative sense of there being certain things that you might want to do but cannot, there is a technical core, in which case some of the terrain is not contested (or, if it is contested, it should not be). Though Cultural Theorists can claim that this wisdom is built into the fatalist and autonomous solidarities (for which reason these solidarities should somehow be ensured a presence in the decision process) there is more at stake here. The role and effect of hardware (the things apex of the triangular interplay) is under-explored in Cultural Theory, thanks to the emphasis that has been placed on social relations (the people apex) and social constructions (the ideas apex). So Cultural Theory cannot go all the way by itself; it needs a technological determinist underpinning (just as technological determinism needs a Cultural Theory underpinning) if we are to propose a truly anti-reductionist theory of technology.


From Geomorphology to Technomorphology

We now have all the cubes we need to build a more complete theory of technology and society. Technological determinism draws our attention to the importance of inherent technical factors and entrenchment (i. e. the addictive nature of technology-mediated social practices), while Cultural Theory provides insights about social factors and flexibility (i. e. the way technologies can or cannot be moulded – within the limits of technical restraints – to satisfy social needs and wishes). What we still lack is the architectonic inspiration to juxtapose the cubes so that they interpenetrate each other to form a unified anti-reductionist composition. This inspiration, as we have already hinted, is provided by gemorphology: the study of landscapes and landscape-forming processes in the first nature – the nature that is now being ever more heavily overlaid by the second nature, technology. And geomorphology, it turns out, has already faced, and coped with, its version of the problem we have just found our way to: the integration of technological determinism and social constructionism.

Classical geomorphology was framed by the Huttonian approach (after the pioneer geomorphologist, James Hutton, 1726-79) and awesomely elaborated by W. M. Davis after the turn of this century. The jaggernaut of the Davisian system, as it was called, was reductionism. It was believed that an uplift land remained structurally stable while it passed through a series of time-dependent erosional stages (youth, maturity, and old age), characterised by a progressive lowering and levelling of plains towards a predictable and entrenched end-point (Butzer 1976). By the 1950s, however, this Davisian system was in serious difficulties. Diastrophic activity (the movements of the Earth’s tectonic plates that were responsible for the uplift land being uplifted) and the the effect of climate, both of which had been neglected in the reductionist account, pushed their way to the forefront of geomorphic investigation (Higgins 1981). For instance, if the Greater Himalayan Range, thanks to the South Asian plate pushing its way under the Eurasian plate, is rising faster than it is being worn down by the stupendous erosional power of the monsoon rains that its uplifting has brought into existence (Raymo and Ruddiman 1992) then it does not make much sense to try to locate its position along the youth-to-old-age scale. Indeed, if you try to do that you will have to conclude that these mountains are very youthful and that they are getting younger the older they get!

The Davisian system, not surprisingly, was judged inadequate (not wrong, but far from being entirely right) and today landscape form and landscape evolution are seen as a function of the complex interactions between two types of processes: internal (or tectonic) processes (forces emanating from the Earth‘s interior and manifested in phenomena such as earthquakes and volcanic activity), and external (or gradational) processes (forces shaping the Earth‘s surface: soil and wind erosion, human activity, climate impact and so on). The Davisian system, of course, is still there, just as the marxist scheme is still in our combination of technological determinism and Cultural Theory, but geomorphology, having set off reductionist, is now firmly on the anti-reductionist track.

So the first lesson from geomorphology is that landscapes are shaped from the inside as well as from the outside. This means that, just as geomorphology focuses on both tectonic and gradational processes, so technomorphology should consider technical and social processes in the making of technological landscapes. In this second nature, the tectonic forces are inherent in the body of techno-scientific knowledge that must be present to make hardware work. These forces can be analysed in terms of technological determinism, because its main focus is on the entrenched social practices emanating from the technology itself. Gradational forces, on the other hand, are the external social pressures that shape a technology‘s properties. Here, Cultural Theory provides an analytical framework for mapping these pressures during the design stages, and explains why flexibility of use is an important and variable quality of technical structures. Therefore, technomorphology – the integration of technological determinism and Cultural Theory under a geomorphic banner - treats this second nature in much the same way that Geidion treats the new architecture of the Bauhaus: as a subtle, multiple-viewpoint-demanding interpenetration of juxtaposed cubes. In this case, we have a tectonic cube (the inherent and irreducible technical properties) and a gradational cube (the social solidarities that are shaping the technology from the outside, as it were). And it is the subtle interpenetration of these two cubes that determines the extent to which a technology becomes entrenched (a major determinant of how we live our lives) and the extent to which it remains flexible (able to be shaped, this way or that, so as to conform to each of the solidarities’ criteria for what constitutes a desirable technology).

Within this unified composition (and this, at first sight, is not easily comprehended or accepted) a technology may be high or low on tectonic and gradational influence (the Himalayas, for instance, are very high on both) and high or low on entrenchment and flexibility (characteristics that, in the first landscape, account for the incidence of "relict features": features that are there because of certain characteristics of a preceding landscape that no longer exists). And the act of constructing the artificial landscape is to be understood as a form of social architecture: a way of building society. And, just like the Bauhaus’ Dessau building, if the cubes are juxtaposed in one particular way they cannot be juxtaposed in any of the other ways that might be conceivable. This, of course, is a long way from the "interpretive flexibility" that is assumed by social constructionism; and, in the other direction, it is a long way from the one single concrete cube that is assumed by technological determinism.

The second lesson from geomorphology is that landscapes are shaped by a complex set of interrelated processes. This means that simple cause-and-effect explanations, the core-business (as we have seen) of most theories of technology and society, cannot get an adequate grasp on the complex reality of the technology-society relationship (in the same way that "which came first?" explanations cannot say much about the chicken and egg relationship). Determinism analyses technology by contrasting the various tectonic influences (technical properties) during design and entrenchment, or by assessing how the size and ambition of techno-scientific projects result in material structures that are more or less likely to cause social dependency. Here, high-tech technology leads to deep entrenchment, while low-tech technology (including, but not confined to, tacit technology: "community architecture", for instance, and the context-respecting interventions promoted by "intermediate technologists") leads to shallow entrenchment. A high-tech and deeply entrenched technology pushes social developments down a one-way street, closing off alternative social futures (democracy-enabling technology), while low-tech and unentrenched technology does not narrow future social developments down to one option (democracy-restricting technology). Cultural Theory, on the other hand, analyses technology in a similarly pairwise way: the contrasted pairings of gradational influences in the design process (social solidarities) and the consequent impacts in terms of flexibility. This implies that technology is flexible or inflexible depending on the number of solidarities included in the design process. Exclusive design processes cause low technological flexibility: technology suited to the needs of only one solidarity (democracy-restricting technology), while inclusive design processes are more likely to produce high technological flexibility: technology that satisfies some core wishes of all the solidarities (democracy-enabling technology).

None of this, of course, is as simple as it seems at first glance. Unanticipated consequences of new technology and inconsequent anticipations (i. e. intentions driving the design of a technology that are not met when the technology is put to use) can never be eliminated, no matter how hard we try to design democratic decision-making institutions. Accordingly, it is possible that an inclusive design process may produce inflexible technology and that an exclusive one may produce flexible technology. Our point, however, is not to present a fool-proof method for enhancing technological predictability but to provide a humble tool for increasing the possibility of a better match between social needs and wants and technological development or, at the least, for avoiding some of the worst mismatches.

Figure 3, we think, gives some graphic clarification as to why our technomorphic model, at first glance, is not easily comprehended or accepted. Each approach, it shows, considers only one of the two kinds of forces that are shaping technology (technological determinism focuses on the tectonic forces and ignores the gradational ones, and Cultural Theory does the reverse) and each of them considers only one of the two kinds of impact (technological determinism focuses on entrenchment and ignores flexibility, and Cultural Theory does the reverse). On top of that, and this is perhaps more unexpected, each ignores two of the four permutations that are available within the limits it has set itself. Technological determinism ignores the deep entrenchment/low-tech technology combination and the shallow entrenchment/high-tech technology combination, and Cultural Theory ignores the flexibility/exclusive combination and the inflexibility/inclusive combination, all of which, as we will see, are quite common.

The reason for this double-blindness, of course, is the reductionism that, in different forms, is built into each of these approaches, and the clinching argument for developing an anti-reductionist theory is that it enables us to replace all this double-blindness with 20:20 vision. And, once we have that 20:20 vision, we can clearly see that technologies can vary in terms of four crucial characteristics, all of which have implications for democracy. Moreover (and, again, this is rather unexpected), once we have that 20:20 vision we can see that some of the democratic implications that have been discerned are not entirely correct. In particular, it is not entrenchment per se that is antithetical to democracy, but entrenchment in technologies with certain other charactersitics. In other words, things look very different as we go from the various reductionisms to the anti-reductionist framing.

The Technomorphic Model and Its Method: Technology and Policy Characterisation (TPC)

The four variable characteristics – tectonic and gradational influence, flexibility and entrenchment – are interrelated in complex patterns, and it is their varying degrees of strength in relation to each other that decide the shape and form of a particular technological landscape (see Tranvik 1999 for a more elaborate model for mapping these complex patterns of interrelations).

In this way, technological development is treated as an open-ended process: a process evolving within the "technology and democracy space" that is defined by these four variables. The infinitude of points within this space means that, just as natural landscape-forming processes are unique events that produce unique landforms, so are tectonic and gradational influences intermeshed, in each technological design process, in slightly different ways. Yet, though each process is unique, some (those that are near to one another in this space) are more alike than others (those that are widely spread). So, by characterising technologies in terms of these four variables, we can put like with like and we can begin to appreciate the different kinds of unlike. For instance, if we take the simple high/low distinctions that are commonly used in the reductionist approaches (see Figure 3), then our anti-reductionist theory gives us the total of 16 kinds of technological landscape, each of which will have its distinctive implications for democracy. And it is this sort of scheme that we are trying to depict (though, of course, we cannot do it justice in only two dimensions) in our Figure 4.

Since the complex pattern of tectonic and gradational interrelations never repeats itself, unique artificial landscapes, each characterised by a particular balance between flexibility and entrenchment, emerge. And, just as natural landscapes in one part of the world have some core properties in common, setting them apart from landscapes evolving under different conditions elsewhere, so technologies that are shaped under the veil of the same chreod (analogue telecommunications, for example, the telegraph and the telephone) are characterised by some core features that distinguish them from other types of technologies. So Figure 4 is just a one-moment-in-time slice out of an evolutionary flux, and if we incorporate a third dimension – time – then we can visualise all the different lines of technological evolution threading their way through this square-sectioned tubular space until they get to its front surface: now. There is, of course, nothing we can do about where our present technologies have come from, but we do have some choice about where they will go in the future. Where they are now, however, and where they have come from, constitute considerable constraints on that choice. Hence the usefulness of the method for TPC: a way of lessening the likelihood of our committing ourselves to choices (policy) that have been ruled out by the present form of our technological landscape and the various processes that have given it that form.

The "technology and democracy space" of the technomorphic model is arranged by two dimensions. The horizontal dimension (ac) represents, of course, technological determinism, while the vertical dimension (db) represents Cultural Theory. The broken lines represent (very inadequately, because we are trying to depict four dimensions on a two-dimensional sheet of paper) the TPC coordinates employed to pinpoint the relative positions of different technologies within the space according to their values on the two design variables (tectonic and gradational) and the two impact variables (flexibility and entrenchment). By locating the positions of competing technologies, the technomorphic model gives us the 20:20 vision we need, because it forces us to ask if a technology is compatible with the values and intentions of democracy. And since democracy is itself an open and flexible institution (relatively independent of its real-life models: protective, guardian, participatory, etc.) designed to empower its citizens, openness and flexibility must be the defining characteristics of democracy-enabling technology. Within the "technology and democracy space", there are, in principle, two types of technology that comply with these requirements, i. e. democracy-enabling technology (the upper and middle-right quadrants; high on openness, i. e. inclusive design process, and on flexibility). The other two types of technology (the lowest and middle-left quadrants) are neither open, i. e. exclusive design process, nor flexible, and we call them democracy-restricting technologies. Enabling and restricting, therefore, indicate if technology, to the best of our judgement, is more or less likely to empower the citizens (though, of course, anticipations may be inconsequent and technology may go places we did not expect). Thus, TPC is an instrument for analysing the interlocked relationship between technology and democracy: what technology should we choose to be determined by if we are concerned about the democratic implications of technological developments?

For a crude demonstration of how this can be done, we have, as already indicated, used the TCP coordinates to divide the "technology and democracy space" into four quadrants or main types of technology (see Figure 4). This carving up of the space into just four main types of technology results in too blunt an instrument to be used for a detailed characterisation. The proper way of doing TPC – the way that allows for all possible kinds of combinations of values on the four variables to occur – is by treating the TPC coordinates as Le Corbusier, the famous Belgian architect, treated the non-supporting inner walls of his dwelling houses: as having no fixed positions (what Le Corbusier referred to as "Le Plan Libre") with the exact location of a technology being where the two coordinates intersect. By treating the TCP coordinates as nonsupporting walls, as it were, we get, as we have suggested, a minimum of 16 possible value-combinations. These 16 combinations represent different technology and policy options (not all of which are available to us at any given time, of course), and it is by linking these options to democracy that we can make normative perscriptions about what technologies to choose (if we are concerned for democracy, that is; this linking will also guide us if our goal is to destroy democracy).

Nevertheless, our four-fold scheme, as depicted in Figure 4, is what we need for explaining the logic of our model (and for our sebsequent analysis of Norwegian ICT policy). The Internet, according to our assessment, would end up in the upper quadrant: a relatively high-tech, democracy-enabling technology (inclusive design, high-tech technology, high flexibility and deep entrenchment) that we would be happy to be determined by; while cable- or satellite-television, for instance, ends up in the middle-left quadrant: a relatively high-tech, democracy-restricting technology (high-tech technology and high entrenchment, exclusive design and low flexibility) that we would well-advised to be sceptical about (assuming we value democracy in its various shapes and forms). If we stick to the Internet example, this means that: (1) tremendous resources are being invested in cutting-edge technology (high-tech technology), causing the Internet to become (2) an indispensable part of modern society (high entrenchment), but, at the same time, (3) different groups (social solidarities), with sharply conflicting visions of what the Internet should be, are involved in the technological development (inclusive design), which indicates (4) that the Internet can be put to many different uses (high flexibility).

Now that we have explained the basic logic of the model, you can check for yourself whether we have done cable- and satellite-television justice by placing them in the middle-left quadrant. The lowest quadrant represents relatively low-tech, democracy-restricting technologies (low values on all four variables). POTS (plain old telephone services) is a candidate here: (1) it is not a particularly sophisticated technology compared to, for example, the Internet (low-tech technology), (2) it is not really open to re-definition (low flexibility), (3) it is dominated by hierarchists at the head-end (exclusive design), and (4) it is under increasing pressure from the Internet (low or, at least, lower on entrenchment than before). Radio networks would be an example of a technology ending up in the middle-right quadrant: relatively low-tech, democracy-enabling (inclusive design, high flexibility, high-tech technology and low entrenchment).

In essence, the technomorphic model points out that a choice of technology is crucial to democracy because entrenchment (or determinism) is what technological decision-making is about, since we all want to be assured that the technologies we invest our money, time and effort in today will still be around tomorrow. At the same time, we should not be indifferent about what kind of entrenchment we settle for. It is, for instance, better to opt for a relatively low-tech, democracy-enabling technology (the middle left quadrant) than for the high-tech, democracy-restricting alternative (middle-right quadrant) even if the preferred technology may cause us some practical problems that we could have avoided by choosing otherwise. However, most of the technologies that we find today are high-tech but democracy-restricting: technologies that are socially indispensable (we cannot imagine life without them), but there is not a whole lot we can do if we want to do technology our way. All the important decisions about how they can be put to use have already been taken elsewhere. Hence, technological determinism is all around us, everywhere we go (except in most of the academic literature on technology and society). This is the democratic crisis of high technology society (and the theoretical crisis in technology and society studies). But, even if entrenchment proves to be unavoidable for a wide range of technical, social and economic reasons (see Collingridge 1980), democracy-enabling technology may still be an option (indeed, the Internet demonstrates this). Thus, TPC argues for a policy of voluntary rather than involuntary technological determinism. The difference is analogous to Bob Dylan’s distinction between a song and a poem: "a poem doesn’t have to be defined, whereas a song must be defined. It must have a clear definition. I think a song is much more limiting than a poem. A poem is something open-ended and unlimited in scope. A song can’t do that, just by the nature of a song" (in Kaganski 1998: 63). Like a poem, a policy of voluntary determinism is suited for picking technologies that defy authoritative definition. The chosen technologies have, in their very technical cores, the ability to be, in a sense, whatever the users interpret them to be. Involuntary determinism, however, is likely to bring to the midst of society technologies with song-like qualities: technologies that are limiting and clearly defined, and cannot be otherwise (not without a substantial amount of re-engineering: i. e. writing another song). Therefore, the question of how to pursue democracy-enabling technology is a question of paramount political significance in a high technology society: is a technology suited for sustaining different modes of institutionalised social life? After all, creating a society that is able to facilitate more than one (indeed, more than two or, better still, more than three or, even better, since we should cherish the hermit too, more than four) visions of how life should be lived is what democracy is about.

The technomorphic approach’s fourfold scheme enables us to get it both ways, as it were: to propose a consistent way of tracking the different and sometimes conflicting influences involved in technological design processes and, more importantly, to relate those influences to the concrete effects of technology where everyday life (and democracy) is played out. What a pity, then, that most theories of social construction (most notably, the SCOT perspective and actor-network theory) have retreated to the sterile halls of applied science ("laboratory studies"), unable or unwilling to get to grips with technology where it is actually going on. The technomorphic approach, however, is able to press forward, while, at the same time, incorporating the valid insights that this non-determinist line of inquiry provides.

There is, of course, much more to the technomorphic approach than is explained here. For example, it suggests a way of speculating about the social impacts of technologies that are still under construction, so that policy makers and others, in the early stages of a design process, can make reccomendations about what can be done to avoid or to promote possible future consequences of a technology ("prospective technology analysis" [see Tranvik 1999]), but the above will suffice for our present purpose: to take an empirical peek at Norwegian ICT policy. Can Norwegian ICT policy be located in the upper quadrant of the technomorphic model, which is where we find the technology itself? In other words, is the policy less democracy-enabling than the technology it is supposed to exploit on behalf of democracy, and if so what can be done about it?


Timberrr!: The ICT Policy is Here

Since our aim is to keep to the impact side of things – to analyse the extent to which Norwegian ICT policy is informed by the particular features of the Internet technology – we will not use the technomorphic model to discuss how the technology came about in the first place (though, of course, it is important that this be done). Leaving the design question behind, we can go straight on to discuss the match between the present Norwegian ICT policy and the Internet technology. By employing the TPC method we will reason that the policy process and the policy itself are democracy-restricting if valid social and technical concerns are excluded. And if the Internet is more democracy-enabling than ICT policy (e. g. facilitating valid social concerns that are excluded from the policy process) it is by letting technology define public policy that democracy can be enhanced – which is rather strange; we are used to thinking that it is the role of public policy to democratise technology – because then the social solidarities that take part in developing the technology stand a better chance of being recruited to the policy process. If Norwegian ICT policy is indeed less democracy-enabling than the technology, the TPC coordinates will place that policy in the middle-left quadrant (relatively high-tech democracy-restricting policy) or in the lowest quadrant (relatively low-tech democracy-restricting policy) while the Internet technology, of course, has already been located to the upper quadrant (relatively high-tech democracy-enabling technology). The first crucial questions we have to ask are therefore: who framed Norwegian ICT policy, how was it framed, and was the framing "innocent of technological realities"? Let us start at the beginning.

National governments (i. e. hierarchy) did not take a serious interest in the Internet for many years. This is odd, given that the American government established the network prototype (the ARPAnet) that eventually gave rise to the Internet, and that the same government (through its National Science Foundation) was responsible for the Internet‘s backbone well into the 1990s. However, in the early 1990s, the ICT policy process gained momentum in Norway as well as in other countries. The ICT policy process was triggered by foreign developments: the Clinton/Gore-administration‘s vaguely defined "Information Superhighway" initiative and the EU‘s Bangemann Report (1994). These documents, in effect, changed the hierarchist position on digital networking from neglect to enthusiasm: a new social order for the next century was to be built on sand (the raw-material used to produce the circuitry of computers and the optical fibres that link them). All of a sudden, the Norwegian government (and other governments in advanced industrial countries) found itself face-down in paperwork hammering out "ICT strategies for the 21th century", mainly by copying the American/EU initiatives and adding a local twist (see The Norwegian IT Way: Bit by Bit, 1996).

Framed in a hierarchical setting, it was quite natural that the "Information Superhighway", like the physical transport network it evoked, cried out for centralised and competent planning. However, much of the money needed to actually build this network was to be provided by the market, although the Norwegian government was ready to shoulder a greater financial burden than most other governments. It was also unclear exactly what kind of network the "Information Superhighway" was supposed to be: how, in detail, it should be built; what type of infrastructure technology was necessary (traditional copper wires, fibre optics, coaxial cable, wireless or a combination of these?); how should private and public actors work together to accomplish the task? The "Information Superhighway" metaphor was suited, clearly, more for ideological than for practical purposes: it was a device for trying to come to grips with the new realities of an emerging technological paradigm. But, before long, the flaw in the "Information Superhighway" ideology became apparent: bad timing. Why should anyone invest in a build-it-from-scratch system when a digital network (the Internet), stretching its octopussy tentacles around the globe, was already in place? Gradually, the Norwegian and other Western governments realised that the "Information Superhighway" was already here; indeed had been for years. But, to the hierarchist’s eyes, it was in a deplorable state, because no-one was ultimately responsible for building, maintaining and policing it: no "officer-in-charge", no "chain-of-command". In short, there was no-one to hold accountable if the whole shebang did not run properly.

This problem of accountability, so central to the hierarchist’s view of things, has arisen because the Internet was (and still is) built according to the pack-donkey’s way of meandering along: a do-it-on-the-fly enterprise, following the zigzag electronic paths of least resistance, where multiple nodes of uncoordinated intelligence – not one huge brain – are responsible for the entire construction (for a more eloquent – and tremendously more negative – presentation of "the pack-donkey’s way", see Le Corbusier 1987). This means that the Internet differs from other types of ICT (for example, the television and telephone networks) because it does not have a head-end station where the responsibilities for financing, building and maintaining the network rest. Hence, there is no central hub responsible for the filtering of contents and the monitoring and directing of traffic. All these tasks are distributed: it is the actors who, in one way or the other, use the Internet that take care of these things – usually without consciously coordinating their efforts. The Internet is therefore a "clumsy pack-donkey" system: it works exactly because no-one in particular is formally or de facto in charge of making it work – the socio-technical properties that qualify the Internet for a place among the rare examples of relatively high-tech, democracy-enabling technologies. The "Information Superhighway", however, was shaped by the "straight line": a comprehensive high-tech program that, like traditional technology and industry policy undertakings, needed centralised and top-down guidance. Accordingly, in its early stages, Norwegian ICT policy can be characterised as middle-left quadrant (relatively high-tech democracy-restricting policy). The problem, of course, is that, even if the hierarchist’s obsession with expert control is well adapted to the "Information Superhighway", it is at a loss in the face of the considerably more anarchic world of the Internet. Unfortunately – and this is our reason for the, at first sight, rather harsh verdict on the "Information Superhighway" – the "clumsy pack-donkey" Internet system is well suited for the technological commitments of the other social solidarities:


  • The individualists take to the Internet because its instant, asynchronous communications seem tailor-made for personal networking, and because the Internet‘s global reach promises an expanding market, largely free (thanks to the Internet’s hierarchy-outsmarting features) from regulatory authorities, that is likely to reward the best and brightest (Dyson et al. 1994; Kelly 1998). The quintessence of cyber-individualism is represented by the entrepreneurs of call-back services: minute companies, like Telegroup and USA Global Link, that, in the early 1990s, decided to rent some switches and telephone-lines and go into the high-risk international tele-market, taking on the gigantic national tele-monopolists around the world with great creativity and success.
  • The fatalists are, quite naturally, the individualists’ targeted customers: the ones likely to enjoy "infotainment" (and pornography), and to pay anyone for saving them the trouble of having to search for the material themselves. Even if the fatalists seldom figure in the headlines, they play a very important role in Internet developments: the Internet will go where the fatalists can be swayed to go. The fatalists’ interest lies in calming down rapid technological change by getting behind the technologies that they feel are most likely to cause path-dependency and entrenchment, because they detest the bother of learning to use a new technology every fortnight.
  • The egalitarians, on the other hand, perceive this free-floating system of zigzag electronic paths as a technology that is likely to equalise differences, since it is designed to circumvent gates and gate-keepers: the mechanisms that, according to the egalitarians, introduce inequalities among people (Rheingold 1993). Among the first, and undoubtedly the most influential, cyber-egalitarians are the people behind The WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link): the San Francisco Bay-Area based cyber-community, that went online in 1985 (for an account of The WELL history, see Hafner 1997).


It is because the Internet facilitates the concerns of these three solidarities that we consider it to be more open, flexible and democracy-enabling than the ideology underpinning the early ICT policy.


Doing ICT-Policy The Pack-Donkey’s Way

The paradox of the early ICT-policy process in Norway (and in other countries) is therefore that the social solidarity (hierarchy) least comfortable with, and least knowledgeable about, digital networking is responsible for the planning of such an ambitious endeavour while the other solidarities, which have used digital networks for years and know everything about the technology (especially the cyber-enthusiastic individualists and egalitarians), have been kept pretty much on the side-lines. This, as we have argued, makes the ICT policy less democratic than the technology itself and the side-lining of these social solidarities has important implications: first, because the opinions of these actors carry weight. This is not to say that their words on this matter are politically superior, but only that government planners would be well advised to listen to their informed opinions before taking action. Second, the constructive engagement of the other solidarities will lend greater democratic legitimacy to a more pratically feasible ICT policy. Consider, for example, the furious debate over censorship and encryption (i. e. Western governments’ attempts to combat Internet-porn and the proliferation of high-end encryption to Internet-users). This debate demonstrates that government measures, even if introduced to curb real problems (the availability of child pornography on the Internet and the use of high-end encryption by criminals [see, for instance, Miller 1996; Seemann 1996; Denning 1994]), have not taken due consideration of other rightful concerns – free speech and privacy – that many people think are so important that law-enforcement must take second place.


An inclusive policy process, where the social solidarities that are heavily involved in technological developments are also involved in public policy framing, would have brought to light technical constrains on Internet law-enforcement, and might, as a result, have inclined the government to propose measures that promised to handle the problems in a more appropriate manner (filtering technology instead of censorship laws, for example). It might also have led to governments reviewing their somewhat anacronistic position on encryption and law-enforcement so as to better promote something they are equally concerned with – e-commerce – which depends on high-end encryption being available so that business transactions are protected from crackers and peeking competitors (an alternative to government control, is presented by the "Online Privacy Alliance" at This is, by and large, the approach of the German government). This might have satisfied the market-oriented individualists and gone some way to allaying the "Big Brother" fears of the egalitarians, leaving the government with responsibility for hammering out a legislative framework for supporting e-commerce, instead of taking heavy-handed care of the means by which market actors (and others) settle deals. From a government point of view, this solution is not perfect, of course, but better than the alternative that promises (1) that the Internet will be safe only for criminals (high-end encryption being available for those who want it badly enough), thereby causing (2) the law-abiding citizen to feel exposed to the "dark forces" still at large somewhere on the Net, which may result in (3) few, other than those equipped with high-end encryption (by definition, criminals), using the Internet for serious purposes: something that would lead to (4) the distinctly depressing conclusion that the policy of cleaning up the Internet has failed spectacularly (and it has!). Finally, this would amount to (5) a strengthening of the broad-based opinion that the government should stay away from the Internet altogether, and thereby (6) prompting even more resistance against government measures the next time around (and it did!). In other words, an inclusive policy process will leave everyone better off (even those included to begin with).


So, to summarise: the distributed bottom-up structure of the Internet does not fit the technological commitment of the typical top-down approach of the hierarchical solidarity very well. Nevertheless, from the outset, the ICT policy has been framed by the hierarchical way of doing things – the centralised mode of bureaucratic planning as embodied by the "Information Superhighway" policy – where all the ills of the Internet: pornography, encryption, privacy, fraud, etc., were to be curbed by making people accountable to state authority. The essence of the "Information Superhighway" was to capture and redefine digital networking technology by pulling it from the upper quadrant of the technomorphic model (relatively high-tech, democracy-enabling technology) to the middle-left one (relatively high-tech, democracy-restricting technology). It is not, of course, hierarchy in itself that is democracy-restricting. Rather, it is the capture of the ICT policy by hierarchical concerns, and the parallel exclusion of other rightful concerns, that make us arrive at this conclusion. But the policy of cutting off the Internet’s life-support – by getting people to use the never-existing "Information Superhighway" instead – failed. In Norway, the government authorities seem to have realised this around 1997. By then, the writing on the wall was clear for all to see: hierarchy, thanks to the inherent properties of the technology, could not do the ICT policy all by itself. Thus, the question is: how well does the shaping of the post-1997 ICT policy measure up to these requirements? Has the policy, framed in the middle-left quadrant, been pushed into the upper quadrant where digital networking technology is located?


How The Pack-Donkey’s Way Becomes A Straight Line

Those who do slalom know that a crooked line is much more challenging than a straight one. The pack-donkey’s winding course, therefore, is more difficult to go down than Le Corbusier (op. cit.) makes out, because you need to do much more brain-work – many crucial decisions will have to be made and each of them, as any slalomer can tell you, may prove to be decisive (well, disastrous, in our experience) – than you need to when racing down a slope without making a single turn. A policy process informed by the pack-donkey’s winding course, where the three "active" solidarities (within the limits identified by the technology) enlighten one other on the possible roads ahead, is the challenging, slalom-like policy of voluntary determinism, as defined by the upper quadrant of the technomorphic model. Has Norwegian ICT policy moved towards this position over the last couple of years so as to effect a better match between policy and technology? Put another way, has the ICT policy experienced a value dislocation on the gradational and the flexibility variables in our technomorphic model (from low to high on both)?


On the face of things, the post-1997 policy-development seems encouraging: changes have occured over the last two years. What is less encouraging, is that the changes have come about the hard, technocratic way: by painstakingly piling up technical evidence, report by report, and putting the individual pieces of information together to form a "comprehensive picture". Nevertheless, this learning process has, it seems, resulted in a shift of strategy. Two developments are striking here.


First, and as has already been mentioned, the Internet has moved to the centre-stage of Norwegian ICT policy, while in 1996 (when the first major ICT-policy document [The Norwegian IT-way: Bit by Bit] was published) the Internet was treated as one intriguing but not really important example of what was in store for us when the government-sponsored "Information Superhighway" got under way. Now, the "Information Superhighway" has evolved into a set of losely coordinated web-based projects: for instance, the "Administrative Public Service Network" (APSN), a project still in progress, that includes independent vendors and consultants, county and municipal authorities. The aim, of course, is the electronification of a wide range of local public service functions but, as is the situation on the Internet, the process of electronification is decentralised: choice of services to go online, technical solutions, implementation, standards for quality-of-service and, ultimately, financing, are questions that are left for the individual county or municipal authority to answer. A new web-based project; "Electronic Government" (initiated February 1999), is supposed to do the same on the central government level as the APSN-project does on the county and municipal level, using pretty much the same kind of decentralised strategy. By opting for the do-it-yourself-as-you-go-along-dammit! approach, government authorities are being encouraged to get onto the pack-donkey bandwagon, as defined by the upper quadrant of the technomorphic model: public web-projects are to be planned and implemented by those who know the topology of the local, institutional environment. The success of the ICT policy, like that of the Internet, is therefore dependent upon the aggregation of largely uncoordinated, local performances. This is a far cry from the "Information Superhighway" ambitions and reflects, on the face of it, a rather substantial change in ICT philosophy and an admission that the "Information Superhighway" could not be implemented as planned in an Internet environment.


What seems to have been going on since the early days of 1996 is that the policy of centralised, heavy-handed steering proved, even to the die-hard hierarchists of government departments, to be undo-able. The "Information Superhighway", therefore, never made much of a real-life impact but served as a cognitive and ideological tool for framing the early thinking about ICT policy. Perhaps the most spectacular evidence of this failure was the closing down of the ICT department – The Department of National Coordination and Planning was its official name – in 1998; a decision which suggests that the indicated value-reorientation on the gradational and the flexibility variables (from low to high on both) has indeed occured.


The second shift is in policy rethoric. In the government’s "The Norwegian IT-Way" document, the significance of ICTs for democracy is mentioned only in passing and the importance of web-based businesses is, at best, haphazardly analysed. However, the role that ICTs may play in promoting economic growth, employment and regional development in traditional industries is elaborated at length. Hence, the hierarchy-doped structures of corporatist interests saw an early opportunity to impose their mark on this new and exciting policy arena. The relative neglect of "web-onomics" is excusable, since the high-risk web-entrepreneurs at that time hardly understood the new market themselves (and, as a consequence, made no money). But the failure to consider the democratic implications of new ICTs is rather strange in view of the fact that the Norwegian Parliament, in 1994, approved an information policy for the central government level stating that the aim was to enhance greater "democratic participation", and that administrative decisions should, in principle, spring out of a "symmetrical dialogue" between the citizen and government institutions (Proposition to Parliament, no. 1, 1994-95). The bandwidth of digital networking systems, be it the elusive "Information Superhighway" or the Internet, made such a hybrid of egalitarian deliberation and open-access individualist decision-making technically feasible. Nevertheless, little emphasis was initially put on these questions.

Despite these early shortcomings, it has, over the last couple of years, been fashionable to elaborate on the ramifications of the Internet for democracy. This change in ICT rethoric is particularly striking when one looks at the main concerns of the central government’s administrative policy. Here, the three "active" solidarities end up with about equal influence (see Proposition to Parliament, no. 1, 1998-1999), and the government seems to have learned how to race down a winding slope:


  • Hierarchists are assured that government involvement and accountability are central in achieving a smoothly running and flexible public sector. The pace of public sector use of ICTs is not going to be set by market developments alone, but will, in principle, be decided by government agencies.
  • Individualists will be happy to see the emphasis on market involvement in the implementation of ICT projects in the public sector (for example, by extensive out-sourcing of certain support services) and the commitment to individualised, two-way public informatisation.
  • Egalitarians may take comfort in the government’s plan to adapt its routines to the needs and wishes of the citizens by developing ICT-services for facilitating participatory-oriented administrative systems and so-called "collaborative learning processes".

Of course, this type of political accounting does not only have up-sides. In a policy process based on checks-and-balances of interests, the down-sides too must, in principle, be equally divided between the solidarities. With the administrative policy, there seems, at first glance, to be a nice balance of down-sides: the hierarchists give up their self-proclaimed monopoly on a valid interpretation of ICTs and democracy, the individualists agree to some government intervention even if the Internet promises a free-floating market, and the egalitarians must get used to the fact that important decisions will still be made at the crossroads between goverment and market. These developments seems to strengthen what we suggested above: Norwegian ICT policy is being dislocated from the middle-left quadrant of our technomorphic model towards the upper one. The trouble, however, is that it is not as simple as that; we need to take a second look at how these promises are followed up in practice.


After having taken that second look, the suggested dislocation of ICT policy within the "technology and democracy space" is largely confined to web-projects and to the public administrative policy, while other important ICT policy areas are still dominated by the hierarchist way of doing things, partially in alliance with the individualists. The already mentioned ASPN-project and "Electronic Government" are examples of this alliance. Here, market actors are allowed a greater say in the planning, implementation and maintenance of public service networks, while bottom-up, grassroots inputs are supposed to adapt to the solutions chosen by the market and condoned by local or central authorities. It is therefore tempting to say that the rather decentralised nature of these projects is an effect of web-based industry becoming more closely integrated into the ICT policy process than before and convincing the government that a more low-key and market-oriented approach is better suited to technological realities. The egalitarians’ concerns, though given space in some policy-documents, seem to amount to little more than "stolen rethoric": the deceptive use of egalitarian arguments to lend the policy an air of democratic inclusiveness. The neglect of egalitarian arguments, it may be argued, is an unanticipated consequence that regularly occurs as the policy moves from the drawing-board to practical implementation and does not reflect initial intentions. Maybe so, but our point is simply that – whatever the cause might be – the end-result is insensitivity towards significant social concerns.


Market and government – the "unholy alliance" as far as the egalitarians are concerned – are also heavily represented in the newly-formed "Joint Forum for E-Commerce", even though it is supposed to decide on issues on which the egalitarians have particularly strong views: for example, consumer rights and privacy. Furthermore, the ICT education policy is tailor-made for the needs of traditional or web-based industries, and it goes without saying that the ICT industrial policy is shaped by more of the same concerns. However, on one important issue, the IT-Fornebu project (a plan to locate the most significant ICT-related research and development activities in one place: the now superceded Oslo Airport), the individualists are, as things are going at the moment, completely by-passed. According to a majority in Parliament (the right-wing Progress Party and the Labour Party), IT-Fornebu needs centralised planning and bureaucratic solutions if it is to get off the ground. For example, the responsibility for the project is to be allocated to one small group of investors – who, by and large, know little about the ICT-business – and, as things start moving, the "real" ICT companies are supposed to follow suit. The plan has been met with much head-shaking and bewilderment. It is claimed to be old-fashioned, market-averse, and not in line with the Internet’s potential to decentralise research, development and production facilities. In short, money down the drain. Whether these complaints are correct (as we believe they are) or not, is not so important here. The point is that a policy process based on the exclusion of those the technology is inherently benign towards, spells trouble, because democracy, as well as technological reality, has been suspended.


This means that, despite some promising changes in policy, the straight line is still preferred over the pack-donkey’s way: the practical policy is still mostly based on a hierarchist understanding of democracy and technology: the belief that all types of technology programs need to be framed in a top-down and centralised fashion if they are to promote economic growth, employment and good (i. e. deferential) citizenship. The irony is that digital networks, resting in the upper quadrant of the model, already promise a democratic and productive technology but the policy itself, because it is locked-in by a limited vision of what technology and democracy should be, is both democracy-restricting and innocent of technological realities. But, as we have argued, democracy and technology can be brought back into the process, if we are aware of the mismatches and of what we can and cannot do about them. This, we hasten to add, does not imply that hierarchy can play no constructive role vis-à-vis the Internet and other modern ICT. Providing marginalised groups (the elderly, low-income groups, ethnic minorities, etc.) with access to the Internet, facilitating ICT-education, crafting a legislative framework for e-commerce, and promoting policies for bridging the technological gaps between North and South and West and East, are issues where hierarchy can and indeed must be centre-stage.


The Technomorphic Approach: What’s Hot (And What’s Not)?

The hottest thing about the technomorphic approach is that it analyses technology as a man-made second nature by proposing an anti-reductionist approach to technology. Artificial landscapes, this approach suggests, are, in principle, shaped by the same sorts of forces as shape natural landscapes – forces emanating from within (i. e. the hard-core technical and scientific knowledge that makes the gismos work) and forces pushing themselves in the from the outside (i. e. the social actors that take part in, or find themselves excluded from, technological processes). By using technomorphology it is possible to map these influences during the design stages and to make the vital connection to the impact of technology on society, thanks to the realisation that artificial landscapes, like natural landscapes, evolve into shapes and forms that are more or less flexible and entrenched. What is not so hot, is that the technomorphic approach is based on already established theory: geomorphology, technological determinism and Cultural Theory ("old wine, new bottles", the cynic would say), but that is also why it is anti-reductionist (and that is hot!).


In this essay, we have only done technomorphology and "Technology and Policy Characterisation" half-way. We have analysed the broad ideological and technological framing of Norwegian ICT policy in order to understand the mismatches between the ideological bias of the policy and the technological bias of these new ICTs, particularly the most important one: the Internet. We have not, however, made any attempt to analyse the compelling social and technical factors shaping the peculiar technological bias of the Internet (this we will leave for another day). Nevertheless, the analysis shows that ICT policy and the technology, while moving in the same direction, are doing so at different paces: the policy is held back by the "Information Superhighway"-thinking of the middle-left quadrant of the technomorphic model (relatively high-tech, democracy-restricting policy) while digital networking technology is, at an accelerating pace, pulled to the upper quadrant (relatively high-tech, democracy-enabling technology). Our conclusions are therefore: (1) that the bottom-up and distributed configuration of important ICTs (notably, the Internet) cries out for the inclusion of individualists and egalitarians in the policy process: the solidarities best equipped to formulate a technically feasible ICT policy (an ICT policy that is only modestly informed by technological realities, has, in the long run, little chance of success) and (2) that, if a technological policy is to command democratic legitimacy, it must be open to inputs from the people that the policy is supposed to apply to. If not, the cyber-literate individualists and egalitarians are unlikely to comply with government policy, and they already harbour the technical means to undermine the efforts of the state. In both these respects, and despite some encouraging changes in strategy, the Norwegian ICT policy has some distance to go.




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